Chapter 15 - American Boy's Life of Theodore Roosevelt by Edward Stratemeyer

Along the Jungle Trail—Fording the River—Opening of the Battle of San Juan Hill—Bravery of the Rough Riders—Personal Experiences of Theodore Roosevelt during the Battle

Taken as a whole, the skirmish at La Guasima was quite an important one, for it showed the Spaniards that our soldiers were bound to advance upon Santiago, be the cost what it might.

More than this, it showed that Theodore Roosevelt was brave under fire. During the skirmish he paid but scant attention to his own personal safety. He went wherever he thought he was needed, and the fact that Mauser bullets were flying about in all directions did not daunt him.

"He was about as cool a man as I ever saw in a fight," said one old soldier. "He did all he could to encourage the men, and had a kind word for every man he ran across who was wounded. Once, in the thickest of the brush, he grabbed up a gun and began to shoot with us, and I reckon he fired as straight as anybody there, for he had had lots of practice while hunting."

The Spaniards had been driven from their pits and from the sugar-house of the plantation, and now took good care to keep out of sight. Picket-guards were thrown out by the officers of the army, and those who had been in the fight took a much-needed rest, and looked after the dead and wounded. There was certainly a touching scene at the temporary hospital, where one soldier started to sing "My Country, 'tis of Thee," and many others joined in. On the following morning the dead were buried, the men gathering around the one common grave to sing "Rock of Ages" in a manner that brought tears to the eyes of many.

From La Guasima the Rough Riders moved to the bank of a small stream in the neighborhood. Part of the army was ahead of them and the rest behind, and for several days nothing unusual occurred. But during that time General Young caught the fever, whereupon Colonel Wood had to take charge of the brigade, and Lieutenant-Colonel Roosevelt took command of the Rough Riders.

It was now the end of June, and the weather was anything but agreeable. When the rain did not come down in torrents, the sun shone with a glare and a heat that was terrific. As said before, the uniforms of the Rough Riders were heavy, and much clothing had to be cast aside as unfit for use. To add to the discomfort, rations that were promised failed to appear, so that a good square meal was almost unknown.

"This will not do; the men must have enough to eat, even if I have to buy it for them," said Acting Colonel Roosevelt, and made two trips down to the seacoast in search of beans, tomatoes, and other things to eat. Here he was informed that he could only buy stuff meant for the officers.

"All right; I'll buy the things for the officers," he answered, and purchased as much as they would allow. When he got back, he turned the food over to the officers, but saw to it that they gave their men a fair share.

"It was a kindness none of his men ever forgot," said a soldier who was there. "It wasn't any of his business to buy the grub,—the commissary department had to supply it free,—but he knew we might starve while the department was getting itself straightened out and ready to do the right thing. Before he went on a hunt for food, all we had was salt pork, hardtack, and coffee, and some of the stuff wasn't fit to put in your mouth." And this testimony was the testimony of scores of others.

The Spaniards were strongly intrenched upon the outskirts of Santiago, and as it was a rough, hilly country, with many shallow streams and much jungle, it was hard for the American army to advance. It was General Shafter's idea to form a grand semicircle around Santiago, starting from El Caney on the north, and running in an irregular line to Aguadores on the south. Throughout this territory the Spaniards had done everything possible to hinder the advance of our troops. Barbed wire was strung in many directions, and often the brushwood would conceal dangerous pitfalls, so that any advance had to be made with great caution.

The attack upon the Spanish lines began on July 1, and the fighting took place in several quarters at once, but was unusually heavy at El Caney and at San Juan Hill. At El Caney the heroic General Lawton was in command, and fought as gallantly as he afterward did in the Philippines. Some of the charges were terrific, and will ever be remembered by those who participated in them.

The Rough Riders struck camp and moved along the trail on the last day of June. It was as hot as ever, with no sign of rain. The trail was filled with troops and provision wagons, and the progress, consequently, was slow.

"Let us get into the fight!" was the cry heard on every side. "Don't keep us waiting any longer."

"Keep cool," said one of the officers. "You'll get all the fighting you want soon." And so it proved.

At a little after eight o'clock in the evening the Rough Riders found themselves on El Poso Hill, and here the whole brigade to which they were attached went into camp.

"It wasn't much of a camp," said one who was there. "We just threw out a strong picket-guard and went to sleep on our arms, and glad of it, after that day in the broiling sun. We had had to ford some pretty muddy streams, and all of us were water and mud up to our knees. But everybody was as enthusiastic to fight as ever."

At sunrise the battle opened at El Caney, and the Rough Riders could hear the booming of cannon. At once all was activity, and the men prepared to move ahead at a moment's notice.

Acting Colonel Roosevelt was with Colonel Wood at the time, and both were listening to the roar of the artillery.

