Saturday, February 25, 2017

The 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry—A.K.A. “The Rough Riders”

Last month, I told you about Buckey O’Neill, who served in many capacities of law enforcement and political positions in his brief thirty-eight years. One of the ways he served his country was as a captain in Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. The Rough Riders have always been of some interest to me because they stayed in the Old Tampa Bay Hotel, a beautiful historic building in downtown Tampa, Florida, which is now the main building of my alma mater, University of Tampa. (Read more about the school's historic roots here). So, I thought it would be interesting to learn more about the Rough Riders. Here’s what I learned.
25th President of the United States,
William McKinley
The 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry was formed in 1898 by President William McKinley as the Spanish-American War broke out. McKinley knew that the American military was much smaller than it had been during the Civil War just thirty years prior, so he asked for 1250 volunteers to form this cavalry regiment. They sought men mainly from the Southwestern states, as the hot climate was similar to Cuba’s, where they would be fighting. Men from Arizona, Texas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico applied for the 1250 positions. In fact, so many men asked to be a part that they had to turn many away. It became a joke that the difficulty wasn’t in selecting the men, but rather rejecting them from the huge pool of very qualified choices. The men who were chosen were cowboys, prospectors, law enforcement officers, gamblers, Native Americans, and even some college students. All were good with a gun and had excellent horsemanship skills. Those men who had served in either the Civil War or Western Indian Wars were typically made the ranking officers within the unit.

 The regiment’s original commander was Colonel Leonard Wood, and his second in command was the former Assistant Secretary of the Navy (none other than one Theodore Roosevelt). Under Woods’ leaders, the troops of the 1st US Volunteer Cavalry were nicknamed “Wood’s Weary Walkers.” That’s a bit of a strange name—walkers—for a cavalry (mounted) regiment, right? Well, yes, but the crazy thing was—this cavalry unit didn’t have horses. They fought as an infantry unit under Colonel Woods. Read on to find out why!

Colonel Theodore Roosevelt,
leader of the "Rough Riders"
The men trained every moment they could on horseback, and when they were unable to practice their formations due to traveling via train or ship, or due to other constraints, they read books with detailing their many tactics. They were quite prepared to see action, both in their fighting formations and with the weapons they used. The weapons ranged from Springfield bolt-action rifles for the soldiers and non-commissioned officers to Winchester rifles for the commissioned officers. They also all carried Colt .45 pistols and Bowie knives. A last-minute donation of a Colt-Browning machine gun completed their firepower.

By late May 1898, the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry and their horses and mules traveled by rail to Tampa, Florida. There, they stayed in the Old Tampa Bay Hotel while they awaited their orders to leave for Cuba. Due to a desire to deploy the men quickly, the orders came through, but only eight of the twelve companies and a fraction of their horses and mules were green-lighted to head to Cuba. This shocking oversight caused a huge loss of morale among the remaining volunteer cavalry soldiers. Not a great way to start the fighting.

They traveled to Cuba on the steamship Yucatan and arrived on June 23, 1898. There, they offloaded the supplies they’d been allowed to bring, but had to quickly adapt to being an infantry unit, carrying a few days’ supplies on their backs rather than packing everything on a mule train, or marching long days through hot, humid, jungle landscapes when they’d trained themselves to ride under such conditions.

Their first battle—the Battle of Guasimas—came just a few days after their arrival. The on-foot cavalry soldiers set out to look around the jungle and soon discovered a Spanish outpost, Las Guasimas. By that afternoon, they were told to go in and take the outpost. The Americans slept overnight and prepared to secure the area early the next morning. However, because the men were without their livestock, the physical exertion proved to be far more taxing on the soldiers than expected. Many either dropped their packs or fell out of the ranks while marching up a steep hill, leaving fewer than 500 men to fight. To make matters worse, the Spaniards had the advantage because they knew the dense jungle terrain and had hidden quite well. However, the 1st Volunteer Cavalry marched up to the outpost alongside the regular cavalry, found their opposition, and took them out. The Volunteers lost eight men, with another thirty-one wounded. For six days after the battle, they held their position at the Spanish outpost. During that time, the commander of the regulars died of illness, and Colonel Wood was moved into his position, leaving Teddy Roosevelt to command the Volunteer force. He changed the nickname from Woods’ Weary Walkers to Roosevelt’s Rough Riders.

