Chapter 12 - American Boy's Life of Theodore Roosevelt by Edward Stratemeyer

Destruction of the Maine—Dewey's Victory—Theodore Roosevelt becomes a Soldier—Organizing the Rough Riders—Various Men in the Command

"The Maine has been blown up!"

Such was the awful news which startled this whole nation in the middle of February, 1898, and which caused the question of war with Spain to crystallize without further deliberation.

The Maine was a battleship of large size, that had been sent down to the harbor of Havana, Cuba, on nothing more than a friendly visit. The explosion that destroyed this noble vessel occurred about ten o'clock at night, and was heard for miles around. Soon after the explosion, the war-ship began to sink, and over two hundred and fifty sailors and officers lost their lives.

The entire nation was now aroused, and many wanted to go to war with Spain immediately. But the Spaniards professed to be ignorant of the cause of the explosion, and said it must have come from the inside of the ship and not the outside. Without delay a Board of Inquiry was established, and it was settled that the explosion had come from the outside, probably from a mine set by the Spaniards in Havana Harbor.

"This means war, and nothing but war," said even the wisest of our statesmen. And so it proved. Without hesitation the whole nation sprang forward to uphold the administration, and in a few days Congress passed an appropriation of fifty millions of dollars "for national defence." It may be added that this appropriation was passed unanimously, regardless of party politics and regardless of the differences which, in the past, had existed between the North and the South.

We have already learned what had been done to prepare the navy for the conflicts to follow. Now there was even more work on hand, to get the army into shape for service in Cuba and on other foreign soil.

The regular army at that time consisted of about twenty-five thousand men, scattered all over the United States,—on the frontier, at the Indian reservations, and along the sea-coasts. Many of these troops were hurried to camps in the southeast portion of our country, leaving but small garrisons in the far West.

It was realized by President McKinley that our regular army could not cope with the troubles at hand, and soon came a call for one hundred and twenty-five thousand volunteers. These volunteers were to come from the various States and Territories, each furnishing its proportion of soldiers according to its population. These soldiers were quickly collected and marched to the various state camps, there to be sworn into the service of the United States.

The "war fever" was everywhere, and many private parties began to raise companies, while all sorts of independent commands, Grand Army, Confederate Veterans, Italian-American Guards, German Singing Societies, Colored Guards, and the like, offered their assistance. Even the colleges caught the fever, and men went forth from Yale, Harvard, Princeton, and other institutions of learning to battle for Uncle Sam.

The first blow struck at Spain was a most effective one. Commodore, afterwards Admiral, Dewey was at Hong Kong when the trouble began, and he was directed by the War Department to hunt for a Spanish fleet somewhere among the Philippine Islands and engage it. On Sunday, May 1, came the news that the gallant commodore had reached Manila Bay, fought the Spanish fleet and sunk every hostile ship, and come out of the battle with all of his own ships safe and not a single man killed!

"Hurrah! that shows what our navy can do!" cried many citizens. And they were justly proud. In the past, foreign nations had looked with something akin to scorn on our vessels and the way they were manned. Now such criticism was silenced; and this result was, in a certain measure, due to the work of Theodore Roosevelt, while First Assistant Secretary to Secretary Long.

But Theodore Roosevelt was no longer in the department. He resigned and closed his desk, saying, "My duty here is done; my place is in the field." With such an active nature, it was impossible for him to remain a private citizen while stern war was a reality.

In his own excellent work, "The Rough Riders," and in his sworn testimony before the Commission of Investigation of the Spanish War, Mr. Roosevelt has given us graphic pictures of how the First United States Volunteer Cavalry, commonly called the Rough Riders, happened to be organized, and what it tried to do and did, and this testimony is supplemented by many who know the facts, and who took part in the battles which made the organization famous throughout the length and breadth of our land.

At first Theodore Roosevelt thought to attach himself to the militia of New York, but found every place taken.

"Let us try one of my Massachusetts regiments," said Dr. Wood. And this was also done, with a like result.

