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TR's Wild Side

July 2024
14min read

As a Rough Rider in the Spanish-American War, Theodore Roosevelt’s attention to nature and love of animals were much in evidence, characteristics that would later help form his strong conservationist platform as president

ON JUNE 3, 1898, 39 days into the Spanish-American War, Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders arrived in Florida by train, assigned to the U.S. transport Yucatan. But the departure date from Tampa Bay for Cuba kept changing. Just a month earlier, the 39-year-old Teddy had quit his job as assistant secretary of the Navy, taken command of the 1,250-man 1st Volunteer Cavalry Regiment along with Leonard Wood, and began a mobilization to dislodge the Spanish from Cuba.

Roosevelt worried that if the ship didn’t leave soon, his men’s livers weren’t going to withstand all the booze they were consuming. The first day was incredibly humid, with a hot, glassy atmosphere and scant wind. Anxious for war, Teddy was unperturbed by the omnipresent swarms of chiggers and sandflies. To kill time he studied Florida’s botany, learning to distinguish lignum-vitae (holywood) trees from blue beech and ironwood at a glance.

The very word wild had a smelling-salt-like effect on Theodore Roosevelt. As a Harvard undergraduate he had studied nature from a scientific perspective, full of rigor and objectivity. To Roosevelt wilderness hunting and bird-watching were the ideal bootcamps for a military career. By studying how grizzly bears tracked their prey, he developed warrior skills. First-rate soldiers were best made in America, he believed, by learning to live in the wild. If a soldier understood how to read a meadowlark call or crow squawk, then his chances of battlefield survival were enhanced. An alertness to all things wild was, in Roosevelt’s eyes, a prerequisite for excelling in modern society. Success would fall upon the individual who could outfox a blizzard or survive a heat wave.

Roosevelt possessed in spades the qualities that Harvard naturalist Edward 0. Wilson has called “biophilia”: the desire to affiliate with other forms of life, the same impulse that lifts the heart at a sudden vision of a glorious valley, a red-rock canyon, or a loon scooting across a mud bog at dusk. Wilson suggests that, at heart, humans want to be touched by nature in their daily lives. His hypothesis offers a key to understanding why Roosevelt as president would add over 234 million acres to the public domain between 1901 and 1909. He responded both scientifically and emotively to wilderness. The shopworn academic debate over whether Roosevelt was a preservationist or a conservationist is really moot. He was both, and a passionate hunter to boot, too many sided and paradoxical to be pigeonholed. Even within the crucible of the Spanish-American War, Roosevelt managed to acquire exotic pets and to write about the Cuban environment, actions that provide valuable insight into Roosevelt’s developing conservationist attitudes.

While waiting to ship out, he studied the waterfowl along the wharf front and marshy inlets: ibis, herons, and double-crested cormorants, among scores of others. Beneath his cavalry boots on the Tampa beaches were sunrise tellin, wide-mouthed purpura, ground coral, bay mud, and tiny pebbles mixed with barnacles and periwinkles. Writing to his friend Henry Cabot Lodge, he turned quasi geobiologist, evoking Florida’s semitropical sun, palm trees, shark-infested shallows, and sandy beaches much like those on the French Riviera. The Gulf of Mexico, the ninth-largest body of water in the world, interested Roosevelt to no end.

Spending those days in Tampa Bay, various conservation historians believe, later influenced Roosevelt’s creation of federal bird sanctuaries along Florida’s coasts. What Roosevelt learned from being stationed on the Gulf Coast was that the market hunters were having a bad effect on Florida’s ecosystem, including the Everglades, Indian River, Lake Okeechobee, and the Ten Thousand Islands. The previous year, his friend the New York-based ornithologist Frank M. Chapman had warned him that tricolor herons and snowy egrets were being slaughtered for their feathers. Now huge mounds were heaped around the Tampa harbor, bird carcasses piled 20 or 30 yards high to rot in the sun. If the slaughter wasn’t stopped, the crowded, beautiful roosts of Florida would vanish and their inhabitants would go the way of the passenger pigeon, the ivory-billed woodpecker, and the Labrador duck.

