As president in 1905, TR, in carriage at left, revisits Alamo Square (Getty Images).
If you can bear with me through another post about the Rough Riders, you may find some light-shedding information on Crockett and Roosevelt, the Alamo and Kettle Hill, and things that pull unlikely people together.
San Antonio, Texas was called Bexar when David (known to most as “Davy”) Crockett explored and hunted buffalo in the vicinity. He’d lost a fourth bid for Congress in 1835, and, disillusioned with the Indiana removal policies of Andrew Jackson, headed for Texas. He liked the country very much, writing that it was “the garden spot of the world,” and had hopes of settling there.
Crockett and like-minded frontiersmen such as Jim Bowie joined Colonel William Travis, who was half Crockett’s age, to defend the Alamo against an enormous Mexican army. Crockett was described as a natural leader to whom men looked for guidance. In the final battle with Santa Anna’s army in March 1836, he jumped around to all sides of the walls to help the men. They bought time for Sam Houston to form the opposition force that would free Texas, but sacrificed their lives doing it.
Sixty-two years passed.
In February 1898 Theodore (known to most as “Teddy”) Roosevelt, thought it imperative to help the American army remove Spain from the western hemisphere. On the lush island of Cuba, rebels had been fighting against their rulers for thirty years. The American battleship Maine had recently blown up in the Havana Harbor. Many, including Assistant Secretary of the Navy Roosevelt, believed the Spanish were responsible, and newspapers were pushing for a conflict.
War was declared in April. TR got the go-ahead to form his volunteer unit. Contrary to what some published accounts say, he did have military experience, with the National Guard, and had just orchestrated a naval victory against the Spanish in the Philippines.
Secretary of War R. A. Alger sent telegrams to the governors of Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Indian Territory, saying: “The president desires to raise volunters in your territory to form part of a regiment of mounted riflemen…the men selected should be young, sound, good shots and good riders…”
The 23,000 applicants were narrowed to 1,050. Some of those who got the go-ahead to come to San Antonio for training in May:
Descendents of the Chocktaw, Creek and Chickasaw. Pollack, a full-blooded Pawnee. Colbert, Holderman and Adair, all Cherokee. Daniels, former marshall of Dodge City. O’Neill, Arizona sheriff. Smith, bear hunter; McCann, buffalo hunter. Stagecoach drivers, sharpshooters, bronco busters, trail drive cowpokes, and miners. Wanderers for whom lean-to’s had been the most permanent sleeping quarters.
With Theodore Roosevelt publicized as the second in command, recruits of a different vein answered. From Harvard: Dean and Wrenn, quarterbacks. Yale: Waller, high jumper. Princeton: Lamed, tennis player; Wadsworth, steeplechase rider; and Stevens, polo player. Columbia: Fish, crew captain.
They gave each other nicknames such as Tough Ike, The Dude, Metropolitan Bill, Porkchop, Hell Roarer, and Prayerful James. TR said they worked “hard and faithfully,” and that he could depend on them in both emergencies and routine work. In spite of their roughness, they behaved well. One night, though, a few decided to paint the town red and one had to be left behind in jail
The first and second buglers of the Rough Riders were Indian and Italian. It was an eclectric group.
Each day as they were breaking, grooming and riding horses south of San Antonio, “the strong wind sifted dust through everything.” Military adventures Theodore had read about as an asthmatic little boy were becoming reality. He practiced giving commands by himself in the desert after the regular officers’ training at night.
“I had always felt that if there were a serious war I wished to be in a position to explain to my children why I did take part in it, and not why I did not take part in it,” he explained later. “…It was our duty to free Cuba, and when a man takes a position he ought to be willing to make his words good by his deeds…”
A few years before, he and Senator Henry Cabot Lodge had collaborated on a book called Hero Tales, intending to peel away some common myths about twenty-six notable Americans. Roosevelt wrote about “fearless and resolute” Crockett. He accurately called him “David,” noting an account that said he and a few other men were captured by Mexican officers and presented to their general, who ordered them killed (affirmed in 1975 in a newly-uncovered diary of a servant who witnessed the battle).
“Remember the Alamo!” had been the rallying cry at the Battle of San Jacinto when Sam Houston defeated Santa Anna.
“Remember the Maine!” was the big block headline urging the country to war in Cuba. The Rough Riders and 1,250 horses and mules left San Antonio for Tampa, Florida on a train at the end of the month. During the four-day trip, citizens who had been part of the Confederacy waved the Stars and Stripes, and offered up watermelons and beer to the men in the passenger cars.
After parading in Tampa, the Rough Riders beat regular troops down to the water in cars of a coal train running in reverse. Ironically, when they loaded onto the transport bound for Cuba with thirty other ships, all but five horses had been left behind. The cavalry became infantry. And to everyone’s dismay, four hundred of their number didn’t get to go.
This flag was carried up Kettle Hill in Cuba by the Rough Riders. A handwritten, notorized document from one of the soldiers is displayed with it in a case at the historic Menger Hotel in San Antonio.
They were delayed a week before Generals Shafter and Wheeler and 17,000 troops sailed for Santiago. Lieutenant John J. Pershing, future General of the Armies, and his company of black soldiers were among them. Journalist Richard Harding Davis and artist Frederic Remington, and some newly-trained motion picture cameramen came along, too.
On July 1 newly-promoted Brigadier General Leonard Wood and Colonel Theodore Roosevelt took Kettle Hill, then San Juan Hill; subsequently the Spanish surrendered. The Rough Riders had the heaviest casualties of any unit there, losing a third of their men to death, injuries, or fever in the jungle. Crockett had died during his crowded hour in Texas, but Roosevelt survived in the Carribean.
It has since been concluded that the Maine was blown up by a malfunctioning boiler.
What should we remember? Rowdies eager for a good fight? Or the comradery and spirit of Americans, no matter where they came from, to join in a common cause they believed in?
Arguably some of both, but with a much higher percentage of the latter.
Sources: The Rough Riders by Theodore Roosevelt, Hero Tales by Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris, www.ushistory.org, www.tamu.edu (Texas A&M), www.historynet.com, www.loc.gov.