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, Part 3


Theodore Roosevelt's oath of office An "Oath of Office" certifies Theodore Roosevelt's promotion to colonel of the First Volunteer Cavalry. (NARA, Records of the Adjutant General's Office, 1780s-1917, RG 94)

In The Rough Riders, written almost a year after the war, Roosevelt provides further assessment of his gallantry.

The General [Sumner] at once ordered the first brigade to advance on the hills, and the second to support it. The instant I received the order I sprang on my horse and then my "crowded hour" began. . . . I started in the rear of the regiment, the position in which the colonel should theoretically stay. . . . I had intended to go into action on foot . . . but the heat was so oppressive that I found I should be quite unable to run up and down the line . . . moreover, when on horseback, I could see the men better and they could see me better.

I soon found that I could get that line, behind which I personally was, faster forward than the one immediately in front of it. . . . This happened with every line in succession, until I found myself at the head of the regiment. . . . The Ninth Regiment was immediately in front of me, and the First on my left, and these went up Kettle Hill with my regiment. The Third, Sixth, and Tenth went partly up Kettle Hill (following the Rough Riders and the Ninth and the First). . . . By the time I came to the head of the regiment we ran into the left wing of the ninth regulars . . . , who were lying down. I spoke to the captain in command. . . . I asked where the Colonel was, and as he was not in sight, said, "Then I am the ranking officer here and I give the order to charge. . . ." Naturally the Captain hesitated to obey this order. . . . So I said, "Then let my men through sir," and rode on through the lines, followed by the grinning Rough Riders. . . .

Wheeling around, I then again galloped toward the hill, passing the shouting, cheering, firing men. . . . Some forty yards from the top I ran into a wire fence and jumped off Little Texas. . . . Almost immediately afterward the hill was covered by the troops, both Rough Riders and the colored troops of the Ninth, and some of the men of the First. There was the usual confusion, and afterward there was much discussion as to exactly who had been on the hill first. The first guidons planted there were those of the three New Mexican troops, G, E, and F, of my regiment . . . , but on the extreme right of the hill, at the opposite end from where we struck it, Captains Taylor and McBain, and their men of the Ninth were first up. Each of the five captains was firm in the belief that his troop was first up.(25)

While Roosevelt's accounts and Davis's articles make exciting reading, they do not tell the complete story. Based on official reports that Roosevelt either did not consult or refused to believe, historians writing about the battle for Santiago since July 1, 1898, have exposed a number of inaccuracies in Roosevelt's versions. Ultimately the revised histories place credit for the charge on the San Juan Heights with the regular army, whom Roosevelt ignored in his accounts. Another obvious mistake is Roosevelt's insistence in his official reports that he charged San Juan Hill, when in reality his immediate assault was on Kettle Hill. According to historians Peggy and Harold Samuels, Roosevelt had convinced himself that he had charged San Juan Hill as had Hawkins. "Although San Juan Hill and Kettle Hill were separated by geography and by difference in the quality of defenses, Roosevelt lumped together the hill, the knoll, the valley before them, and the heights as 'the battlefield at San Juan Hill.' He glossed over the clear physical difference between San Juan Hill in particular and the entire San Juan battlefield."(26)

What the evidence supports is that the cavalry division advanced to the northwest across the San Juan River and up Kettle Hill. By the time the assault reached the top of Kettle Hill the ground was practically deserted by the Spanish soldiers. Due to the confusion of the heavy fire, cavalry units were intermingled with white soldiers of the Rough Riders firing beside the colored soldiers of the Ninth and Tenth Cavalry Regiments.(27) Who reached Kettle Hill first is where the confusion lies. First Lt. Edward D. Anderson made the claim for Troop C of the Tenth Cavalry. His report states that "while advancing near the road, Colonel Wood, the brigade commander, came by and told me to move my troop to the right and toward the blockhouse. I had 1 man killed and 7 wounded in reaching the top of the hill. . . . Shortly, Colonel Roosevelt and part of his regiment joined our right and I reported to him with my troop. His command took the position behind the crest in which we now occupy."(28)

