Prologue Magazine
Spring 1998, Vol. 30, No. 1

"I Am Entitled to the Medal of Honor and I Want It"
Theodore Roosevelt and His Quest for Glory

By Mitchell Yockelson

Portrait of Theodore Roosevelt (Courtesy Library of Congress)

Among Theodore Roosevelt's many accomplishments were two terms as President of the United States, the publishing of more than forty works of nonfiction, the exploration of the South American wilderness, and having his likeness sculpted on Mount Rushmore. However, even with all of these and many other achievements, Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt often stated that participating in the Battle of San Juan Hill, Cuba, during the Spanish-American War was one of his proudest moments. Roosevelt's service with the First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry Regiment, also known as the "Rough Riders," lasted only four months, but he proclaimed "there are no four months of my life to which I look back with more pride and satisfaction."(1) To most people, the charge up San Juan Hill is one of the two most memorable events connected with the "Splendid Little War."(2) The other is the sinking of the USS Maine, which helped set the stage for war.

The American victory over Spain placed the nation among the world's great powers. For Roosevelt, the Spanish-American War fulfilled a lifelong dream. While friends in the newspaper business ensured that his exploits in Cuba were not overlooked by the public, the future President yearned for even greater acclaim. He coveted the country's highest military decoration, the Medal of Honor. Despite an intense lobbying effort by some of his superior officers and a close friend, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, Roosevelt's request for the medal was denied by the War Department. Questions remain as to whether Roosevelt was refused the Medal of Honor because he was undeserving or if friction between himself and the War Department was the actual reason for denial.

Although countless pages have documented the Rough Riders in Cuba, the Medal of Honor issue has been largely ignored in print. Even two of Roosevelt's own publications, The Rough Riders and An Autobiography, fail to mention in the narrative his desire for the award.(3) A multitude of War Department documents and Roosevelt's own published letters clearly state his argument that "I am entitled to the Medal of Honor and I want it."(4) With the centennial of the Spanish-American War approaching, perhaps this is an appropriate time to reevaluate Roosevelt's role in the conflict and determine if his contribution was as worthy as he claimed.

After the Maine exploded in Havana Harbor, Cuba, on February 15, 1898, popular opinion in the United States cried for retaliation against Spain. The fever was fueled by yellow journalists such as Joseph Pulitzer of the New York World and William Randolph Hearst of the New York Journal. One of the most anxious Americans was Theodore Roosevelt. When he had taken office as assistant secretary of the navy in April 1897, he used his position to expound upon America's future role as a world power. He felt this goal could not be achieved without war. During a June 2, 1897, speech at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, the assistant secretary noted that "diplomacy is utterly useless where there is no force behind it; the diplomat is the servant, no the master, of the soldier. . . . No triumph of peace is quite so great as the supreme triumphs of war."(5)

With war declared on April 21, 1898, the self-proclaimed jingo saw his wishes come true and was anxious to take part in the upcoming fray. Several years after the war, he boasted that "I had always felt that if there were a serious war I wished to be in a position to explain to my children why I did take part in it, and not why I did not take part in it."(6) The latter portion of this statement was probably a reference to his father's decision not to serve in the military during the Civil War, which haunted Roosevelt throughout his life. According to one of his biographers, "family, friends, and superiors all implored Roosevelt to remain in the post in which he had done so much to prepare the navy for war."(7) Roosevelt ignored these pleas and instead lobbied Secretary of War Russell A. Alger for an army commission. Opportunity came for Roosevelt when the War Department mobilized the army for war.

A severe shortage of men prevented the army from immediately setting forth on an expedition to Cuba. To remedy the situation, President William McKinley proposed to Congress a first call for 125,000 state volunteers. The proposal became law on April 22. Four days later, additional legislation was passed to increase the regular army to more than twice its strength. On May 25, McKinley issued a second call for 75,000 volunteers to bring the army up to adequate strength for whatever expeditions might be required.

