Archive | June, 2015

Teddy’s Terrors

28 Jun

While Fifth Corps pauses on the road to Santiago, a few words about who and what the Rough Riders actually were.

Congress had recently passed a law allowing for the wartime recruitment of about ten thousand men as U.S. Volunteers. Neither regulars nor national guardsmen, they were intended to enlist for two years. They would serve under regular officers. The original idea was that the ten thousand would be men with construction, engineering and electrical skills. When the war with Spain started, it was decided to recruit three additional regiments of cavalry as well — 1st, 2nd and 3rd USVC, and they were. Only 1st USVC ever went overseas.

Unlike modern Republican warmongers, Theodore Roosevelt was anxious to get into the fight he did so much to bring on. He had some sort of commission in the New York National Guard, which he was able to parlay into the lieutenant-colonelcy of the 1st USVC, under his friend Leonard Wood. Wood was almost as odd a choice for command of a regiment as Roosevelt. He was actually an officer in the Medical Corps, but he had some combat experience in the Apache Wars of the 1880’s and he knew how the army worked. For instance, he knew that if he requisitioned blue uniforms for his regiment they would wait months to get them. Instead, he applied for stable rig — the brown canvas suits that cavalry men wore to clean up after their horses, which gave rise to the legend that the Rough Riders wore tailored khakis.

The original idea behind the USV’s that they should be men with applicable civilian skills, was maintained by recruiting cowboys for all twelve of the troops. Roosevelt did, however bring along about fifty boys from Ivy League schools when he showed up in San Antonio to join Wood, who was already organizing the regiment. Roosevelt claimed that men who were already expert riders and shots, inured to outdoor life, would quickly shake down into competent soldiers. Maybe they would have if the regiment had existed longer, but the cowpoke regiment  was never noted for the quality of its discipline. They were originally called “Teddy’s Terrors” by the people of San Antonio. Roosevelt tried to get the papers to suppress that name and accepted “Rough Riders” as the best substitute he was going to get.

And, of course, they fought on foot. There was no space available on the banana boats and river steamers that the army was able to rent as transports for half the men, let alone horses. So the only members of this cavalry regiment who sat a saddle were some of the officers — including, of course, Roosevelt.

The Rough Riders did well enough in combat and earned a great reputation during and after the war. Up until I was about thirty, it was still possible to meet old men who claimed to have been with them. If all of them had been telling the truth, Roosevelt would have had to commanded a couple of divisions, not the roughly 500 he actually led up Kettle Hill. However, none of them were.

So There They Were

28 Jun

2 1/3 infantry divisions, the only cavalry division we had, and a number of Cuban guerrillas who’d come into the firelight looking for a meal. Orders were to stay put until the move inland, up a head-high ditch called El Camino Real, could be organized. But the ranking general on the beach was Fighting Joe Wheeler, and he had other ideas.

Wheeler was one of at least two former Confederate generals McKinley had commissioned because he was worried the South might not show up for the war. And he was a congressman, so  there was that. Wheeler was in his seventies, barely five feet tall, and he hadn’t done a day of military service since 1865. But by 1898 standards, the fact that he had done any made him almost an expert. He certainly thought so.

He saw no reason why his First Cavalry Division should wait for a bunch of infantry types to decide they were ready to fight, and he didn’t. On June 24th, he took his two brigades up the trail to find a battle.

After a few hours’ march, just east of the village of Las Guasimas, they walked into an ambush. Trying to fight in the thick hammock and jungle all around them, the Americans took losses, and got lost. The Rough Riders had to be put right by Richard harding Davis, a war correspondent, who found their main line and sent it in the direction of the battle. When they had gone on a little farther through trees and brush that were full of Mauser bullets, they saw the village above them, and the Spaniards dug in behind a low wall.

The battle didn’t last much longer than that; the Spanish had been ordered to pullout anyway, and from their vantage point they could see a large force of infantry coming up to engage them. They began their withdrawal, which the Americans took to be a full-scale retreat.

