Up the hill to the White House Roosevelt: Leading the Rough Riders up some Cuban slope (maybe it was San Juan Hill, more likely Kettle Hill) gave Theodore Roosevelt the momentum he needed to be elected president.

SUN JOURNAL

July 01, 1998|By Joseph R. L. Sterne | Joseph R. L. Sterne,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Many years later, Theodore Roosevelt looked back on his "great day," July 1, 1898.

"It was a lovely morning," he wrote, "the sky a cloudless blue, while the level shimmering rays of the just-risen sun brought into relief the splendid palms which here and there towered above the lower growth. The lofty and beautiful mountains hemmed in the Santiago plain, making it an amphitheater for the battle."

No mention there of the suffocating tropical heat, the mud, the confusion, the abominable slop that passed for rations, the stink of death and hasty latrines.

For the Battle for San Juan Hill was about to begin, and the storied American triumph over a militarily decadent Spain that ensued was in time destined to make Theodore Roosevelt president of a United States feeling its oats as an imperial power.

He was a romantic and improbable figure: 40 years old, equine teeth, thick, steel-rimmed glasses, a blue bandanna flying behind his neck, an amateur in command of a volunteer regiment composed of cowhands and Ivy League polo players, a man who exulted fearlessly in the thrill of combat on the killing field.

"Soldierly virtue," he said, "stands higher than any qualities called out merely in times of peace." Insensitive to casualties, even those due to his own commands, he deplored "public sentiment which screamed with a gush over the loss of a couple thousand men -- a sentiment of preposterous and unreasoning mawkishness."

His Rough Riders loved him. In many a campaign appearance after Cuba had been liberated, Puerto Rico annexed and the Philippines temporarily acquired, an honor guard of Spanish-American War veterans accompanied the candidate as he ran for the governorship of New York, the vice presidency and the presidency.

One Rough Rider would be a bugler, and as the trumpet call to arms sounded forth over the political gathering, TR would exclaim: "I have heard it tear the tropic dawn when it summoned us to fight at Santiago."

Santiago de Cuba was suddenly thrown into the maw of war as the Spanish fleet sought refuge in its harbor. Landing 15 miles away on surf-pounded beach, both Army regulars and volunteer units had trudged through jungle trails before storming the San Juan Heights 100 years ago today.

Casualties were high: of the 15,000 U.S. troops involved, 1,700 were killed or wounded. But the victory, which to the Army's ire was to be celebrated as Roosevelt's personal victory, forced the Spanish fleet to flee the harbor only to be destroyed by U.S. warships waiting off shore.

Just why Theodore Roosevelt found it necessary to resign as assistant secretary of the Navy, where he could have been of greater service to his country, to fight in Cuba is a matter, one biographer wrote, that is best left to psychoanalysts.

He adored his father, who nursed him through a sickly childhood, but fretted over the elder Roosevelt's avoidance of combat during the Civil War. He was a jingo, an expansionist, an adventurer whose unabashed infatuation with war impelled him to practice what he preached.

"I would have turned from my wife's deathbed to answer the call," he declared.

Behind it all lurked hot ambition to ascend the political heights. As a New York assemblyman, as a member of the U.S. Civil Commission, as New York police commissioner, as assistant Navy secretary, he made a splash far transcending his office of the moment.

New York's political kingpin, Sen. Tom Platt, complained that if Roosevelt ever became governor, "with his personality he will have to be president [and] I am afraid to start that going."

His indulgent one-time boss, Navy Secretary John D. Long, said in retrospect that TR was right to go fight in Cuba because "it led straight to the presidency." Sen. Mark Hanna chafed at TR's nomination for vice president, presciently noting that only a heartbeat would separate "that madman" from the presidency.

When an assassin's bullet did, in fact, stop William McKinley's heartbeat on Sept. 14, 1901, Theodore Roosevelt, at 42, became the youngest president in history. He championed the Panama Canal, brokered a Russian-Japanese peace treaty, fought big-business trusts to the consternation of his fellow Republicans and was godfather to the enduring environmental movement.

Always the maverick, he turned against his chosen successor, William Howard Taft, bolted the GOP to run as a third-party Bull Mooser in 1912, detested the Democrat (Woodrow Wilson) whose election he thus ensured and pulled every string he could to get back in uniform during World War I.

"You forget," he fumed at Secretary of War Newton Baker, "that I have commanded troops in action in the most important battle by the U.S. Army in the last half-century."

There it was again -- the invocation of his "great day," his "crowded hour." From the moment he splashed ashore in Cuba, TR hurrahed his Rough Riders to be in the vanguard in scrapping with the Spaniards.

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