On this date in 1898, Lt. Col. Theodore Roosevelt led the "Rough Riders," a mounted amalgamation of Western cowboys and Eastern bluebloods, to victory over Spanish defenders at San Juan Hill. The charge was a decisive victory on the battlefield in the Spanish American War as well as a pivotal event in the swashbuckling career of the man who would become the 26th president of the United States.
Roosevelt's horsemanship is in the news this week as a statue of T.R. on horseback in front of New York's American Museum of Natural History is being decommissioned because it no longer passes muster in our hyper-enlightened times. The black man and Native American flanking Roosevelt's horse don't stand tall enough for modern sensibilities -- the once-staid Smithsonian magazine shrieked that it is a "racist statue." So adios, Colonel.
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Teddy Roosevelt was, in the memorable description of his daughter Alice, someone who "never attended a wedding without wishing he was the bride or a funeral without wishing he was the corpse." Alice was a diva herself, so she knew what she was talking about. But on the battlefield, T.R. was the real McCoy. "Roosevelt," wrote military historian Frank Schubert, "was the unquestioned star of San Juan and by extension of the entire Cuban campaign."
Was the acclamation deserved? Apparently. Schubert sifted through competing claims of glory in the Spanish-American War. As he noted, Roosevelt and his Rough Riders were widely celebrated, and rightly so. They led the U.S. Army to a smashing victory, helping the Americans conquer Kettle Hill and San Juan Hill and occupying the town of El Caney -- all of the strategic highlands above Santiago, thereby assuring the Spanish would be driven from Cuba.
Roosevelt rode the publicity over this feat into the White House, and in 2001 was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor by President Clinton. It's not that this citation was undeserved, but Roosevelt had a lot of help, both in battle and with his subsequent public relations campaign.
When war broke out, he resigned his post as assistant secretary of the Navy to enlist, creating a built-in appetite among newspaper readers about his exploits. He left nothing to chance. Taking a page from George Custer, T.R. brought along a favorite newspaperman (Richard Harding Davis of the New York Herald) as a kind of personal publicist. Roosevelt also penned his own memoirs of the military campaign, an account so self-reverential that Mr. Dooley, the creation of humorist Finley Peter Dunne, quipped that the book should have been called "Alone in Cuba."
Neither Roosevelt nor the Rough Riders were alone in Cuba, of course. In addition to the 1st Volunteer Cavalry Regiment -- the Rough Riders' official name -- the American military force included 25 other regiments, most of them comprised of professional soldiers. All told, 15,000 U.S. troops participated in the campaign, more than half of whom saw action at San Juan Hill.
Some 2,000 of those soldiers were black. Of the 200 Americans killed in action, about 30 came from the four black Army units. These were the famed Buffalo Soldiers. Although they had distinguished themselves in the Comanche wars, that action occurred out of the national limelight. In 1898, however, they were very much in the news, and their heroism and skill were celebrated in Northern newspapers and the black press everywhere in this country.
"In an age of increasing racism that was hardening into institutionalized segregation throughout the South and affecting the lives of black Americans everywhere, the Buffalo Soldiers were race heroes," Schubert wrote. "Black newspapers and magazines tracked their movements and reported their activities. Poetry, dramas, and songs all celebrated their service and valor."
Rayford Logan, a noted black historian, later wrote that a generation of African Americans hung prints on their walls of the famous charge up San Juan Hill -- but these pictures focused on black soldiers, not Teddy Roosevelt.
"They were," Logan wrote, "our Ralph Bunche, Marian Anderson, Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson."
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.