Prologue Magazine

Prologue: Selected Articles

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 4

Theodore Roosevelt's letter to Adjutant General Roosevelt repeatedly stressed recommendations on his behalf by Generals Wood, Wheeler, and Shafter. Wood vaguely praised the "conspicuous gallantry" of Roosevelt's leadership. (NARA, Records of the Adjutant General's Office, 1780s-1917, RG 94)

He prepared himself for possible denial after learning from Senator Lodge that Secretary Alger had told him at a White House dinner that the Rough Rider would not receive the medal. Roosevelt also claimed that Alger had made this announcement to others on a number of occasions. He wrote to Leonard Wood and told him "pray do not think of the medal anymore. There is nothing to be done about it. I really care more for the recommendations for it than the medal itself."(37) In a letter to Gen. Francis Vinton Greene, Roosevelt vented his frustrations about Alger: "You will readily understand however, that both my friends and myself feel that when the Secretary announces in advance publicly and repeatedly that the medal must not and will not be given, this mere fact itself amounts to coercion of the Board, and I shall think that the Board might better <<display>> sensitiveness about the coercion than about my friends having called in consequence of the Secretary's public statements."(38)

Roosevelt also expressed these same feelings in a barrage of letters to the office of the Adjutant General of the War Department, Henry C. Corbin. Corbin responded that "one word as to the reported remark of the Secretary of War that 'you were not entitled to a medal of honor.' I am fully persuaded that the Secretary never made any such statement to any one. My relations with the Secretary have been intimate and your name has been frequently mentioned and there was never a suggestion from him that was not full of kindly regard and appreciation. What he probably did say was 'the case as presented by General Wood would not, under the rules of the office, entitle you to this consideration,' and you must agree that Wood's recommendation was lacking in the special features that warrant the issuance of medals to any one. As you have written him, I hope he will be able to set forth in detail just why it should be done. Should he do this, I undertake to say the Secretary will share with me the pleasure of bestowing this honor upon you."(39)

Taking Corbin's advice, Roosevelt solicited another statement from Wood. But Wood's second letter quoted almost verbatim the official reports submitted to him in July by Roosevelt. In other words, Wood could not offer himself as an eyewitness. Roosevelt began to realize that there may not be any accurate witnesses to his valor because "I don't know who saw me throughout the fight, because I was almost always in the front and could not tell who was close behind me, and was paying no attention to it." Not giving up the fight, Roosevelt requested statements from regular army officers and volunteers who were either with him or in the area during the attack on San Juan Heights.

Roosevelt was correct. The statements submitted on his behalf were of little help because they provided conflicting and vague accounts of his bravery. Capt. C. J. Stevens of the Ninth Cavalry stated that "Col. Roosevelt was among the very first to reach the crest of the hill." On the other hand, 1st Lt. Robert Howe of the Sixth Cavalry recalled that the "Colonel's life was placed in extreme jeopardy, owing to the conspicuous position he took in leading the line, and being the first to reach the crest of that hill." Gen. Samuel S. Sumner, as though he felt an obligation to support Roosevelt's Medal of Honor case, simply says that "Col. Roosevelt by his example and fearlessness inspired his men at both Kettle Hill and the ridge known as San Juan, he led his command in person." Sumner, whose testimony had great merit, provides no comments on whether Roosevelt was the first or among the first on the hill. The statements from former officers in the Rough Riders, such as Maxwell Keyes, W. J. McCann, and M. J. Jenkins, were biased in support of Roosevelt. They essentially echoed their colonel's argument.(40)

With the Medal of Honor issue dragging on, Roosevelt's emotions took on a childlike, vindictive tone. In a letter to Gen. Bradley Tyler Johnson, he wrote, "I do not believe the War Department has the slightest intentions of granting it, and I have really given up thinking about it. You see I cannot blame the War Department for feeling bitterly toward me now, for I have hit, and intend to hit them, hard for what they have done and left done and left undone, and I am rather pleased than otherwise that they should have given me no excuse to feel under any obligation to them. Now they can grant me the medal or not, just as they wish, for it will not make a particle of difference in what I shall write about them."(41) When Roosevelt states that "I have hit the War Department hard," he is most likely referring to the Round Robin affair and his testimony before the "Commission Appointed by the President to Investigate the Conduct of the War Department in the War With Spain."

