Sunday, July 1, 2018

This Day in Military History (TR, Rough Riders Charge to Glory at San Juan Hill, With Press Help)

July 1, 1898—Victory at what came to be known as the Battle of San Juan Hill launched Lt. Col. Theodore Roosevelt on a political path that within three years landed him in the White House. But on a personal level, it lifted a burden oppressing him for nearly 30 years: the aching sense that his beloved father had not fully served his country when it counted in the Civil War.

Since the dawn of the American republic, military service had been the major means of gaining the Presidency for those without governmental experience, as in the cases of Zachary Taylor and Ulysses S. Grant. Battlefield triumphs had played an outsize role in the election of even those who did serve in the government, such as George Washington and Andrew Jackson.

T.R. fell into the second group. He was no soldier for a substantial part of his career as Grant had been (or as Eisenhower would be decades later). His ascent to the White House, while seemingly following the conventional path of military glory, remains unique, as attested to in an encyclopedia entry I came across in the second or third grade. 

The encyclopedia’s table listed the occupations of American Presidents before they reached the White House: “Farmer,” “Lawyer,” “Soldier,” and even, in the case of Herbert Hoover, “Engineer.” But I was puzzled by the entry for Roosevelt: “Publicist.”

The entry could have read “Politician,” befitting someone who had served in the New York State Assembly, on the U.S. Civil Service Commission, as New York City’s Police Commissioner, and as Assistant Secretary of the Navy. It could have read “Author,” as he had already written 16 books by the time he volunteered in the Spanish-American War—a conflict he had beaten the drums for at the Navy Department.

But “Publicist”—or, to be more correct, “Self-Publicist”—described exactly Roosevelt’s unusual trajectory to the White House at age 42, the youngest age of any individual who ever became President. He displayed a genius for putting his name before the public in a positive light. And nowhere was this better demonstrated than in how the public came to see him as a military hero of the unit formally called the 1st US Volunteer Cavalry but that nearly everyone called the Rough Riders.

Several aspects of how he attracted press attention stand out:

*Appearance. Though not handsome, Roosevelt was a dandy at heart. In the 1880s, he had posed several times in buckskin to signal his transition from Harvard swell to Western rancher. When President William McKinley finally asked Congress for a declaration of war against Spain for its alleged role in the sinking of the Maine, T.R. quickly had several khaki uniforms custom-tailored for him by Brooks Brothers. Later, as he prepared to lead his men into battle, he wrapped a bandanna around his neck. While this fashion choice was undoubtedly useful in protecting his neck against sunburn, it also lent him a dashing appearance when the bandanna flowed behind him when he charged on horseback.

*Cultivating an acquaintance.  According to Kathleen Dalton’s fine Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life, T.R. made the most of a 34-year-old editor, reporter and novelist who had been befriended by the colonel’s sister Bamie: Richard Harding Davis. Brimming with charismatic himself, Davis bonded quickly with the equally magnetic Roosevelt. The head of the regiment, Leonard Wood, might, under normal circumstances, have made an interesting story as a Medal of Honor winner, veteran of the war against Geronimo, and personal physician to President McKinley. Yet the coolly cerebral Wood paled in comparison with the voluble, energetic Roosevelt. Attaching himself to T.R.’s motley cadre of Southwestern cowpunchers, Oklahoma Indians, Ivy League football stars, and champion polo players, Harding was there to record their bravery when they came out blazing against a Spanish ambush in the jungle at Las Guasimas. Harding identified so strongly with the unit that the correspondent directed fire against the enemy himself—and, though he turned down Roosevelt’s offer of a commission, he accepted one of only three honorary memberships ever given by the Rough Riders. His colorful dispatches with the unit when it captured Kettle Hill and nearby San Juan Hill made him the best-known of the correspondents of the war with Spain.

*Accommodating the press as much as possible. Exhibiting little of the hostility that led Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman to court-martial a reporter during the Civil War, Roosevelt made a concerted effort to win the media to his side. To a remarkable degree, he succeeded. (One notable exception: reporter-novelist Stephen Crane.) Even on the boats invading Cuba--often too crowded even for his own men--he managed to make room for reporters.

*Support in non-print media. Nearly 30 years before, New York’s notorious Boss Tweed had said he didn’t mind newspaper exposes of his corruption—but, with many of his supporters being illiterate, he couldn’t abide cartoons that anyone could understand. Roosevelt sensed this and used it to his own benefit through pictorial media, some in forms used first during wartime. One of these was the motion-picture camera, with the Edison and Biograph companies recording images of the troops on their way into action.  “Buffalo Bill” Cody incorporated reenactments of San Juan Hill into his enormously popular Wild West show, an entertainment that so burnished TR’s heroic exploits that the colonel did not go public with his strong disagreement with Cody about the role of the federal government. Frederic Remington’s Charge of the Rough Riders (accompanying this post), depicting the colonel on horseback leading his men up San Juan Hill, increased Roosevelt’s reputation for fearlessness under fire.

*Writing about the war himself. “For my part, I consider that it will be found much better by all Parties to leave the past to history, especially as I propose to write that history," Winston Churchill once observed—a thought boiled down by posterity to “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.” Roosevelt exhibited a similar urge to shape perception of his actions when he wrote the  account of his military service, The Rough Riders. It was a hit both during serialization and when published in book form.

*Exhibiting a good sense of humor. A certain recent President—no names mentioned!—has displayed no small amount of…touchiness when mocked. This only has made critics even more determined to prick his vanity. The same could not be said for Roosevelt. Satirist Finley Peter Dunne, commenting on The Rough Riders through fictional mouthpiece Mr. Dooley, waggishly noted the author’s ego by saying the memoir should have been called instead Alone in Cuba. Was Roosevelt offended? If he was, he did a good job of concealing it. He wrote the humorist to say how much he chuckled over the piece—and ended up enjoying a cordial relationship with him.

*Being slow to correct accounts that worked in his favor. The Rough Riders were far more instrumental in seizing Kettle Hill than in taking San Juan Hill, where they played a more supporting role. But accounts in the press—including among Roosevelt’s admirers—jumbled the two together,  magnifying the importance of the Rough Riders and diminishing other units (for instance, the African-American “Buffalo Soldiers” whose deadly fire, T.R. admitted later, provided him cover as he led the charge uphill at Kettle Hill). While this boosted Roosevelt’s political career, it probably undercut his case for a Medal of Honor (not granted him until 2001, more than eight decades after his death).

Proving himself in battle was not simply a matter of winning fame for Roosevelt, however; it also involved redeeming the family honor. During the Civil War, his father, a staunch Unionist, felt compelled, because of his Georgia-born wife’s Southern sympathies, to sit out the war and hire a substitute at $300 a year to take his place. 

Even winning glory did not completely assuage Roosevelt’s feelings about honor. During WWI, he had pushed his sons to enlist. All served with honor, but one---the youngest, Quentin—was shot down in 1918 in an aerial battle with German pilots. The sense of grief and guilt over this loss was something that TR never really recovered from.

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