Before The Colors Fade

PrintPrintEmailEmail

“In strict confidence, I should welcome any war, ” wrote Theodore Roosevelt in i8gj. “The country needs one. ” And soon enough the bellicose assistant secretary of the Navy had his wish: after a long period of neutrality, President William McKinley (to whom T. R. ascribed “no more backbone than a chocolate éclair”) decided to intervene in behalf of the Cuban revolutionaries fighting for independence from Spam. On April 25, 1898, the United States declared war on Spam. Roosevelt—father of six—itched to get into the action. He resigned from the Navy Department and announced he was going to join the cavalry regiment being organized by Colonel Leonard Wood. The press promptly termed the outfit the Rough Riders.

Of that regiment (officially, the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry) only two men of the original force are yet alive. One is Frank C. Brito of Las Cruces, New Mexico; over ninety years old and enfeebled, Brito was a member of I Troop. The other is Jesse D. Langdon, who lives m Lafayetteville m New York’s Dutchess County. He is eighty-eight; ruddy, alert, and vigorous. He has a handsome shock of white hair and is only slightly stooped (a sizable tree fell on him eight years ago and, he admits, “took a little of the edge of”).

Langdon grew up in Dakota Territory and, as a boy of six, met Roosevelt when T. R. was a rancher there m the eighties. In 1898, shortly before Langdon’s seventeenth birthday, he heard about Roosevelt’s proposed regiment. He hopped a train and rode hobo-style to Washington. He vividly recalls hurrying to the second-floor recruiting office on E Street near the Capitol. There he bumped into Roosevelt, who was coming down the outside stairway. The surprised youth blurted out, “You’re Teddy Roosevelt!” As Langdon recalls it:

Colonel Roosevelt stopped and said, “Yes, sir, what can I do for you?”

“Why,” I said, “I’m Jesse Langdon from North Dakota, and I’ve beaten my way here on the train to join your Rough Riders.”

“Well, can you ride a horse?” asked Roosevelt. [Langdon, who could run a hundred yards in ten seconds, was well on his way to a full growth of six feet and 225 pounds.]

“I can ride anything that’s got hair on it,” I said.

He laughed. He had a funny way of laughing. He just went “Hah!” with his teeth set, and those in front showing. Then he told me to go upstairs and tell them he had sent me.

I will never forget the way he talked when he later got some of us over at his office. He was assistant secretary of the Navy, you know. It was some pep talk. He said, “Now, boys, any of you who don’t want to put up with the hardships you’re going to face can drop out right now. We’re going to get there first, and that means you’ll be putting your life on the table.”

When we were getting ready to leave for the training camp in Texas, I said, “Mr. Roosevelt, I haven’t been sworn in yet.”

He said, “Hah! Well, I’ll swear you in personally when I get to San Antonio.”

Several days later, when they arrived at San Antonio, Langdon reminded him of his promise.

When I went to his tent, Roosevelt was seated at his desk, and he had his Bible—he always had a Bible on the table—and I says, “You promised to swear me in.”

“So I did,” he says, “so I did.” He says to me, “Let’s get back here where everybody won’t see us.”

He got up with the Bible in his hand and led me around behind the tent. Then he had me put my right hand on the Bible and my left hand up, or vice versa, I forget which, and, “Hah,” he said, and swore me in, see. He had a smile on his face all the time. A week later, when they swore the whole regiment in, I realized why he was laughing. He was just humoring me, giving in to my impatience and youthfulness.

Most of the troopers were westerners—cowboys, miners, trappers, trail riders, lawmen; the others were from the East Coast-college athletes, socialites, and sons of wealthy families.

A horseman of the first order, Langdon developed into one of the best riders m the regiment. He volunteered, along with Billy McGinty, a little bowlegged cowboy from Oklahoma Territory, and other experienced broncobusters, to break horses. Spectators came by the thousands to watch and to marvel at their skill.

Langdon remembered San Antonio mainly for its dust.

It made us look black. When we were practicing there, you couldn’t breathe. We had a mess breaking those horses in that dust, a regular melee. It was days before we got straightened out so we could really drill. Yes, and some of the boys got hurt, bucking, throwing, and so forth.

We slept in the old amphitheatre where they made the exhibits for the county fair. That amphitheatre was infested with scorpions and these big spiders—tarantulas, you know—by golly, that’s one thing that really did get my goat.

He recalled the tiresome, hot tram ride to Tampa, where the regiment would embark for Cuba.