Even as he shaped his regiment for combat, Roosevelt retained his fascination with animals, an aspect that distinguishes his war memoir The Rough Riders from all other accounts of the 1898 Cuban campaign. And in his 1913 autobiography Roosevelt presented his theory about the role of pets in sustaining morale. Compared with his accounts of military tactics and the toll of yellow fever, such passages can seem frivolous, but they do offer a valuable perspective on Roosevelt as a war leader and as a person.

Largely due to Roosevelt, the 1st Volunteer Cavalry Regiment took three animal mascots with them, all the way from basic training in San Antonio through their port stay in Tampa Bay. For starters, there was a young mountain lion, Josephine, given by trooper Charles Green of Arizona. Roosevelt spent as much time around the cougar cub as he could. Although he wrote in The Rough Riders that Josephine had an “infernal temper,” he adored everything about her: her sand-colored coat, dark rounded ears, white muzzle, and piercing blue eyes, which turned brown as she matured. Eventually Josephine would weigh at least 90 pounds and be able to pull down a 750-pound elk with her powerful jaws. The New York Times reported that she “rejoiced” when her name was uttered and was beloved by all the men. But one time she got loose, climbed into bed with a soldier, and began playfully chewing on his toes. Roosevelt later chuckled in The Rough Riders that “he fled into the darkness with yells, much more unnerved than he would have been by the arrival of any number of Spaniards.”

Another steadfast comrade from the wild was a New Mexican golden eagle nicknamed “Teddy” in Colonel Roosevelt’s honor. Roosevelt loved to watch these raptors swooping down to pluck a snake or other prey, and he even learned the art of falconry, wearing leather gloves and calling his namesake back to camp after it had gone hunting. “The eagle was let loose and not only walked at will up and down the company streets, but also at times flew wherever he wished,” Roosevelt recalled.

Josephine and Teddy had to be left behind in Tampa, but a “jolly dog” named Cuba and owned by Cpl. Cade C. Jackson of Troop A from Flagstaff, Arizona, did accompany the Rough Riders. Having dirty gray, poodle-like fur and the personality of a Yorkie, the little dog could be easily scooped up with the swipe of a hand. (One story, in fact, claims that Jackson had stolen Cuba just so from a railcar.) Frisky as a dog could be, Cuba accompanied the regiment “through all the vicissitudes of the campaign.” Aboard the Yucatan, Roosevelt asked a Pawnee friend to draw Cuba—who ran “everywhere round the ship, and now and then howls when the band plays”—for his daughter Ethel. Perhaps because Roosevelt was so comfortable with the trio of animals—knowing how to feed the eagle mice and to scratch Josephine behind the ears—the mascots added a compelling dimension to the press coverage of the Rough Riders. But even if TR did use the mascots to play to the cameras, they were part and parcel of his lifelong need to be associated with animals.

When the Yucatan finally set sail on June 13, Roosevelt was nearly giddy with joy at escaping Tampa. As the 49 vessels in the convoy steamed south in three columns, he noted that the Florida Keys area was “a sapphire sea, wind-rippled, under an almost cloudless sky” When he first caught sight of the shoreline of Santiago Bay, waves beating in diagonals, he wrote to his sister Corinne that “All day we have steamed close to the Cuban Coast, high barren looking mountains rising abruptly from the shore, and at a distance looking much like those of Montana. We are well within the tropics, and at night the Southern Cross shows low above the Horizon; it seems strange to see it in the same sky with the Dipper.”

At both San Antonio and Tampa Bay, his two horses Rain-in-the-Face and Texas practically never left his side. With Vitagraph motion picture technicians filming the Rough Riders wading ashore, a trooper was ordered to bring his steeds safely onto the beach. Alas, a huge wave broke over Rain-in-the-Face. Unable to burst free from his harness, he inhaled seawater and drowned. For the only time during the war Roosevelt went berserk, “snorting like a bull,” as Albert Smith of Vitagraph recalled, “split[ting] the air with one blasphemy after another.” As the other horses were brought ashore, Roosevelt kept shouting “Stop that god-damned animal torture!” every time saltwater got in a mare’s face.