"I wish we could move—" began Colonel Wood, when, of a sudden, both he and Theodore Roosevelt heard a strange humming sound in the air. Then came the explosion of a shrapnel shell over their heads, and both leaped to their feet.

"This is getting warm!" cried Theodore Roosevelt, and ran toward his horse, when boom! came another explosion, and one of the bullets fell upon his wrist, making, as he himself says, "a bump about as big as a hickory nut." This same shell, he adds, wounded four of the men under him and two or three regulars, one of whom lost his leg. Certainly another providential escape on the part of the future President.

Without loss of time Theodore Roosevelt ordered his troops into the underbrush, and here, for the time being, they were safe. On account of the smokeless powder they used, the Spanish batteries could not be precisely located, so our own artillery were at a slight disadvantage.

But now the blood of the Americans was fully aroused, and soon came an order for a general advance,—something that was hailed with wild delight by the Rough Riders.

"Hurrah, now we'll show 'em what the Yankees can do!" was the cry. "Down with the Dons! Three cheers for Uncle Sam!"

The Rough Riders had to ford the river, and while they were doing this, a balloon that had been used for observations came down in that vicinity and attracted the attention of the Spanish sharpshooters. The firing was now heavy on all sides, and many a gallant soldier went down to rise no more.

Then came another wait of an hour, during which the Rough Riders rested in a hollow leading up from the river. Again there was grumbling. With so much fighting on all sides, why could they not advance?

"We'll get our turn," said Theodore Roosevelt. And soon after a staff officer dashed up with orders to move forward and support the cavalry of the regular army on the hills in front.

"Now to the front!" was the cry. "Down with the Dons!" And away went troop after troop on the double-quick, with Acting Colonel Roosevelt leading them. Shot and shell were hurling themselves through the air in all directions, and on all sides could be heard the shrieks and groans of the dead and the dying. It was a time long to be remembered. Men went down in all directions, and with them not a few officers. It was so hot that Roosevelt's orderly was prostrated from the heat and afterward died. Roosevelt summoned another Rough Rider, and had just finished giving the man some orders when the soldier pitched forward upon his commander, killed by a bullet through the throat.

As the troops advanced, Theodore Roosevelt urged his men forward and told them to do their best, to which they responded with a cheer. He was on horseback at the time, and soon came across a man lying in the shade, probably overcome by the heat. He started to speak to the Rough Rider when a bullet hit the fellow and killed him on the spot.

"I suppose that bullet was meant for me," says Mr. Roosevelt, in writing of this incident. "I, who was on horseback in the open, was unhurt, and the man lying flat on the ground in the cover beside me was killed."

The fight had now centred around the possession of San Juan Hill, upon which was located a Spanish blockhouse. The bullets were flying as thickly as ever, when Roosevelt was ordered to advance in support of another regiment. As the Rough Riders reached the spot where the other regiment was, they found the men lying down awaiting orders.

"I am ordered to support your regiment," said Theodore Roosevelt to the first captain he met.

"We are awaiting orders to advance," answered the captain of the regulars.

"In my opinion we cannot take these hills by firing at them," returned the commander of the Rough Riders. "We must rush them."

"My orders are to keep my men where they are."

"Where is your Colonel?"

"I don't know."

"Well, if he isn't here, then I am the ranking officer, and I give the order to charge," came quickly and positively from Theodore Roosevelt.

"Well, sir,—I—I have orders from our Colonel—" began the captain of the regulars.

"If you won't charge, let my men pass through, sir," cut in the Acting Colonel of the Rough Riders, and he ordered his men to move to the front. This was too much for the regulars, and up they sprang with shouts and yells, and Rough Riders and regulars went up San Juan Hill together. Roosevelt was on horseback as before, but at a barbed-wire fence he leaped to the ground, swung his hat in the air, and joined his men on foot.

The fight was now at its fiercest, and men were being mowed down in all directions. But the fever of battle was in the veins of all the American soldiers, and nothing could stop them. Up the hill they went, loading and firing at random, and making as many shots as possible tell. The Spaniards were in retreat, and soon Old Glory was planted in several places. Some of the leading officers had been shot, and Theodore Roosevelt found himself at one time in command of five regiments, and doing his best to keep them in military order. Strange as it may seem, with bullets flying all around him, he remained unharmed, saving for some slight scratches which, he tells us, "were of no consequence."

With the top of the hill gained, the American soldiers could get a distant glimpse of Santiago, several miles away, and some wanted to move still farther forward. But the Spaniards had strong intrenchments to fall back upon, and it was deemed best to "let well enough alone." Accordingly the American line was made as strong as possible, and by nightfall the battle was at an end, and the Rough Riders were told to hold the hill and intrench, and they did so. In the blockhouse they found some food belonging to some Spanish officers, and upon this they feasted after their well-earned victory.