The long wait for news about his award ended for Roosevelt on June 8, 1899, when the Brevet Board submitted its recommendations for the Medal of Honor to the secretary of war. The three board members stated that "many cases of bravery and unquestioned courage in battle have been presented, but the application of the rules laid down for the guidance of the Board in awarding Medals of Honor constrains it to limit its recommendations."(42) Twenty-eight participants of the Santiago Campaign were approved to receive the Medal of Honor for gallantry in action, but Roosevelt's name was not among them. Instead, his name appeared with other volunteer officers on a separate list for recommendation as brevet colonel and brevet brigadier general.

Exactly why the Brevet Board denied Roosevelt the award is not officially documented. There are no extant War Department records nor similar correspondence among the personal papers of Russell Alger that hint at why Roosevelt was rejected. Certainly no evidence exists to support the contention that Alger held a grudge over the Round Robin affair or Roosevelt's testimony to the congressional committee. On the contrary, letters from the War Department to Roosevelt indicate that they were more than willing to assist him in getting the Medal of Honor. One can only assume that the Brevet Board came to the conclusion that, though Roosevelt's conduct in Cuba was quite admirable, it was not worthy of a Medal of Honor.

Medal of Honor The Medal of Honor was awarded to twenty-eight men in the battle for Santiago, but Roosevelt failed to secure it. (U.S. Army Center of Military History)

Regardless of why Roosevelt was not awarded the Medal of Honor, it was the correct decision. In one way or another, most of the officers participating in the fighting on July 1, 1898, performed very well. Military historian Graham Cosmas states that "in most regiments, the officer casualty rate was about double that for enlisted men--an indication of the extent and price of leadership from the front."(43) To single out Roosevelt as a hero among the other line officers would have been a great injustice, and the merit of the award would have been cheapened. The denial of the Medal of Honor does not diminish the fact that Roosevelt gave his best effort in attempting to bring order to the chaos along the San Juan Heights. He risked his life by riding his horse during the charge while the Spanish bullets rained down upon him. There is no doubt that he was an inspiration to the men of the Rough Riders and the troops of the cavalry division.

Roosevelt took the Brevet Board's decision with great disappointment, as might be expected. But time also helped heal any ill feelings he may have harbored, at least publicly. Since he was no longer serving in the United States Army, the brevet ranks of colonel and brigadier general had only political value to Roosevelt.(44) His career as a politician was right on track, and there was no reason to stew about the Medal of Honor any further. In 1907 he rejected an offer to join the Medal of Honor Club for the reason that "I was recommended for it [Medal of Honor] by my superior officers in the Santiago campaign, but I was not awarded it; and frankly, looking back on it now, I feel that the board which declined to award it took exactly the right position."(45)

The reasons behind Roosevelt's adamancy about getting the Medal of Honor are open to conjecture, but political ambition was certainly one of his motives. Clearly Roosevelt had sights on the presidency, and the medal was the perfect vehicle to help get him into the White House. He may also have been in awe of the Medal of Honor winners with whom he served in Cuba: Nelson A. Miles, William R. Shafter, Henry W. Lawton, Robert Lee Howe, and Leonard Wood. As an overly confident volunteer, Roosevelt hoped for acceptance by the regular officers. In his eyes, the Medal of Honor would put him on the same level as the career soldiers. Politically, not receiving the Medal of Honor certainly did not impede Roosevelt's career as a civil servant. Because of his participation in the Spanish-American War, he was considered one of the most popular and colorful political figures in the United States. Almost immediately after the war, Roosevelt was elected governor of New York, then selected by McKinley as his vice president, then became President of the United States. His political successes were a direct result of the image he made for himself in Cuba.

Theodore Roosevelt passed away in 1919 from complications relating to an adventure in South America. Had Roosevelt still been alive in 1944, he would have been proud to learn that a Roosevelt did eventually win the award he so coveted. His son Brig. Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., received the Medal of Honor posthumously for "gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty on 6 June 1944, in France."(46) However, this Medal of Honor was awarded with its own bit of controversy. Originally, Theodore jr. had been cited for the Distinguished Service Cross. Some commanding officers in the First Army, including Maj. Gen. J. Lawton Collins and Lt. Gen. Courtney Hodges, considered this to be the appropriate award, but the War Department upgraded the citation to a Medal of Honor.(47)

Even though he did not receive his nation's highest military decoration, Theodore Roosevelt will forever be known as one of America's most well-liked and vibrant characters. His charge up Kettle Hill, even though he insisted it was San Juan Hill, conjures a heroic image that will likely never fade with time. Theodore Roosevelt will always be remembered as the embodiment of the Spanish-American War, a significant historical event that he called the "time of my life."(48)

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 3


1. Theodore Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt: An Autobiography (1913), p. 275.

2. Frank Freidel, The Splendid Little War (1958), p. 340.

3. Although Theodore Roosevelt: An Autobiography and The Rough Riders contain reproductions of Roosevelt's Medal of Honor recommendations, there is no mention of the award in the narratives of either book.