On June 23 the Rough Riders debarked at the fishing village of Siboney about seven miles west of Daiquiri, behind Gen. Henry Ware Lawton’s 2nd Division and Gen. William Shafter’s 5th Corps. The soldiers took ashore blanket rolls, pup tents, mess kits, and weaponry, but no one thought to give them any insect repellent. There was no wind, and they felt on fire. The tangled jungles and chaparral of Cuba, particularly in early summer, were breeding grounds for flies that now swarmed the camps. Cuba also boasted 100 varieties of ants, including strange stinging ones that seemed to come from a different world. Unafraid of the soldiers, little crouching chameleons with coffin-shaped heads changed color from bright green to dark brown, depending on the foliage they rested on. “Here there are lots of funny little lizards that run about in the dusty roads very fast,” Roosevelt wrote to his daughter Ethel, “and then stand still with their heads up.”

Roosevelt’s letters crackle with the kind of martial detail also found in Stephen Crane’s 1895 Civil War novel The Red Badge of Courage. Yet they’re also crowded with natural history, with observations about the “jungle-lined banks,” “great open woods of palms,” “mango trees,” “vultures wheeling overhead by hundreds,” and even a whole command “so weakened and shattered as to be ripe for dying like rotten sheep.” There was a strange confluence in Cuba between Roosevelt and the genius loci, as he constantly sought to conjure up nature as a way to increase his personal power.

Both in Roosevelt’s correspondence and his war memoir, the land crab is everywhere, its predatory omnipresence almost the central metaphor of his Cuban campaign. Carcinologists had noted that the local species, Gecarcinus lateralis, commonly known as the blackback, Bermuda, or red land crab, leaves the tropical forests each spring to mate in the sea. It made for an eerie spectacle all along Cuba’s northern coast as these misshapen creatures, many with only one giant claw, crawled out of the forests across roads and beaches to reach the water. Swollen with eggs, the female red land crabs nevertheless made their journey to incubate in the Caribbean Sea, traveling five to six miles a day over every obstacle imaginable. Roosevelt noted that they avoided the sun’s glare, often struggling to shade just like wounded soldiers. While basically land creatures, these burrowing red crabs—their abalone-like shells thick with gaudy dark rainbow swirls—still had gills, so they needed to stay cool and moist. “The woods are full of land crabs, some of which are almost as big as rabbits,” Roosevelt wrote to Corinne. “When things grew quiet they slowly gathered in gruesome rings around the fallen.”

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.

Roosevelt believed that the American fighting spirit would only continue as long as outdoorsmen didn’t get lazy and rest on their laurels. Slowly he was developing an underlying doctrine that he would call “the strenuous life.” The majestic open spaces of western America, such as the Red River Valley, the Guadalupe Mountains, the Black Mesa, the Sangre de Cristo Range, the Prescott Valley, and the Big Chino Wash, had hardened his men into the kind of self-reliance Emerson had invoked in his writings. Wouldn’t Rough Riders make terrific forest rangers? Didn’t the wildlife protection movement need no-nonsense men in uniform to stop poaching in federal parks? “In all the world there could be no better material for soldiers than that offered by these grim hunters of the mountains, these wild rough riders of the plains,” enthused Roosevelt.

While the Rough Riders recuperated under yellow-fever watch at Montauk, New York’s Republican Party was urging Roosevelt to run for governor that fall. As he contemplated his political future, everybody clamoring to shake his hand, he found respite watching the pervasive raccoons and white-tailed deer of Montauk. There was even Nantucket juneberry along the sandplains to study. One hundred years later, to honor the Rough Riders’ residence at Camp Wikoff in 1898, Montauk named a 1,157-acre wilderness area Roosevelt County Park.

In August the New York Times ran a feature story about Josephine, reporting that the colonel might raise the big cat at Oyster Bay. But his wife, Edith, put a stop to that plan, and Josephine was carted off to tour the West as a circus attraction. Unfortunately, she got loose or was stolen in Chicago and was never seen again.

The eventual fate of Teddy the golden eagle was just as disappointing. Quite sensibly, Roosevelt had given him to the Central Park Zoo, where he became a popular tourist attraction, but he was killed by two bald eagles put into his cage to keep him company. The body of the regiment’s mascot was shipped to Frank Chapman at the American Museum of Natural History to be stuffed.

