Chapter 18 - American Boy's Life of Theodore Roosevelt by Edward Stratemeyer

Last Days in Cuba—The Departure for Home—Arrival at Montauk—Caring for the Sick and Wounded—Presentation to Theodore Roosevelt by his Men—Mustering-out of the Rough Riders

Four days after the surrender of Santiago the Rough Riders found themselves in the hills four or five miles back from the intrenchments they had occupied during the last fight. Other commands were scattered in various directions, for to let them go into the wretched city would have been out of the question. Santiago was dirty in the extreme; the fever was there, and hundreds were on the verge of starvation.

It was a trying time for everybody, and equally so for Theodore Roosevelt, who did all in his power, as before, to make his men comfortable. When it did not rain, the sun came out fiercely, causing a rapid evaporation that was thoroughly exhausting to the soldiers. The locality was not a healthy one, and soon scores of Rough Riders and others were down with malaria or fever. Doctors and surgeons were scarce, and hospital accommodations were scanty, and again and again did Colonel Roosevelt send down on his own account to the seacoast and to Santiago for food and medicines of which his command were in dire need. He was now colonel of the Rough Riders in reality, his promotion having been granted to him just one week after the heroic charge up San Juan Hill. His old colonel, Wood, was installed at Santiago as military governor. This, for the time being, left Colonel Roosevelt in command of the cavalry brigade, no small honor to one who had been, but a few months before, a stranger to military duties.

During this time in camp, Theodore Roosevelt visited Santiago and the forts at the entrance to the harbor, and with the pen of a skilled author he has, in one of his books, given us vivid pictures of the sights to be seen there at that time—the crooked streets with their queer shops, the wretched inhabitants, the grim and frowning forts, all hemmed in by the towering mountains and the sea. He likewise tells of his trips to the mountains, and how his companions were usually exhausted by the climbing done. For one who in his youth had been so delicate, he stood the exposure remarkably well, for which he was thankful.

For some time the authorities at Washington did not know what to do with the troops in Cuba. It was suggested that they move up to higher ground, or to another neighborhood. But General Shafter knew, and so did all of the officers under him, that to keep the army in the island would only mean more sickness and death.

"I will go to the general with a protest," said Colonel Roosevelt. And he did so. Meanwhile the other head officers drew up a letter of protest, and this was signed by all, including the commander of the Rough Riders. In his own letter Roosevelt protested against the treatment of his men in the matter of rations, clothing, and hospital accommodations, and in the other letter, called by the officers a Round Robin, there was a protest about remaining in Cuba longer, with the fever getting worse every day. These letters were made public through the press of the United States, with the result that the troops were ordered home without further delay.

The Rough Riders left Cuba on August 7, just six weeks and a half after landing. The time spent in the island had been short, but to many it seemed an age. None were sorry to depart, although sad to think that some of the sick had to be left behind.

The transport used this time was the Miami, and Mr. Roosevelt tells us that, taken as a whole, the accommodations were better than they had been on the Yucatan. But on the trip much trouble was had with some of the stokers and engineers, who insisted upon drinking some liquor smuggled aboard.

"I will not permit this," said Colonel Roosevelt. And he read the disorderly ones a strong lecture and made them give up their liquor. After that, as there was much grumbling, he set a guard; and that was the end of that trouble.

The destination of the transport was Montauk, on the extreme eastern shore of Long Island. The trip took nine days,—rather a dreary time to those anxious to see their native land once more. When an anchorage was gained, a gunboat came out to the transport with the welcome news that Spain had agreed to our terms.

The sick had still to be cared for; yet, taken as a whole, the month spent at the camp at Montauk was pleasant enough. Here Colonel Roosevelt met that part of the regiment that had been left behind in Florida, and all the stories of the fights had to be told over and over again.

"It was good to meet the rest of the regiment," says Mr. Roosevelt, in his book. "They all felt dreadfully at not having been in Cuba. Of course those who stayed had done their duty precisely as did those who went." Which was true; yet, as he adds, those who had been left behind could not be comforted.

Colonel Roosevelt was still in charge of the brigade while at Montauk, and much of his time was taken up in getting out necessary reports, and seeing to it that the entire camp was kept in first-class sanitary condition.

"And he was up to the mark," said one of those who were there. "He didn't allow the least bit of dirt, and everything had to be as shipshape as if we were at West Point. And it was a good thing, too, for it kept the sickness from spreading."

The sea-breeze is strong at Montauk, and this soon began to tell upon all who were sick, putting in them new life and vigor. Here every possible attention was given to those who were down, so that ere long many were up again and as well as ever.