Most of the volunteers under the first call came from existing state militia or national guard outfits since they numbered about 125,000 men. The order for troops also permitted the federal government to raise three volunteer cavalry regiments to serve independently from the state units.(8) Secretary of War Alger knew the perfect candidate to command the first regiment: Theodore Roosevelt. Upon learning from Alger that the First United States Volunteer Cavalry Regiment was his to command, Roosevelt was ecstatic. He declined the offer, however, since his only military service had been three years in the New York National Guard, and he felt this was not enough experience to lead an entire regiment during wartime. As a compromise, Roosevelt suggested that he serve as lieutenant colonel if his good friend Leonard Wood was named as the commander. Alger agreed, and the Rough Riders were born.(9)

Wood was an ideal choice to command the newly formed regiment. He had many of the same political connections as Roosevelt, whom he had met in mid-1897 while serving as the White House physician, and they developed a deep friendship. Besides a career as a medical officer, Wood had served as both an army assistant surgeon and line officer during the expedition against Geronimo in 1886. He distinguished himself in the campaign and received the Medal of Honor in March 1898 for his role in Geronimo's surrender. Wood was the only officer serving in the long campaign to receive the award, and rumors circulated that his political ties were the reason he had been singled out.(10)

Secretary of War Alger authorized Wood to raise and organize "a regiment of Volunteers possessing special qualifications as horsemen and marksmen." Furthermore, War Department Special Order #98, April 27, 1898, directed Wood to report to Muskogee, Indian Territory; Guthrie, Oklahoma; Sante Fe, New Mexico; Prescott, Arizona Territory; Carson City, Nevada; and Salt Lake City, Utah for recruiting.(11) But once the word spread that the Rough Riders were recruiting men, applications came from all over the country. Originally the regiment was allotted 780 men by the War Department, but popular interest in becoming a Rough Rider quickly enlarged the number to 1,000. By July 7, 1898, the regiment exceeded the legal limit of men, with more than 1,100 names on the muster rolls.(12)

The origin of the name "Rough Riders," according to Roosevelt, was created "both by the public and by the rest of the army . . . doubtless because the bulk of the men were from the Southwestern ranch country and were skilled in the wild horsemanship of the great plains."(13) Publicly, Roosevelt invoked an image as a cowboy because of the several years he spent ranching in the Dakota Territory and the publication of his multivolume work The Winning of the West. In addition to the majority of cowboys and ranchers, recruits came from Ivy League schools such as Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. Roosevelt also recruited at the various social clubs of Boston and New York with which he was well acquainted. From this contingent Roosevelt especially sought athletes such as cross-country riders and polo players. Notable among the blue-blood eastern families recruited for the Rough Riders was Hamilton Fish, the nephew of former Secretary of State Fish. Most noteworthy of the western recruits was William "Bucky" O'Neil, who was the mayor of Prescott, Arizona, and a famous sheriff. A number of Native Americans representing tribes such as the Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, and Creeks rounded out the regiment.(14)

The Rough Riders trained in San Antonio, Texas, for about four weeks, then joined the other outfits congregating in Tampa, Florida, for transport to Cuba.(15) The expedition was organized as the U.S. Army's Fifth Corps. They were led by the rotund Maj. Gen. William R. Shafter, a Medal of Honor winner during the Civil War and veteran of the Indian wars. The Rough Riders had the distinction of being one of only three volunteer regiments that initially went to Cuba.(16)

Officers in Tampa Officers at camp in Tampa, Florida: Maj. George Dunn, Major Brodie, former Confederate Gen. Joseph Wheeler, Chaplain Brown of the Rough Riders, Col. Leonard Wood, and Lt. Col. Theodore Roosevelt. (NARA 111-SC-93549)

Theodore Roosevelt and the Medal of Honor, Part 2
Theodore Roosevelt and the Medal of Honor, Part 3
Theodore Roosevelt and the Medal of Honor, Part 4

Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.
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