The troops on Kettle Hill under the orders of Sumner and the inspiration of Theodore Roosevelt started down the west slope of the hill and up the northern extension of San Juan Hill. The cavalry encountered trenches filled with dead Spaniards or those who wished to surrender. Some of the bolder enemy were shot in full flight by the Rough Riders and other regiments now firmly in place on San Juan Hill. The assaults against Kettle and San Juan Hills were against Spanish troops that had already begun pulling back. Around noon their two field artillery pieces had been depleted of ammunition, and their infantry had been decimated by the Gatling gun, artillery, and rifle fire. Those who remained in the trenches when the U.S. cavalry appeared were either dead or wounded. The Rough Riders did charge San Juan Hill, but only after the assault on the more strategically important Kettle Hill.

The July 1 assault on the San Juan Heights drove the Spaniards from the high ground surrounding the city of Santiago. This was accomplished at a severe cost, though, as the Fifth Corps sustained more than 1,300 casualties. The Rough Riders, who were about 490 strong when the battle started, suffered 15 men killed and 73 wounded. One of those killed was Bucky O'Neil, who was shot through the back of the head while parading in front of Troop A. Morale among the officers and men was at the lowest point of the campaign because of the high casualty rate and confusion of the day's battle.

To make matters worse, logistical problems in getting supplies and food to the men on San Juan Hill, as well as abysmal medical services, prompted Shafter to consider withdrawing on July 2 to reorganize. But the Fifth Corps remained and debated with the navy for the next several days over the course to follow for an attack on Santiago. Shafter wanted the navy to force its way through Santiago Harbor and bombard the city, while Adm. William T. Sampson wanted the army first to seize the forts at the entrance of the harbor. In the meantime, negotiations commenced between Shafter and the new commander of the Spanish forces at Santiago, Gen. Jose Toral. Shafter threatened Toral with a combined sea and land attack if the Spanish did not surrender. The final blow for the Spanish force was the fiery destruction of their squadron as it tried to flee Santiago Harbor on July 3. This, coupled with an increase in sickness and lack of food for Toral's men, induced the Spanish commander to surrender, and formal ceremonies took place on July 17.(29)

Marching through Santiago Spanish forces march through the streets of Santiago. (NARA 111-SC-81840)

The Spaniards were not the only ones suffering from disease. By the end of July, almost 20 percent of Shafter's men were hospitalized because of yellow fever, dysentery, and a large number of malaria cases. At first the War Department felt the Fifth Corps should remain in Cuba and wait out the epidemics, but Shafter warned that the disease would worsen unless the sick men were returned to the United States. Shafter solicited the views of his division and brigade commanders, and they concurred that the weakened soldiers must leave Cuba immediately or risk yellow fever deaths rising by the hundreds. All three of Shafter's division commanders and several of the brigade officers, including Roosevelt, drafted and signed a letter stating their views on the withdrawal from Cuba. The letter was included with Shafter's dispatch and sent to the War Department on August 3. Roosevelt also took matters into his own hands and sent an urgent plea to his friend, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge. A copy of Shafter's dispatch was leaked to an Associated Press correspondent at the Fifth Corps headquarters, and the generals' letter was printed in newspapers across the United States. Although the exact source of who leaked the dispatch was never revealed, Roosevelt has often been considered the prime suspect. Because the dispatch went through so many hands, it was called the "Round Robin" letter.