On the sixth day, the cavalry (volunteer and regular) was told to march eight miles along the road to Santiago. The movement was a distraction technique while the Spaniards were barraged with artillery and battery strikes from afar. The Rough Riders made it to the base of San Juan Hill but quickly found themselves in the line of fire, both from snipers on the Spanish side and the artillery strikes from their own. They moved out of the way to await orders, which finally came—accompany the regulars as they took San Juan Hill. Even with the orders, things were rather unorganized until Roosevelt took charge, rallied the men, and barged up the hill in a series of short runs. With the help of several men firing thousands of rounds from Gatling guns, they captured the hill in twenty minutes. Unfortunately, casualties were heavy during this battle.

Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders atop San Juan Hill

From the victory on San Juan Hill, Roosevelt’s Rough Riders helped capture the town of Santiago, which was important because of a fleet of Spanish cruisers that waited in the nearby port. The U.S. forces were able to drive the cruisers out of the port within two days, and within a few months, they put enough pressure on the Spaniards that on August 12, 1898, Spain surrendered. As terms of the armistice between the two countries, Spain left Cuba, and the United States gained the territories of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines.

The Rough Riders returned to America, heading to Long Island, New York, where they spent a month convalescing from injuries and illness such as malaria, yellow fever, and dysentery. After most had recuperated enough to enjoy it, they held a celebration of their victories in Cuba. The Rough Riders were officially disbanded in September 1898.

It’s your turn. Have you heard of the Rough Riders before today? What do you find most impressive about them?

Jennifer Uhlarik discovered the western genre as a pre-teen when she swiped the only “horse” book she found on her older brother’s bookshelf. A new love was born. Across the next ten years, she devoured Louis L’Amour westerns and fell in love with the genre. In college at the University of Tampa, she began penning her own story of the Old West. Armed with a B.A. in writing, she has won five writing competitions and finaled in two other competitions. In addition to writing, she has held jobs as a private business owner, a schoolteacher, a marketing director, and her favorite—a full-time homemaker. Jennifer is active in American Christian Fiction Writers and lifetime member of the Florida Writers Association. She lives near Tampa, Florida, with her husband, teenaged son, and four fur children.


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  1. Yes I'd heard of them before. I guess I grew up loving history and when they actually taught history in school( not politics or revisionist history). I live very near Fort Leanord Wood in Missouri. My son was stationed there over 20 years ago, also. I loved the bio- pic with Tom Berenger and Sam Elliot that you mentioned last time. Great stuff! Most impressive is their tenacity and wow all those volunteers ; they had to turn them away?! Thanks for the lessons.

    1. Thanks so much for your thoughts, Paula. How interesting that your son was stationed at Fort Leonard Wood! That's a bit of a personal connection to the Rough Riders there. ;) And yes, I was quite impressed with the number of volunteers they had. Special men!

  2. I do not remember hearing about the Rough Riders in history classes. Thus, this post was so informative and fun to read. Amazing how many wanted to be a part of this group. Thank you for your research and sharing.

    1. I am glad you enjoyed it, Marilyn. Like I said, I have been quite interested in them since learning that they'd stayed in Tampa before going to Cuba. It was a lot of fun to learn the story behind the story!

  3. I had heard of them but I did not realize that they didn't just stay in the US, and were actually formed for use in Cuba. I thought they were like cavalry soldiers for the West. I just showed MY ignorance!!! Thanks for the informative article!

    1. So glad you learned something new, Connie! Thanks so much for stopping by.

  4. I think the very name "Rough Riders" has helped them remain in the American consciousness ... not to mention Teddy Roosevelt's name. That's a fabulous photo of him above! Thanks for a great informative post.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Stephanie. And yes, the "Rough Riders" name sure is memorable.