Leading the Rough Riders
Roosevelt had one experience that will likely never be duplicated: In a short period of time, he helped organize and train a mounted cavalry, then lead it into battle. In 1898, Roosevelt was serving as Assistant Secretary of the Navy under President William Mckinley when the Spanish-American War broke out. Congress authorized the formation of three cavalry regiments for the purpose of invading Cuba to take Santiago, and Roosevelt took a position as second in command of one of them. The First United States Volunteer Cavalry was christened the “Rough Riders.”
Thousands of men volunteered. “The difficulty in organizing was not in selecting, but in rejecting men. Within a day or two after it was announced that we were to raise the regiment, we were literally deluged with applications from every quarter of the Union,” he wrote in The Rough Riders.
Raising horses and provisions would prove more difficult: “Of [the horses] purchased certainly a half were nearly unbroken. It was no easy matter to handle them on the picket-lines, and to provide for feeding and watering; and the efforts to shoe and ride them were at first productive of much vigorous excitement…. Half the horses of the regiment bucked, or possessed some other of the amiable weaknesses incident to horse life on the great ranches; but we had abundance of men who were utterly unmoved by any antic a horse might commit. Every animal was speedily mastered, though a large number remained to the end mounts upon which an ordinary rider would have felt very uncomfortable.”
He added, “My own horses were purchased for me by a Texas friend…. The animals were not showy; but they were tough and hardy, and answered my purpose well.”
Despite the speed with which the volunteer regiments were organized, they performed admirably, wrote Roosevelt, “In less than sixty days the regiment had been raised, organized, armed, equipped, drilled, mounted, dismounted, kept for a fortnight on transports, and put through two victorious aggressive fights in very difficult country, the loss in killed and wounded amounting to a quarter of those engaged. This is a record which it is not easy to match in the history of volunteer organizations.”