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Rough Walkers: the true story of Roosevelt’s Rough Riders

Rough Walkers: the true story of Roosevelt’s Rough Riders

Theodore Roosevelt will no longer lord over the entrance of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. The statue of Roosevelt, on horseback, flanked by an indigenous person and man of African origin, both on foot, was removed recently. Calls for its removal cited that its hierarchical depiction of the three represented societal white dominance. A competing viewpoint by supporters of retaining the statue claimed the statue showed Roosevelt leading minorities forward.

This is not the forum for settling that argument. The statue has been removed.

The depiction of Roosevelt on horseback, however, reinforces the historical image that many Americans grew up with, that of the leader of the “Rough Riders” in the Spanish-American War of 1898.

American schoolchildren learn about the charge up San Juan Hill in the Battle for the San Juan Heights, leading to victory in that brief war. The mental image, sometimes supplemented by creative artwork, is one of the 1st United States Volunteer Cavalry, nicknamed the “Rough Riders,” racing uphill on horseback and vanquishing the defending army.

Not true. At least not the main parts of the story.

Certainly, the members of the 1st United States Volunteer Cavalry had been selected for their ability to ride, and they had been trained to shoot from the saddle. Many were cowboys and other outdoorsmen recruited from the hot, dry American southwest. In May 1898, more than 1,000 of them and an even larger number of horses and mules shipped to Tampa, Florida, where they were to set sail for Cuba. Due to a variety of issues, including illness from malaria, yellow fever, and typhoid fever, the troop numbers were greatly reduced. Compounding those losses, other miscues by the Army resulted in only a fraction of the number of troops and very few horses and mules to make the trip aboard the steamship Yucatan.  

When they landed at Cuba, the “Rough Riders” became the “Rough Walkers.” 

The cavalry men were accustomed to carrying their supplies on horseback or by mule train. Having neither, they had to make long marches, in the heat and humidity—very unlike the dry American southwest—and carry their own weapons, munitions, and inadequate food. They were ill-prepared for this turn of events.

Fighting in the heavy jungle in the run-up Battle of Las Guasimas would have precluded the cavalry from fighting on horseback, anyway. But the thick jungle, steep terrain, and hot, humid conditions also led to many unprepared cavalry-turned-infantry troops into quitting the battle. Still, the remainder, bolstered by the larger number of Buffalo Soldiers from the 10th US Regular Cavalry, fought their way uphill and led the Spanish army to withdraw.  

For the next six days, the Rough Riders rested, refreshed, took care of the wounded, and buried the dead. During that week-long lull before the two sides would meet again in the San Juan Heights, an unvanquished enemy stole its way into the American camps. That same, non-partisan enemy also visited the Spanish encampments. This enemy would prove more difficult to fight, impervious to the American troops’ Springfield Krag carbines or the 7mm rifles of the Spanish.  

Mosquitoes. Armed with weapons that outgunned the troops, American and Spanish alike—yellow fever and malaria. Not ones to choose sides, the mosquitoes equally attacked troops of both armies. By some accounts, more than 16,000 Spanish troops had already fallen before the first bullet had been fired; their war against yellow fever and malaria was already being fought before the invasion by American troops.  

The battles in the San Juan Heights, first at Kettle Hill, followed by the brief Battle of San Juan Hill, were largely over open terrain. The cavalry troops could have made their charge on horseback, but they were now Rough Walkers, with the only horse being that of Lt. Col. Roosevelt. The lone Rough Rider.

The victory at the San Juan Heights, followed by victory at Santiago and defeat of the Spanish Navy in Santiago Bay, made the short war even shorter. Battle casualties were few. Well, battle casualties from Spanish weapons were few, but battle casualties were not. Only about 10% of the 3,000 US casualties were from battle weapons, the vast share of the remainder due to yellow fever and malaria, carried by mosquitoes.   

Surviving Rough Riders returned to the US, not to Florida, but to eastern Long Island, New York. There, convalescence brought them back to health. Isolation on Montauk Point was intentional to try to prevent the troops from bringing back yellow fever and spreading it among the civilian population, because, despite the all-too-real knowledge of yellow fever’s mortality, the vector, the mosquito Aedes aegypti, was still not associated with the disease. It would take other heroes fighting in the heat and humidity of Cuba to win that battle—none of them remembered by statues, none of them on horseback.

Feature image by Ian Sane, via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Recent Comments

  1. Robert Nowak

    Brief war?

    There is much that the modern world ought to be reminded of regarding the ‘Spanish American’ war – like for instance the Americans did not fight the Spanish, they made a deal with them, and proceeded to destroy the Philippines who had already beaten the Spanish. President Trump of course vilely tried to relieve his fellow countrymen’s ignorance by reminding them that the US soldiers dipped ammunition in pigs blood to deny their victims any chance of going to paradise.
    What a silly blogpost. Only here doies on get this sort of quality,
    Stroke of genius, getting two entemologists to waffle about ‘history’.
    Well done!

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