Teddy Roosevelt Awarded Medal of Honor - 103 Years After San Juan Hill
President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), photograph taken in 1904
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are from Wikipedia)
Today in Military History: January 16, 2001
Today I write about another military-historical event that is only obliquely related to war. It involves the youngest man to become President, and his short service as an officer in the Spanish-American War.
Teddy Roosevelt was a human dynamo, a self-made man. By 1898, he had been a writer, a rancher, a deputy sheriff, a New York State assemblyman, a member of the U.S. Civil Service Commission, president of the Board of New York City Police Commissioners, and Assistant Secretary of the Navy. Ten days after the Maine blew up in the harbor of Havana, Cuba the Secretary of the Navy went out for lunch, leaving Teddy in charge for four hours. Roosevelt told the Navy worldwide to prepare for war, ordered ammunition and supplies, brought in experts, and went to Congress asking for authority to recruit as many sailors as he wanted, thus moving the nation toward war. Roosevelt was instrumental in preparing the Navy for the Spanish-American War and was an enthusiastic supporter of testing the U.S. military in combat, at one point saying, "I should welcome almost any war, for I think this country needs one."
Col. Theodore Roosevelt, by B.J. Fulk (1898)
When war came, Teddy resigned from the government and began forming a regiment of volunteer cavalry, formally known as the “First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry Regiment;” they were composed of Native Americans, college athletes (many who were classmates of Roosevelt), cowboys, and ranchers. The newspapers dubbed them the “Rough Riders.” Roosevelt was appointed second-in-command of the unit. However, once the unit arrived in Cuba and several officers fell ill, the Rough Riders’ commander was promoted, thereby placing Teddy in charge.
Battle of San Juan Hill
On July 1, 1898 the Rough Riders and several other Regular Army units charged Spanish entrenchments overlooking the city of Santiago, driving the enemy from their positions. Teddy led the charge as the only man on horseback. With the help of fire support from a battery of Gatling guns, the Americans took the San Juan Heights – also known as “Kettle Hill” – and Roosevelt achieved much of the renown for leading the charge and his enthusiastic conduct during the fight. [I will likely be writing more about this battle in the future on the Burn Pit…]
“Charge of the Rough Riders at San Juan Hill” by Frederick Remington (1909)
[Note Col. Roosevelt on his horse Little Texas on the left]
Afterwards, Roosevelt was recommended for the Congressional Medal of Honor by the chain of command in Cuba: Brigadier General Leonard Wood, who had won the Medal of Honor fighting the Apaches; Major General Samuel S. Sumner, an eyewitness to the San Juan Heights battle; Major General "Fighting Joe" Wheeler; and Major General William R. Shafter, Teddy’s immediate superior who had himself won the Medal of Honor in the Civil War. The recommendation was, however, rejected.
The probable reason is that TR had sent a telegram and a letter to Secretary of War Russell A. Alger strongly urging that American troops, ravaged by tropical diseases, be immediately returned to the United States now that the fighting was over. (TR himself contracted malaria, which remained with him the rest of his life). General Shafter leaked these messages to the press, thereby embarrassing and infuriating Secretary of War Alger as well as President William McKinley. Alger was subsequently forced to resign from the cabinet after an investigating commission exposed his incompetence at the War Department.
Then, in the "Fiscal Year 1996 National Defense Authorization Act," passed by Congress on February 10, 1996, Congress repealed the statute of limitations on military decorations. The legislation was passed primarily because of the failure of the United States to award the Medal of Honor to worthy African Americans during World War II and the Korean War, but the 1996 Congressional measure potentially opened the door for the consideration of any case from the past involving military decorations.
Over the next five years, legislation was introduced to give Teddy the award. Once more, the Army opposed the retroactive recognition. Finally, legislation was passed at the end of 1998, recommending a board of review be formed to receive new evidence. The board recommended the award for Teddy, but it was still almost 2 years before the Clinton Administration acted.
On January 16, 2001 – four days before he would leave office – President Bill Clinton held a ceremony in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. Attended by many Roosevelt family members, the President presented the Medal of Honor to Tweed Roosevelt, Teddy’s great-grandson.
Roosevelt’s Medal of Honor as presented that day
His Medal of Honor citation reads:
LIEUTENANT COLONEL THEODORE ROOSEVELT UNITED STATES ARMY
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.
Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Roosevelt distinguished himself by acts of bravery on 1 July 1898, near Santiago de Cuba, Republic of Cuba, while leading a daring charge up San Juan Hill. Lieutenant Colonel Roosevelt, in total disregard for his personal safety, and accompanied by only four or five men, led a desperate and gallant charge up San Juan Hill, encouraging his troops to continue the assault through withering enemy fire over open countryside. Facing the enemy's heavy fire, he displayed extraordinary bravery throughout the charge, and was the first to reach the enemy trenches, where he quickly killed one of the enemy with his pistol, allowing his men to continue the assault. His leadership and valor turned the tide in the Battle for San Juan Hill. Lieutenant Colonel Roosevelt's extraordinary heroism and devotion to duty are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit, and the United States Army.
Footnote #1: Teddy’s Medal of Honor is now on display in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, along with his 1906 Nobel Peace prize.
Footnote #2: With Teddy receiving the Medal of Honor, he and his son – Theodore Roosevelt Jr. who received the same award for his brave acts on the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944 – became the second set of fathers and sons to receive the award. The others were…
Footnote #3: Arthur McArthur – American Civil War hero at age 19 – and Douglas McArthur, who said, “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.”
Lt. Gen. Arthur McArthur (1845-1912)