United States Volunteers. How many times in our country’s history have men volunteered to raise an entire military unit? Minute Men? Davy Crockett’s men? Rough Riders? In a recent visit to San Antonio, Texas, we toured the Alamo, and a hundred yards to the right was an historic hotel where Rough Riders passed the time in 1898. There were not a few new insights to be had into Theodore Roosevelt’s bully group of volunteers.
The Menger Hotel was built in 1859 to provide a place to stay for the many people who came to tour its owner’s brewery. That was just twenty years after the massacre at the Alamo. Then, when the hotel was about forty years old, two new commanders came to town: Colonel Leonard Wood and Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Roosevelt.
They chose San Antonio because nearby Fort Sam Houston would issue their army horses and mules. The Rough Riders were a cavalry unit, and most of the horses had to be broken before they could use them for drills. Most of the 1,050 men had already been decided on, but Wood, who arrived first, set up a recruiting station next to the hotel in the patio. Roosevelt stayed at the hotel his first weekend in town. Then he rode south a few miles to camp, for the rest of the two and a half weeks of training.
A Rough Rider officer’s uniform made by who else – Brooks Brothers. The regulars wore navy blue shirts. Notice the polka-dot kerchief.
TR was critical of the preparedness of the regular Army. As assistant secretary of the Navy, he viewed his branch as ready for war. So he put his heart and soul into getting the unlikely group of soldiers ready. Famously, they were Southwestern cowboys and Indians (and at least one outlaw). About a fourth were Ivy League football and tennis champions. “The young men of the country should realize that it is the duty of every one of them to prepare himself so that in time of need he may speedily become an efficient soldier,” was the way he put it in his autobiography in 1913.
Troop K of the Rough Riders in San Antonio. The flagbearer is from the Tiffany family, who provided extra guns for the regiment.
With Wood busy organizing, TR took charge of drilling the men. He said that it took awhile for average citizens to become a good infantrymen or cavalrymen because they had to be trained to “shoot, ride, march, take care of themselves in the open, and to be alert, cool, resourceful, daring and resolute…” His men already had accomplished most of these, so they spent time breaking and getting the horses ready.
Roosevelt got into a bit of trouble with his superior officer when he treated a group of soldiers to unlimited beer at the hotel after a day of hard work. His apology later in Wood’s tent was classic: “I wish to say, sir, that I agree with what you said. I consider myself the damndest ass within ten miles of this camp. Good night.”
It has been said that the difference in the two men was that Wood asked for advice, but not information. Roosevelt asked for information, but not advice. That’s a pretty good indicator of the rest of TR’s career, which catapulted from Rough Rider commander, to governor, to vice president, and then president of the United States.
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Additional Sources: The Rough Riders and An Autobiography by Theodore Roosevelt, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris, and The Theodore Roosevelt Association.