Wheeler was to deny later that he shouted “After ’em boys, we got the damnyankees on the run!” but he probably did. And his troops were so encouraged they actually tried to run down the Spaniards.

Wheeler should have been put on the next boat home, and he probably would have been if the battle had been a defeat  some historians claim that the Spaniards were the actual winners. But it looked like a victory in the newspapers, and Wheeler kept his job and went on to write a handsome two-volume report on our new empire in the early years of the 20th century.

So does history happen.

Army VS. Navy. Spanish Navy.

26 Jun

Fuselit and I never intended to release Gideon’s War on the anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Cuba 117 years ago; but since we have done that, why not blog a bit about why the army was in Cuba in the first place?

Most people — who give the matter any thought at all — have the idea that we went there to free the Cubans. Not true. The Cubans were on the verge of doing that themselves. They had fought the Spanish army to a standstill. 25000 guerrillas had worn down an army of a quarter million over three years, and, with President William McKinley vaguely suggesting that things could get a lot worse if Spain didn’t pull out, the government in madrid was simply looking for an exit that would leave the royal family on the throne.

That was the situation when the Maine blew up. Why the Maine blew up is still a mystery today and might be a good topic for another blog. But there is no mystery about what happened next: the United States blamed Spain, and wanted revenge. We declared war, backdating it to cover a couple of warlike acts we committed in advance, and called up the national guard.

Spain, for its part, sent most of its fleet in the direction of the Caribbean — four good, but worn-out armored cruisers, and a pair of destroyers. The fleet, having disappeared into the North Atlantic and caused panic along the East Coast, was finally discovered essentially hiding out in the harbor of Santiago de Cuba. The U.S. Navy’s Atlantic Squadron sailed down there to blockade them.

The commander of the squadron began to demand that the army come down there and force the Spanish fleet to “come out” by taking the city behind it. The longer the blockade went on, the harder it would be maintain it, with the hurricane season coming on, and the inevitability of mechanical problems on the American ships.

Nowadays the Marines would get the job. Back then, there were barely enough Marines to seize a small harbor close to Santiago named Guantanamo Bay, where a coaling station could be set up. That left the army, all 29,000 men of it. By sending nearly every regular soldier it had to Tampa, the army was able to organize an understrength corps of about 15,000. This included 18 out of 25 regular infantry regiments, 5 and 1/3 out of ten regular cavalry regiments, and a handful of artillery, medical, and supply types. Joining this Fifth Corps were two regiments of National Guardsmen, the 2nd Massachusetts and the 71st New York, and the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry, the Rough Riders.

So, that was that. The Fifth Corps would go to Cuba for the purpose of forcing the enemy fleet to fight. If that sounds a bit strange — it was.

Gideon’s Long War

25 Jun

My new historical, Gideon’s War, is out today under the new Fuselit on-line imprint. When I finished it the first time, as the Iraq War was grinding to the crashing disaster it was always going to be, I had thought that it would attract the attention of some publisher because the would be a revulsion against overseas campaigns sending our troops to die for a lie.

We know how that worked out. But how did we get here? Gideon’s War is an adventure set at the start of America’s imperial arc, when the country was fat, isolated, and almost totally unarmed. Those who wanted an empire for us — Theodore Roosevelt, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, Sr., William Randolph Hearst and Rudyard Kipling in his America phase, had to contrive our involvement in the Cuban war to get what they really wanted, control of the Caribbean and  colonies in the Pacific. Most Americans went to war to free Cuba. Three years later, American troops were storming the Forbidden City in Peking. Some of them were the same men who’d gone up San Juan Hill. That was what it was really about, and still is.

But it could have gone so differently. The troops of Fifth Corps could well have ended up at the business end of a total military disaster. If they had, the myth of American empire — that it comes easily — would probably have been very different, and so would the future.

Gideon Bauer is there at the beginning.