Cuba the dog’s story, at least, had a happy ending. Discharged from quarantine, Corporal Jackson headed back to his home in Flagstaff and gave the celebrity terrier to Sam Black, a former Arizona Territory Ranger, with whose family he lived for 16 years in the lap of luxury. When Cuba died of natural causes, he was given a proper military funeral.

On August 20, 1898, Colonel Roosevelt was allowed to leave quarantine to return to his Oyster Bay home at Sagamore Hill for five days. By the time he got there, a groundswell of support had arisen for his gubernatorial candidacy. All around Oyster Bay, he was greeted with shouts of “Teddy!” (which he hated) and “Welcome, Colonel!” (which he loved). “I would rather have led this regiment,” Roosevelt wrote a friend, “than be Governor of New York three times.”

Cleverly, Roosevelt had kept diaries in Cuba, jotting down exact dialogue and stream-of-consciousness impressions. His editor at Charles Scribner’s Sons, Robert Bridges, worried that if Roosevelt ran for governor the war memoir they’d been discussing would have to be put on hold. “Not at all,” Roosevelt assured him. “You shall have the various chapters in the time promised.”

Once back at Camp Wikoff, Roosevelt wandered Montauk Point, care taking his golden eagle and taking little Cuba on walks. Roosevelt seemed like a changed man, disconcertingly calm, studying the undercarriage of wigeon ducks as they flew overhead. Sometimes, particularly when reporters were around, he rode his horse up and down the beach. By having “driven the Spaniard from the New World,” Roosevelt could relax— the burden of family cowardice and the shadow of his father’s hiring of a surrogate for his Civil War service had passed away forever. With nothing more to prove, he could excel as a powerful politician, soapbox expansionist, true-blue reformer, naturalist, and conservationist.

On September 13 a bugle called, and the surviving Rough Riders dutifully fell into formation. In front of them was a card table with a blanket draped over a bulky object. The 1st Volunteer Cavalry had a parting gift for their humane and courageous colonel. Eventually the blanket was lifted to reveal an 1895 bronze sculpture by Frederic Remington, Bronco Buster. (A cowboy was the western term for a cattle driver, while a bronco buster broke wild horses to the saddle.) Tears welled up in Roosevelt’s eyes, his voice choked, and he stroked the steed’s mane as if it were real. “I would have been most deeply touched if the officers had given me this testimonial, but coming from you, my men, I appreciate it tenfold,” Roosevelt said. The Rough Riders had found the best gift possible. It summed up Theodore Roosevelt well: a fearless cowboy, stirrup flying free, determined to tame a wild stallion by putting the spurs to it, a quirt in his right hand, and the reins gripped in the other. A Remington cast of the Bronco Buster now sits prominently in the White House Oval Office for President Barack Obama to appreciate.

The 42-year-old Roosevelt took more than just a Remington bronze to the White House in September 1901; his wilderness values and philosophy came with him, along with his saddle bag. Besides continuing to collect myriad White House pets, Roosevelt used his executive power to save such national heirlooms as the Grand Canyon, Crater Lake, Devils Tower, Mesa Verde, and the Dry Tortugas. On July 1, 1908, to help commemorate his “crowded hour” of battle at Santiago, President Roosevelt created 45 new national forests scattered throughout 11 western states. He also initiated many innovative protocols for range management, wildfire control, land planning, recreation, hydrology, and soil science throughout the American West. It was exactly a decade since his moment of military glory. His “crowded hour” 10 years later put much of the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Northwest beyond the lumberman’s ax. Adding to the conservationist theme, TR hired as forest rangers men who had served with him in combat. These ex-Rough Riders now protected wild America from ruin under the banner of Rooseveltian conservationism.

What particularly worried President Roosevelt at the dawn of the 20th century was that citizens of New York, Philadelphia, and Boston could not understand the splendor of the American West. “To lose the chance to see frigate birds soaring in circles above the storm,” Roosevelt wrote, “or a file of pelicans winging their way homeward across the crimson afterglow of the sunset, or a myriad of terns flashing in the bright light of midday as they hover in the shifting maze above the beach—why the loss is like the loss of a gallery of masterpieces of the artists of old time.”

Adapted by the author from The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America , published by HarperCollins, © 2009


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