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.


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