When he had a little time to himself, Theodore Roosevelt would gather a few friends around him, and either go to the beach to bathe or go off on a long horseback ride. War was to him a thing of the past, and he was once more willing to become a private citizen as of old.

In those days the camp at Montauk was constantly crowded with visitors from New York City and elsewhere, who poured in upon every train. All of the soldiers who had been to Cuba were hailed as heroes, and had to tell their stories many times.

"Every soldier had a crowd following him," said one private. "The visitors wanted to know how we had fought, how we had been treated by the government, how things looked in Cuba, and a hundred and one other things. Most of the visitors, especially the ladies, wanted our autographs, and I had to write mine as many as forty times a day. I remember one of the men, a cowboy from Oklahoma, couldn't write, and he got so upset over this that every time somebody asked him for his autograph he would run away, saying he had forgotten to do something that he had been ordered to do. When I and some chums went down to New York to look around, all the folks stared at us, and many insisted on shaking hands and treating."

The uniforms the Rough Riders had worn in Cuba were in rags, and many had boarded the transport barefooted. The rags were saved as trophies of the occasion, and many are still in existence.

At Camp Wykoff, as the place was called, there was a large hospital for the sick, and to this many came to do what they could for the sufferers, who were now given every possible attention. Among the visitors was Miss Helen Gould, who had used her ample means for the benefit of the sick all through the war, and who now continued to play the good Samaritan. President McKinley and many of his cabinet likewise visited the camp, and saw to it that everything in the hospital and out of it was as it should be. The sick were presented with the best of fruits and other things, and many ladies assisted the nurses by reading to the patients and by writing letters for them.

Now that they had nothing to do in the shape of fighting, many of the Rough Riders were anxious to get back to the wild West. Life in an ordinary camp did not suit them, and at every available opportunity they indulged in "horse play," working off many practical jokes upon each other.

One day a report went the rounds that a member of another cavalry organization could not master a certain horse that had been assigned to him. The report was true, for the horse was what is called by ranchmen a "bad bucker."

"I think Sergeant Darnell can master him," said Colonel Roosevelt.

He referred to one of the best "bronco busters" among the Rough Riders, a man who had never yet allowed a steed to get the best of him.

"All right, let Darnell try him," said others. And a test was arranged for the day following.

At that time Secretary of War Alger was in camp, and a great crowd of visitors, military men and others, gathered before Colonel Roosevelt's quarters to watch the contest. At the proper time the vicious horse was brought forth, and watching his chance, Sergeant Darnell leaped upon his back. Then came such a bucking, leaping, and prancing as many had never witnessed before.

"He'll be killed!" cried many of the ladies. "The horse will have him under in another moment." But such fears were groundless. Darnell knew exactly what he was doing, and in the end the fiery steed had to give in, completely conquered.

On the last Sunday in camp, Chaplain Brown delivered an impressive sermon, to which all listened with grave attention. After he had finished, Theodore Roosevelt spoke to the men in a feeling way.

"I told them how proud I was of them," he says. "But warned them not to think that they could go back and rest on their laurels, bidding them remember that though for ten days or so the world would be willing to treat them as heroes, yet after that time they would find they would have to get down to hard work just like anybody else, unless they were willing to be regarded as worthless do-nothings." This was the best possible advice, and it is believed that many of the soldiers profited by it.

Before the men were mustered out, they treated their beloved commander to a genuine surprise. They had had a fine bronze of a "Bronco Buster" made, and this was presented to Colonel Roosevelt on behalf of the whole regiment. It touched him deeply, and to-day this bronze is one of his most highly prized gifts.

At last came news that the Rough Riders would be mustered out of the United States service the next day. That evening a great celebration took place, in which all of the men joined, each according to his own notion of what a celebration should be. Large bonfires were lit, and here some delivered speeches, the soldiers from the colleges sang, those with Indian blood in them gave a characteristic dance, and cowboys and ranchmen did "double-shuffles" and "cut up" as suited them.

On the morning of September 15, four months after the Rough Riders had been organized, the colors were lowered in camp, the men were mustered out, and officers and privates shook hands and said good-by.

"It was the greatest sight I ever saw," says one of the number. "Not until that moment came did we realize what it meant to part with those who had fought with us in battle and suffered the hardships of life in the trenches. Strange friendships had been formed, some between those who were very rich and very poor, and others between those who were well educated and very ignorant. One man who was studying for a professional life had as his particular chum a rough cowboy who had never spent six months over his books. But the two had stood by each other and suffered, and I really believe they were willing to lay down their lives for each other.

"Many of the men could hardly bear to part with Colonel Roosevelt. He had stuck by them through thick and thin, and they worshipped him. Some shook hands half a dozen times, and some hardly dared to speak for fear of breaking down. I never expect to see the match of that scene again."