TR's Wild Side

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For the first time as an adult, Roosevelt was in the tropics. The very density of vegetation he encountered was daunting, the white herons often standing out against the greenery like tombstones. He now knew how Charles Darwin must have felt in the Galapagos and Tahiti. Cuba’s red land crabs were his tortoises or finches; everything about them spoke of evolution. Unlike the stone crabs of Maine, these red crabs weren’t particularly good-tasting. Still, with supplies sparse, the soldiers smashed them with rocks, discarded the shells, and mixed the meat into their hardtack, calling the dish “deviled crab.” Although the crabs were not dangerous, many Rough Riders were jarred awake at night by their formidable pincers. And they were persistent—a buddy would shake them scurrying away from the bedroll, only to find them back a short while later.

In The Rough Riders, Roosevelt vividly described the timeworn, brush-covered flats in the island village of Daiquiri on which the regiment camped one evening, on one side the jungle, on the other a stagnant malarial pool fringed with palm trees. After they stormed Santiago, many of his troops, a third of whom had served in the Civil War, lay wounded in ditches while flies buzzed around them. Sometimes after an American died, villagers would strip the corpse of all its equipment. Humans could be scavengers, too. Roosevelt turned to avian and crustacean imagery to convey the horrors of death. “No man was allowed to drop out to help the wounded,” he lamented. “It was hard to leave them there in the jungle, where they might not be found again until the vultures and the land-crabs came, but war is a grim game and there was no choice.”

Ever since Roosevelt had discovered Darwin’s writings as a boy growing up in New York City, analyzing species and subspecies characteristics became a daily habit. In his 1895 essay on “Social Evolution,” published in the North American Review, he offered a parable about when the dictates of natural selection superseded love of wildlife. “Even the most enthusiastic naturalist,” he wrote, “if attacked by a man-eating shark, would be much more interested in evading or repelling the attack than in determining the specific relations of the shark.” By this criterion, Roosevelt was a dual success in Cuba. He not only thwarted the Spanish sharks but managed to make detailed diary notes regarding vultures and crabs, which he planned to use in his memoir of the war.

What he would call his “crowded hour” occurred on July 1, 1898, when, on horseback, he led the Rough Riders (plus elements of the 9th and 10th Regiments of regulars, African American “buffalo soldiers,” and other units) up Kettle Hill near San Juan Hill in the battle of San Juan Heights. Once the escarpment was captured, Roosevelt, now on foot, killed a Spaniard with a pistol that had been recovered from the sunken Maine. Roosevelt later said that the charge surpassed all the other highlights of his life. Somewhat creepily, it was reported, Roosevelt had beamed through the blood, mutilation, horror, and death, always flashing a wide grin as he blazed into the enemy. Whether he was ordering up artillery support, helping men cope with the prostrating heat, finding canned tomatoes to fuel the troops, encouraging Cuban insurgentes , or miraculously procuring a huge bag of beans, he was always on top of the situation, doing whatever was humanly possible to help his men avoid both yellow fever and unnecessary enemy fire. There was no arguing about it: Colonel Roosevelt had distinguished himself at Las Guasimas, San Juan, and Santiago (although the journalists did inflate his heroics to make better copy).

By the Fourth of July, Roosevelt had become a home-front legend, the most beloved hero produced in what the soon-to¬be secretary of state John Hay called “a splendid little war.” With the fall of San Juan Heights and the Spanish fleet destroyed, Santiago itself soon surrendered. The war was practically over. The stirring exploits of Colonel Roosevelt were published all over the United States, turning him overnight into the kind of epic leader he had always dreamed of being.

But the hardships Roosevelt had suffered were real. Supplies like eggs, meat, sugar, and jerky were nonexistent. Hardtack biscuits—the soldiers’ staple—had bred hideous little worms. Just to stay alive, the Rough Riders began frying mangoes. Worse still, the 100°F heat caused serious de hydration. Then there was the ghastly toll from tropical diseases. Diarrhea and dysentery struck the outfit. Fatigue became the norm. So many Rough Riders were dying from yellow fever and malaria that Roosevelt eventually asked the War Department to bring the regiment home to the Maine coast. On August 14 the Rough Riders, following a brief stopover in Miami, arrived at Montauk Point at the tip of Long Island (not Maine) and were placed in quarantine for six weeks.

In hard, good health, taut and fit, his face tanned, and his hair crew-cut, Roosevelt was living out his boyhood fantasy of being a war hero. He had endured the vicissitudes of combat with commendable grit, and now it was all glory. Something in the American wilderness experience, Roosevelt believed, including his long stints of hunting in the Badlands and Bighorns in the 1880s, had given him an edge over the Spaniards. The same with the Rough Riders, who hailed from the Southwest—Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Indian Territory. Not a single Rough Rider got cold feet or shrank back.