Chapter 13 - American Boy's Life of Theodore Roosevelt by Edward Stratemeyer

In Camp at Tampa—To Port Tampa in Coal Cars—Theodore Roosevelt's Quick Move to obtain a Transport—The Wait in the Harbor—Off for Cuba at Last

That the path of the soldier is not always one full of glory can easily be proven by what happened to the Rough Riders when, late in May, they were ordered to Tampa, Florida, where a part of the army was gathering in readiness to be transported to Cuba.

"We were just wild to go," says one of the number, in speaking of that time. "We were tired of staying at San Antonio and drilling day in and day out, rain or shine. I guess everybody felt like hurrahing when we piled on to the cars.

"Colonel Roosevelt—he was only Lieutenant-Colonel then—had six troops under him, and he did all he could to make the boys comfortable. But the cars were crowded, and travelling was so slow it took us four days to reach Tampa. Then when we got there, we found everything in confusion. The railroad yard was chock-a-block with freight and passenger cars, and nobody was there to tell us where to go or where to find provisions.

"The boys were hungry and tired out, for sleeping on the railroad had been almost out of the question. There wasn't a sign of rations in sight, and it looked as if we would have to stay hungry. But Teddy Roosevelt just put his hand into his own pocket and bought us about all we wanted. Then he scurried around and found out where we were to go, and in another twenty-four hours we were settled in camp." Even in camp the Rough Riders had to put up with continued discomfort. The weather was warm, flies and mosquitoes were numerous, and the drinking water was not of the best. The rations were plain, but the Rough Riders did not mind this, for many of them had often fared worse on the plains.

Although it was now a regular military camp that the Rough Riders were in, it was rather difficult to control some of the men, especially those who had been used to an unusually rough life. But they were held in check as much as possible by their commanders, and on Sunday all attended a church service held by Chaplain Brown, who spoke to them in a manner that soon claimed their attention.

After but a few days spent in the camp at Tampa, within walking distance of many of the fashionable hotels, the command was ordered to Port Tampa, there to board a transport to sail for some destination not revealed. But the soldiers knew they were going to Cuba, to fight the Spaniards and to aid in freeing Cuba, and again there was a loud hurrahing.

But immediately on top of this came one of the hardest blows the Rough Riders had to endure, and one which some of them will probably never forget.

As already stated, volunteers from all over our nation were anxious to get into the fight, and it was no easy matter for the authorities at Washington to decide who should go and who should be left behind.

"Only eight troops of seventy men each of the Rough Riders will embark on the transport," was the order sent to Colonel Wood. More than this, it was ordered that the command should be on board of the transport by the following morning, otherwise it could not go.

"Four troops to be left behind!" exclaimed Theodore Roosevelt.

"Too bad," returned Colonel Wood. "Every man expects to go, and wants to go."

It was a hard task to tell some of the men that they could not go. Mr. Roosevelt tells us that many of them actually cried at the news. They were willing to go under any conditions. They did not want any pay, they did not want any pensions if they were disabled, and some, who had money, even offered to pay their way, just for the privilege of fighting for Uncle Sam. After such an exhibition, let nobody dare to say that true patriotism is dying out in this country.

But orders were orders, and as quickly as possible those to go were selected. Then the command marched to the railroad tracks to await the cars. None came, and they were given orders to march to another track. This they also did; but still no train appeared.

"We'll be left, that is certain," said Colonel Wood, anxiously.

"It certainly looks like it, unless we march the boys down to the port."

"Here comes a train!" was the cry.

It was a train, but only of empty coal cars. It was about to pass by when the Rough Riders halted it.

"What's the matter with riding down to the port in the coal cars?" was the question asked by several.

"Good enough!" came the answer. "Into the cars, boys, and don't waste time!" And into the dirty coal cars they piled, and persuaded the engineer of the train to take them down to Port Tampa as quickly as he could.

