Early History

Roosevelt and the Rough Riders
Roosevelt and the Rough Riders
The Rough Riders was the nickname for the 1st United States Volunteer Cavalry, one of three volunteer cavalry units created at the onset of the Spanish-American War. Due to depletion of the army's forces following the Civil War, President McKinley called for the creation of several volunteer regiments in 1898. Hundreds of volunteers were brought in from the Southwestern U.S. (mainly from New Mexico, Arizona, Oklahoma, and Indian Territory) and formed a very diverse group which contained cowboys, miners, rowdy college students, and Civil War veterans. Leonard Wood, a doctor who had served as an adviser to the President, was appointed as Colonel of the Rough Riders. Theodore Roosevelt, who had just given up his position as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, became Lieutenant-Colonel.

The unit went through a brief period of training in San Antonio, Texas, before heading to Tampa, Florida where they would depart for Cuba and the war. However, their departure was rushed, which led to most of the horses and some of the troops being left behind on American soil. Upon arrival in Cuba, the men faced many difficulties including tropical diseases, the hot and humid climate, and completely inadequate transportation.

The Rough Riders in Battle

Las Guasimas

Soon after their arrival on Cuban shores, the Rough Riders were ordered to help eliminate a Spanish outpost at Las Guasimas. Assisting the regular army and fighting mostly on foot, they helped to overpower the Spanish troops hiding in the thick jungle. After only a few hours of fighting, they were able to overpower the Spanish and gain control of the outpost, suffering only minimal casualties. Following the battle, Colonel Wood assumed command of a cavalry unit in the army, and Theodore Roosevelt became Colonel of the Rough Riders.

San Juan Hill

Theodore Roosevelt leads the charge up Kettle Hill
Theodore Roosevelt leads the charge up Kettle Hill
Following the victory at Las Guasimas, the Rough Riders were ordered to accompany the regular troops to the area around San Juan Hill, where the Spanish troops were holding a position. The orders given to Roosevelt were to take his men and serve as a distraction while the army tried to use artillery to drive the Spanish into submission. Roosevelt led his men to the base Kettle Hill, a smaller hill neighboring San Juan Hill, and from this position tried to return fire on the Spanish troops positioned there. As this was a largely ineffective strategy, Roosevelt asked permission to lead his men in an advance up the hill, and was finally given orders to assist in the army's direct assault on the hill. The Rough Riders, still on foot, were led by Roosevelt on horseback in a slow progression up the side of the hill, all the while trying to dodge Spanish bullets. Again, Roosevelt saw that this plan wasn't working very well. In the absence of a higher-ranking officer, he took on the initiative to order a full-on charge up Kettle Hill. His enthusiasm was such that along with his own men, members of the other army units progressing up the hill chose to join the Rough Riders in their charge. Kettle Hill was taken within 20 minutes, and San Juan Hill was soon to follow. This event became one of the most popularized events of the Spanish-American War, and made the Rough Riders famous back in America.

Impact

"Buffalo Bill's Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World"
"Buffalo Bill's Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World"
The Rough Riders were disbanded soon after their return home, as there was no longer any need for a volunteer cavalry force. However, their efforts had been instrumental in achieving victory in Cuba. Roosevelt's charge in the Battle of San Juan Hill had helped in the effort to secure the area around Santiago de Cuba, where several Spanish ships were anchored. Following the famous battle, American troops were able to surround Santiago, which prompted the Spanish fleet to flee the port and head out to sea. There, they were met by the American Navy and destroyed, an event which ultimately led to Spanish surrender.

The famous charge up San Juan Hill also served to make the Rough Riders famous back at home. The story of Colonel Roosevelt's Rough Riders was romantically portrayed in theatrical productions such as Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, where the volunteer cavalry unit was elevated to the status of legend. The fame also helped to bolster Theodore Roosevelt's political career. His enthusiasm and charisma made him popular among the American people, which would be helpful later as he took on the position of Vice President, and eventually became President himself.


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