The letter caused great embarrassment to the McKinley administration, which appeared cold and callous to the American public for leaving the sick troops in Cuba. McKinley was also fearful that news of a decimated army would give the Spanish more bargaining power when negotiating the armistice. The scandal became known as the "Round Robin Affair," and as a result, McKinley allowed Shafter to start sending his men north as soon as possible. The first shipload of troops left Santiago on August 7, and by August 25 the entire corps had left Cuba. The Rough Riders were among those transported on one of the first ships to leave Cuba and arrived at Montauk Point, Long Island, on August 15 to a cheering crowd.(30)

Before Roosevelt and his Rough Riders left Cuba for the United States, he commenced fighting another, personal, battle. General Wheeler promised to recommend him to the War Department for a Medal of Honor, and his good friend Leonard Wood got the ball rolling by submitting the first endorsement on July 6. In a letter to the War Department Adjutant General's office in Washington, Wood plainly stated that "I have the honor to recommend Lieut. Col. Theodore Roosevelt . . . for a Medal of Honor for distinguished gallantry in leading a charge on one of the entrenched hills to the east of the Spanish position in the suburbs of Santiago de Cuba, July First, 1898."(31)

Although a nice gesture, Wood's recommendation had very little merit. He had not been present during the actual charge, and Wood's enemies asserted that he had got lost in the woods trying to maneuver his brigade, reaching San Juan Hill only after the fighting had ended. He was therefore not a reliable witness, and the War Department would later reveal this fact. Following Wood's recommendation were similar endorsements from Generals Wheeler and Shafter. Like Wood, they also had not witnessed Roosevelt's alleged heroic charge.

Roosevelt also pushed the Medal of Honor issue to his long-time companion, Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge. Roosevelt boasted to him "that General Wheeler intends to recommend me for the Medal of Honor; naturally I should like to have it." In a another letter to Lodge complaining about the deplorable conditions in Cuba and the deaths that might result from the malaria, Roosevelt reflected upon his own possible death. He told Lodge that "if I do go, I do wish you would get that medal for me anyhow, as I should awfully like the children to have it, and I think I earned it."(32)

Impatient to hear news about the Medal of Honor, Roosevelt wrote to the War Department in September 1898. Assistant Secretary of War George D. Meikeljohn responded that they had Wood, Wheeler, and Shafter's letters on file, but "owing to the pressure of current work the Department is unable to give consideration cases of this class at the present time, but the application made in your behalf will receive careful attention as soon as it is found practicable to take up these cases."(33)

Although Roosevelt may have deemed Meikeljohn's response a snub, his application was indeed one of many pouring into the War Department. Joining him on the Medal of Honor and Brevet list were more than fifty other veterans of the Spanish-American War. In order to deal with each case in a fair manner, Secretary of War Alger established on November 9, 1898, a "board of officers . . . for the purpose of making recommendations for brevet promotions, the awards of medals of honor, and certificates of merit for the officers, and enlisted men who participated in the campaigns of Santiago, the Philippines, and Porto Rico."(34)

Known as the "Brevet Board," the three officers in charge received mountains of paperwork from the Adjutant General's Office that no doubt included Roosevelt's numerous letters and supporting documents. To determine eligibility for the Medal of Honor, the Brevet Board had to follow paragraph 177 of the United States Army regulations. It states that "in order that the Congressional Medal of Honor may be deserved[,] service must have been performed in action as such conspicuous character to clearly distinguish the man for gallantry and intrepidity above his comrades--service that involved extreme jeopardy of life or the performance of extraordinary hazardous duty. Recommendations for the decoration will be judged by this standard of extraordinary merit, and incontestible proof of performance of the service will be exacted."(35) Since its creation during the Civil War, the Medal of Honor had been haphazardly awarded because there were no clear rules or policies for documenting and authenticating the acts of gallantry befitting the decoration. The Brevet Board served to temporarily correct this dilemma.

Four months after submission of his name for the Medal of Honor, Roosevelt became more obsessed with the issue. He painfully told Lodge on December 6 that "if I didn't earn it, then no commissioned officer can ever earn it. . . . I don't ask this as a favor--I ask it as a right. . . . I feel rather ugly on this medal of honor business; and the President and War Dept. may as well understand it. If they want fighting, they shall have it." Three weeks later in another letter to Lodge, Roosevelt changed his tone. He told his friend "now, please don't, in the midst of all your worry over big matters, do another thing in connection with the medal."(36)

Theodore Roosevelt and the Medal of Honor, Part 1
Theodore Roosevelt and the Medal of Honor, Part 2
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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