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Rough Riders

the nickname that was given to the First Volunteer Cavalry, which distinguished itself with great fanfare during the Spanish-American War

Contemporary photograph of the Rough Riders.
contemporary photograph of the Rough Riders

Soon after the United States declared war on Spain, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt asked President William McKinley for permission to form a volunteer cavalry unit. After permission was granted, Roosevelt was joined by Colonel Leonard Wood, an Army doctor who had won the Medal of Honor while fighting the Apache in the 1880's (he was also McKinely's personal physician and a close friend of Roosevelt).

Some 2,300 men answered the call for volunteers within 24 hours. The unit was mustered in and trained between May 1st and 21st in various locations in Texas, New Mexico, and Indian Territory, and by the time the "final cuts" had been made the Rough Riders consisted of 47 officers and 994 enlisted men. The unit's compliment included miners, cowboys and cowboy preachers, tradesmen, writers, professors, althletes, clergymen, etc. from all 45 of the states then in existence, as well as all 4 U.S. territories and 14 countries, and even 60 Native Americans. Wood was placed in command of the unit, and Roosevelt was appointed Lieutenant Colonel.

The Rough Riders began their active duty soon after landing at Daiquiri, Cuba, on June 22, 1898. Unfortunately, a lack of ships at the time of their departure had forced the regiment to leave four of its eight companies, as well as most of its horses, in Florida. In addition, the unit had already lost almost a fourth of its compliment due to malaria and yellow fever. Despite these serious issues, the Rough Riders remained committed to their mission.

Battle of Las GuasimasThe Rough Riders saw their first combat on June 24, at Las Guasimas. The enemy held an advantage over the Americans by knowing their way through the complicated trails in the area of combat. They also were able to utilize the land and cover in such a way that they were difficult to spot. Along with this, their guns used smokeless powder which did not give away their immediate position upon firing as other gunpowders would have. This increased the difficulty of finding the opposition for the U.S. soldiers. In some locations the jungle was too thick to see very far. Despite these obstacles, the Rough Riders, along with a unit of army regulars, eventually won the day. The battle lasted an hour and a half from beginning to end, with the Rough Riders suffering only 8 dead and 31 wounded.

Left: Battle of Las Guasimas.

On June 30, Wood was field promoted to Brigadier General and placed in command of the regular Army's Second Brigade and Roosevelt was promoted to full Colonel and took command of the Rough Riders.

the Rough Riders charge up San Juan HillThe battle which made the Rough Riders famous was fought on July 1, on Kettle and San Juan Hills. Although the Spaniards were well entrenched atop both hills and had clear shots at the Americans, Roosevelt ordered a full-on charge, which he personally led from horseback (his was one of the few horses to be transported from Florida). Despite heavy fire from the Spaniards, the combined force of Rough Riders and regular troops took both hills within about an hour and a half, albeit at great loss.

Right: The Rough Riders charge up San Juan Hill.

After taking the hills outside of Santiago, the Rough Riders supported the siege and ultimate capture of the last major Spanish stronghold in Cuba, on July 17, and then awaited further orders. Spain formally surrendered on August 12, and on August 14 the Rough Riders landed at Montauk Point, New York. They were formally mustered out of service on September 15. During their 137 days of active service, the Rough Riders sufffered the highest casualty rate of all the regiments in Cuba -- 2 officers and 21 enlisted killed in action, 3 men who died of wounds suffered in battle, 19 deaths due to disease, 7 officers and 97 enlisted wounded; another 12 men deserted.

INTERNET SOURCES
The Spanish-American War Centennial Website http://www.spanamwar.com/rrhist.html
Theodore Roosevelt Association http://www.theodoreroosevelt.org/life/rough_riders.htm

SEE ALSO
Spanish-American War
Theodore Roosevelt
President William McKinley
Leonard Wood

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The Robinson Library >> American History >> United States: General History and Description >> Late 19th Century, 1865-1900 >> William McKinley's Administration, 1897-1901

This page was last updated on January 16, 2017.