"We could fill every place, did we want five times as many men," said one colonel. "Everybody seems crazy to go." This shows how truly patriotic our nation can become when the occasion arises for going to the front.

While Theodore Roosevelt and his intimate friend were wondering what to do next, Congress authorized the raising of three cavalry regiments, to be composed of the daring riflemen and riders of New Mexico, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Indian Territory.

"There, that will just suit me," said Theodore Roosevelt. "I know many of those men, and I know we can raise a regiment in no time."

And without delay he sought out Secretary of War Alger and told him of his hopes.

"I am perfectly willing to give you command of one of those regiments," said the war secretary. "I know you are something of a rough rider yourself, and a good marksman to boot."

This was certainly flattering, but Theodore Roosevelt's head was not turned by the offer.

"I don't think I am quite ready to take command," said he. "I know that I can learn, and that quickly, but it will be precious time wasted."

"Well, what do you wish, Mr. Roosevelt?" asked the Secretary of War, curiously.

"What I should like best of all is for Dr. Wood to become colonel of the regiment, and for myself to become lieutenant-colonel."

"Very well; I will consult President McKinley on the subject," said the secretary. The request was granted, and in a few days more Colonel Wood and Lieutenant-Colonel Roosevelt sallied forth to organize the Rough Riders, and fit them for service in Cuba.

Leaving his family, which now consisted of his wife and six children, the lieutenant-colonel made his way to San Antonio, Texas, where the regiment was to gather. Previous to going he spent a full week in Washington, seeing to it that arrangements were completed for supplying the command with uniforms, carbines, saddles, and other articles which were needed. This was in itself quite a task, for all of the departments at the Capitol were more than busy, and it took a great amount of "hustling" to get what one wanted.

As soon as it was known that Theodore Roosevelt was going to help organize the Rough Riders, offers from everywhere began to pour in upon him. Not alone did the men of the plains and ranch who knew him want to go, but likewise his old college chums at Harvard. These men, of wealth and good families, were willing to serve in any capacity, if only they could be mustered in. There were crack base-ball and foot-ball players, yachtsmen, all-round athletes and men of fortune, all mixed in with hunters, cowboys, men who had served as sheriffs in the far West, where fighting was an everyday occurrence, some policemen who had served under Roosevelt when he was a Police Commissioner in New York, and even some Indians. Nearly every nationality was represented when it came to blood, and the men ran from the best educated to the most ignorant.

But there were three tests which every man, private or officer, had to pass. He had to be in perfect health, he had to know how to ride, and he had to know how to shoot. To these conditions were afterward added two more: each man had to learn his duty as quickly as he could and had to learn to obey his superiors.

In such a collection of soldiers it was but natural that the real leaders soon asserted themselves. Several of the captains had served in the United States army before; two were former famous western sheriffs; and all were full of that pluck and energy which is bound to command success.

In this regiment were some men who had hunted with Theodore Roosevelt on more than one occasion. They knew him well and loved him, and did their best to serve him. To them he was really their commander, although they officially recognized Colonel Wood. They were preëminently "Roosevelt's Rough Riders," and the great majority of the people of our nation call them such to this day.

The majority of the command were rather young in years, although a few were of middle age. But all were tough and hardy, either from athletic training or from years spent in the open air of the great West. Some of them could ride almost any kind of a horse, and "bronco busting," that is, breaking in a wild steed, was common sport among them. Some had spent nearly their entire lives in the saddle, and some could exhibit remarkable skill with their firearms while riding at full speed.

When the men began to come into San Antonio, they found but little in the way of accommodations. But soon tents and blankets were procured. It is said that good shoes were scarce, but some of the soldiers did not mind going without them. The regiment was supplied with good rifles, but the cartridges were not made of smokeless powder, which was a bad thing, for smoke sometimes enables an enemy to locate the shooter, when, if smokeless powder were used, nothing could be seen. Each man had also a six shooter, and was to have had a machete, but the long knives did not come.

"On to Cuba!" was the cry. And it was taken up every day. The Rough Riders were eager for the fray. Alas! little did many of them realize that, once in the "bloody isle," they would never see their native land again.