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Rough Riders

"The Rough Riders" was the name bestowed by the American press on the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry regiment during the Spanish-American War.

Roosevelt and the Rough Riders atop San Juan Heights, 1898

Command of the regiment was initially offered by War Secretary Russell Alger to Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt, however, having no previous military experience, deferred to his associate, Colonel Leonard Wood, a Medal of Honor recipient and a doctor in civilian life. Roosevelt was made a Lieutenant Colonel and second in command of the regiment.

Roosevelt had resigned as Assistant Secretary of the Navy to fight in the war, and his forceful personality and notoriety among the largely yellow press of the period were probably the main driving factors resulting in the fame of this regiment, as well as its being one of the very few volunteer units to actually see battle during the war.

Out of over 23,000 applicants, approximately 2,000 were selected to serve in the 1st Volunteer Cavalry. Recruitment for the regiment was done largely by Roosevelt, and resulted in a widely varied force consisting of seasoned ranch hands, Pawnee scouts, Ivy League athletes and east-coast polo players, among others who represented a broad cross-section of American society.

Cavalry training was conducted for about a month at Camp Wood in San Antonio, Texas, and was highly rigorous. Ironically, though, major logistical problems in the journey to Tampa, Florida and thence to Cuba resulted in the necessity of leaving most of the unit's horses and almost half of its men behind (horses were retained for top officers).

Upon arrival near Daiquiri, Cuba on June 22, 1898 with a larger volunteer force under the command of General Joseph Wheeler, the Rough Riders were assigned to the Army's 5th Corps. Still technically a cavalry unit, its mission was nevertheless perforce transformed to one of largely infantry-style fighting. They immediately began marching towards Santiago, their objective. Two days later, the unit participated in the Battle of Las Guasimas. Slightly outnumbered, the American contingent was nonetheless able to force a retreat of the Spanish troops to the city of Santiago.

Assault on Santiago

On June 30, partly due to the vacancy created by the contraction of a fever by Brigadier General Samuel Young, and partly due to the regiment's service at Las Guasimas, Colonel Wood was given a field promotion to Brigadier General with 5th Corps, and Lt. Col. Roosevelt was likewise promoted to full colonel and given formal command of the Rough Riders.

The next day, American forces were fully assembled and began an assault on the city of Santiago, which was already blockaded by the U.S. Navy. The first objective achieved by the Rough Riders during this action was the capture of Kettle Hill. After this was complete, the unit turned its attention to the region of San Juan Heights.

Due to exigencies of terrain, Roosevelt and other officers were forced to abandon their mounts for the operation at San Juan, or "Teddy's charge up San Juan Hill," as it was reported in the American press. Joined by other units, notably elements of the 9th and 10th Regulars (African-American "buffalo soldiers"), the Rough Riders assaulted and eventually succeeded in securing the region, contributing to the victory of Santiago, which was probably the defining battle of the Cuban campaign. Spanish forces abandoned Santiago two days later.


The Rough Riders had been hit hard by a casualty rate of about 37% lost in battle, wounded, or down with one of the many tropical diseases native to the area. By the end of July, the situation with disease had become dire. Roosevelt wrote to the War Department on July 31, "The army must be moved at once, or perish."

Consequently, the remains of the regiment went by ship, along with other troops, to Montauk, Long Island, where they arrived to a heroes' welcome on August 14. This area was chosen because at the time it was relatively unpopulated, and therefore thought to be a good place for quarantine. They occupied the hastily-built Camp Wikoff, which, due to continuing Army logistical problems, was significantly short on food and medicine. Long Islanders did their part to remedy this situation.

The unit was mustered out on September 14, 1898, but held annual reunions until the death of its last member, Jesse Langdon, in 1975. Roosevelt played up his experience with the regiment to its best advantage during subsequent campaigns for the U.S. Presidency.

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