4. Elting E. Morison, ed., The Letters of Theodore Roosevelt (1951), p. 1094.

5. Hermann Hagedorn, ed., The Works of Theodore Roosevelt (1926), Vol. 13, pp. 182-199.

6. Roosevelt, Autobiography, p. 237.

7. Nathan Miller, Theodore Roosevelt: A Life (1992), pp. 33, 55.

8. Graham A. Cosmas, An Army for Empire: The United States Army in the Spanish-American War (reprint, 1994), pp. 106-108.

9. Roosevelt, Autobiography, pp. 237-38.

10. Robert McHenry, Webster's American Military Biography (1978) pp. 487-488.

11. General Correspondence, file #536595, entry 25, Records of the Adjutant General's Office, 1780's-1917, Record Group 94, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC (hereinafter, records in the National Archives will be cited as RG__, NARA).

12. General Correspondence, file #536595, entry 25, RG 94, NARA.

13. Roosevelt, Autobiography, p. 238.

14. Theodore Roosevelt, The Rough Riders (1899), pp. 5-40.

15. Due to the lack of space aboard the U.S. Army transports, horses designated for the cavalry units were left behind in Tampa. Only officers and support units were allowed to bring horses to Cuba.

16. Cosmas, Army for Empire, pp. 188-189.

17. Roosevelt, Rough Riders, p. 70.

18. David F. Trask, The War with Spain in 1898 (1981), pp. 217-223.

19. Charles H. Brown, The Correspondents' War (1967), p. 320.

20. Trask, War with Spain, pp. 235-238.

21. War Department Annual Report, 1898, Vol. 1, part 2, Major General Commanding the Army, pp. 275-359. See also General Correspondence, file #122370, entry 25, RG 94, NARA, and Graham A. Cosmas, San Juan Hill and El Caney (1986), pp. 118-148.

22. Trask, War with Spain, pp. 217-223.

23. Margaret Leech, In the Days of McKinley (1959), pp. 248-250.

24. War Department Annual Report, 1898, Vol. 1, part 2, Major General Commanding the Army, p. 686-687.

25. Roosevelt, Rough Riders, pp. 139-143.

26. Peggy and Harold Samuels, Teddy Roosevelt at San Juan: The Making of a President (1997).

27. Trask, War with Spain, pp. 217-223.

28. War Department Annual Report, 1898, Vol. 1, part 2, Major General Commanding the Army, p. 327.

29. Trask, War with Spain, pp. 311-314.

30. Leech, In the Days of McKinley, pp. 306-312.

31. General Correspondence, file #104879, entry 25, RG 94, NARA. This file contains all extant Theodore Roosevelt Medal of Honor recommendations as submitted to the War Department.

32. Morison, Letters of Theodore Roosevelt, p. 1125.

33. General Correspondence, file #104879, entry 25, RG 94, NARA.

34. War Department, General Order 42, June 30, 1897.

35. War Department, Special Order 255, paragraph 10, 1898.

36. Morison, Letters of Theodore Roosevelt, pp. 1093-1098.

37. Theodore Roosevelt to Leonard Wood, Jan. 12, 1899, Wood Papers, Library of Congress.

38. Morison, Letters of Theodore Roosevelt, p. 1107.

39. General Correspondence, file #104879, entry 25, RG 94, NARA.

40. General Correspondence, file #104879, entry 25, RG 94, NARA.

41. Morison, Letters of Theodore Roosevelt, p. 1098.

42. General Correspondence, file 147551, entry 25, RG 94, NARA.

43. Cosmas, San Juan Hill and El Caney, p. 123.

44. A brevet was normally an honorary rank in which an officer functioned when on special assignment. Officers ordinarily received pay based on their brevet rank.

45. Morison, Letters of Theodore Roosevelt, p. 1393.

46. War Department, General Order #77, 1944.

47. Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., Medal of Honor File, Records of United States Army Commands, RG 338, NARA.

48. Roosevelt, Rough Riders, p. 127.

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