Our 26th president served with distinction during the Spanish-American War and will long be celebrated for a decisive hilltop charge.
When we first discussed doing a series on presidents who were veterans I knew at one point I would be writing an article about Teddy Roosevelt. I thought it would be one of the easiest to do. Sorry to say I was dead wrong. I concentrated on three books which we sourced at the end of this piece and asked, how do you write a short piece on a man who distinguished himself in so many ways? I doff my hat to Teddy Roosevelt and just say, it was tough writing but an honor to write on of our greatest presidents who exemplified leadership in everything he did.
Theodore Roosevelt was the 26th President of the United States (1901-09). Born on October 27, 1858, in New York City, he was the first president in the 20th Century but as a man he straddled the two centuries that featured Imperialism and Progressivism. He was a highly recognized statesman, a decorated military figure, an eastern aristocrat who loved life in the western United States. He was also a prolific writer who authored twenty-six books. When you add in his magazine articles, speeches, and letters, that allows us to know how he felt on a whole range of subjects.
In 1919, at the age of sixty, he died in his sleep. A postmortem stated he died of lead poisoning from a bullet lodged in his chest from an assassination attempt while campaigning on October 14, 1912. He was saved by a glass case and a folded speech that deflected the bullet from his heart. Doctors did not want to remove the bullet because it was too close to his heart. Unfortunately, that same bullet was ultimately the cause of his death seven years later.
His philosophy on life was built around the ideal that a life was not worth living unless you entered the ring of combat and experience the difference between winning and losing. This can be best summed up in this quote:
“Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”
In his rise to the presidency he served as New York City Police Commissioner, Governor of New York, Assistant Secretary of the Navy and Vice President to William McKinley in 1900. He replaced McKinley upon his assassination on September 14, 1901.
In our opinion, his belief in his ability to rise to any occasion, no matter how challenging to get the job done was his greatest strength. This can be best exemplified during his experience in the Spanish-America War. In April 1898, Roosevelt resigned his post as Assistant Secretary of the Navy to join Army Colonel Leonard Wood to form the First US Volunteer Cavalry Regiment. Roosevelt’s wife and many of his friends begged him to remain at his post in Washington because they believed he could serve the country better than being an officer in a volunteer Army unit.
When the newspapers reported the establishment of a new regiment calling for volunteers, Roosevelt and Wood were inundated with applications from all over the country. The press referred to this new military unit as the “Rough Riders,” one of the many temporary units that signed on for the duration of the war.
In his autobiography, Roosevelt wrote that his prior experience with the New York National Guard had been invaluable and enabled him to immediately begin teaching his men basic small unit infantry tactics . The Rough Riders used standard issue equipment and some of their own design. The regiment was a highly diverse group, which included college students, athletes, well to do gentlemen, cowboys and Native Americans as well as former soldiers.
Roosevelt landed with his men in Daiquiri, Cuba, on June 23, 1898, and he was immediately promoted to colonel. He took command of the regiment when Wood was placed in charge of the brigade. The Rough Riders had a short, skirmish known as the Battle of Las Guasimas; they fought their way through Spanish resistance and, together with the Regulars, forced the Spaniards to desert their positions.
Under his leadership, the Rough Riders became famous for the charge up Kettle Hill on July 1, 1898, while supporting the regulars. Roosevelt had the only horse, which he rode back and forth between the combatant lines. He led the advance up Kettle Hill despite no such orders to do so from his superiors. He was forced to walk up the last part of Kettle Hill, because his horse had been entangled in barbed wire. The victories came at a cost of 200 killed and 1,000 wounded. An infantry regiment is made up of approximately 3,000 men. We could not confirm this number. Suffice it to say we are of the opinion to have 1,200 casualties they likely had a unit size that would correspond to a regiment’s size in World War I (1914-1918).
Roosevelt commented on his role in the battles: “On the day of the big fight I had to ask my men to do a deed that European military writers consider utterly impossible of performance, that is, to attack over open ground a fortified infantry armed with the best modern repeating rifles behind a formidable system of entrenchments. The only way to get them to do it in the way it had to be done was to lead them myself.”
Roosevelt always recalled the Battle of Kettle Hill (part of the San Juan Heights) as “the great day of my life” and “my crowded hour.” In 2001, Roosevelt was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions. He had been nominated during the war, but Army officials, annoyed at his grabbing the headlines, blocked it.
His list of accomplishments as President are numerous. He expanded the powers of the presidency and the federal government and became as a “Trust Buster” that forced the largest business organizations in the United States to conform to the laws of the Sherman Antitrust Act. This was done because it was the duty of a President to support the public interest in conflicts between big business and labor. He also firmly led the nation toward an active role in world politics, particularly in Europe and Asia. He won the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1906 for negotiating peace that ended the Russo-Japanese War (1904–05). Perhaps his boldest accomplishment was the building of the Panama Canal.
The Société International du Canal (this was the French company that built the Suez Canal) began work on the canal in 1881. They ceased operations due to engineering problems and a great loss of life from Yellow Fever. The United States took over the project in 1904 and opened the canal on August 15, 1914. This was one of the largest and most difficult engineering projects ever undertaken.
Roosevelt recognized that the Panama Canal would greatly reduce the time for ships to travel between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The economic and military advantages of this canal were not lost on Roosevelt. In the event of war in the Pacific region the US Navy could more readily move their main battle fleet quickly and efficiently from the Atlantic coast and shorten the time it would take to engage the enemy in combat.
In making the peace that ended the Russo-Japanese War 1904-1905 with the Treaty of Portsmouth (New Hampshire) Roosevelt became concerned that Japan would begin an expansion in the Pacific and threaten American interests . In 1907 he decided to send the U.S, Navy’s battle fleet on a cruise around the world as demonstration of military might.
His view of the threat the Japanese posed was indeed quite prescient. His own words made it quite clear that we would inevitably have to go to war with Japan and the cost would be high:
“Sooner or later they (Japan) will try to bolster up their power by another war. Unfortunately for us, we have what they want most, the Philippines. I regard the dispatch of the warships to the Pacific one of the greatest things which has been done by my administration. It has delayed this (from happening) five years at least. When it comes, we will win over Japan, but it will be one of the most disastrous conflicts the world has ever seen.”
Historical rankings of U.S. Presidents in Wikipedia state that “Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and George Washington are most often listed as the three highest-rated presidents among historians.” The rest are often moved up or down depending on the ongoing research of U.S. Presidents. After the top three you will generally find Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson, Harry S. Truman, Dwight Eisenhower and Andrew Jackson.
According to our sources Theodore Roosevelt was widely popular in Europe as well as the United States after he stepped down as president in 1909. In her book When Trumpets Call Patricia O’Toole said that had he been elected to a third term in 1912 that such was his influence he would have averted the First World War.
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