If there had been bustle and confusion up at Tampa, it was far worse at the port. Everybody was in a hurry, and ten thousand soldiers stood around, not knowing what to do with their baggage, and not knowing which of the many transports to board.

At last the Rough Riders were told to go aboard the Yucatan, and started to do so.

"The Yucatan?" exclaimed a member of another command. "That is our transport."

"No, she has been allotted to us," put in an officer belonging to still another command.

"How many men will she hold?" questioned a captain of the Rough Riders.

"About a thousand."

"Then she can't take the three commands."

Theodore Roosevelt overheard this talk, and at once made up his mind that it would be a question of what command got aboard of the transport first. Without the loss of a moment he ran back to where his men were in waiting.

"Double-quick to the dock!" was his order. And forming quickly, the troops made their way to the wharf with all possible speed. In the meantime, Colonel Wood had gone out to the transport in a steam-launch and gotten the vessel to come up to the wharf. On board went the Rough Riders pell-mell, and not a minute too soon.

"This is our boat!" cried an officer, as he came up with his command a minute later.

"Sorry for you, sir, but it is our boat," was Colonel Wood's firm answer.

Then the third command loomed up, and a three-handed dispute arose. But the Rough Riders remained aboard of the transport, taking four companies of another command in with them.

I have told of the particulars of this affair to show my young readers what was needed at this time, and how well Theodore Roosevelt performed his duties. He had been a soldier and officer only a few weeks, yet he realized that army life on paper and army life in reality were two different things. He felt that an officer must do much besides leading his men in the field: that he must look after them constantly, see that their health was provided for, see that they got their rations, see that transportation was ready when needed, and even see to it that some were kept away from the temptations of drink, and that they did not quarrel among themselves.

When going on board of the transport, the Rough Riders were supplied with twelve days' rations each. The most of the food was good, but the canned beef was very bad, just as it was found to be very bad in many other quarters, and it made a great number sick. Added to this, somebody had forgotten to issue salt to the soldiers; so much had to be eaten without this very necessary seasoning.

"But we took matters good-naturedly," said one of the number, in speaking of the trip that followed. "Many of the boys were out for a lark, and when they growled, they did it good-naturedly. We had all sorts of men, and all sorts of nicknames. An Irishman was called Solomon Levi, and a nice young Jew Old Pork Chop. One fellow who was particularly slow was called Speedy William, and another who always spoke in a quick, jerky voice answered to the hail of 'Slow-up Peter.' One cowboy who was as rough as anybody in the command was christened The Parson, and a fine, high-toned, well-educated college boy had to answer to the name of Jimmy the Tramp. Some of the boys could sing, and they organized the Rough Rider Quartette; and others could play, and they gave us music on the mouth harmonicas and other instruments they had managed to smuggle along."

The War Department had expected to send the troops to Cuba without delay, but now came in a report that some Spanish war-ships were hovering around, ready to sink the transports as soon as they should show themselves, and for five days the vessels remained in Port Tampa Harbor, until it was ascertained that the report was untrue.

Those five days were important to Theodore Roosevelt and to the men under him. Every day the young officer spent a certain portion of his time in studying military tactics and in drilling his soldiers. Much had still to be learned, and the officers had their school of instructions as well as did those under them.

The weather was broiling hot, and some were already suffering from fever or its symptoms. Fortunately bathing was good, and many went in once or twice a day. Bathing in the ocean was great sport to some of the plainsmen who had never seen anything larger than a river or creek, and they frolicked around like children, and got up races, with prizes for the best swimmers.

At last came the orders for the transports to set sail for Cuba. They numbered thirty-two in all, including a schooner which was towed along filled with drinking water, for water must be had, and that was the only place where it could be stowed. To protect the transports from a possible attack by the enemy, they were accompanied by five war-ships at first, and later on by fourteen. All told, there were on the transports eight hundred officers and sixteen thousand enlisted men. Of the commands, the most were from the regular army, the volunteers numbering but three—the Rough Riders, the Seventy-first New York Infantry, and the Second Massachusetts Infantry.