Theodore Roosevelt in his Rough Riders uniform

My former history teacher, Jack Barnwell, stops in at Bacon today to ask: who have we been, we Americans, in world affairs? And – who should be we?

Jack recently finished reading Clay Risen’s Crowded Hour: Theodore Roosevelt, the Rough Riders, and the Dawn of the American Century. Clay Risen, born and raised in Nashville, now lives in New York City and is the deputy op-ed editor at the New York Times.   

Jack Barnwell received his PhD in American History and his law degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His book Love of Order: South Carolina’s First Secession Crisis was published in 1982. He retired from law practice in 2011 after a storied career at the North Carolina Department of Justice, Appellate Section.


From Jack:

Risen’s Crowded Hour provides a good narrative history of the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry, a.k.a. the Rough Riders, and their short but celebrated role in the United States’ invasion of Cuba as part of the Spanish-American War. The regiment under the energetic command of Roosevelt and Leonard Wood overcame the gross deficiencies and mismanagement of the War Department. The acephalus lack of leadership by Secretary of War Russel Alger, his subordinates, and the gouty, grossly obese, superannuated, Commanding General William Shafter is illustrated time and again by the absence of even basic planning. A single, almost laughable, example of this is Alger’s failure to get enough horses and mules to Cuba for the enlisted members of the regiment to have mounts; consequently, during their campaign in Cuba the Rough Riders fought entirely as infantry.

In their war for independence, the Cuban rebels – always short of money, guns, and ammunition, sometimes armed only with machetes – suffered tens of thousands of casualties. Nevertheless, they had fought the Spanish army to a standstill, confining them to the cities while the rebels controlled the countryside. General Shafter failed to inform the Cuban rebels of his plan of campaign because, in fact, he had no plan. Had he coordinated his forces with those under General Calixto Garcia, the rebel leader in eastern Cuba, the siege of Santiago would certainly have been shorter, saving the United States expeditionary force wounds and death not only from Spanish gunfire but also from malaria, yellow fever, dysentery and assorted other diseases arising from the abysmally unsanitary condition of makeshift hospitals.

As background: throughout the nineteenth century, as Spain’s Central and South American possessions threw off colonial control and sorted themselves out as independent countries, Spain clung tenaciously to Cuba. By 1804, after the slaves of Saint-Dominque successfully revolted from France and established themselves as the nation of Haiti, Cuba became the island that supplied the expanding global demand for sugar. The prosperity it brought to Spanish authorities and merchants made Cuba the most precious of Spain’s remaining colonies, and Spanish officials tightly fastened on Cuba an economy dominated by sugar production. Nor did they scruple about the kind of labor force employed to sustain that economy. Cuba continued to import African slaves until 1867, and it was not until 1886 that slavery there was abolished by royal degree.  

19th century sugar cane plantation in Cuba, from

Sugar plantation owners and most other wealthy landowners and their Spanish compatriots in Europe enjoyed the situation. Cubans left outside this political economy did not. In 1868, Cuban rebels launched a war against their Spanish masters that continued for ten years. “Spanish authorities,” as Risen notes, “executed anyone over fifteen years old suspected of aiding the insurgency – more than 2,900….” By the end of the conflict, known as the “Ten Years War,” 45,000 Cubans were dead. Thousands more had been confined in Spanish penal colonies.

Cuba’s final and – with the aid of United States intervention – its successful rebellion against Spain began in 1895. This is essentially where Risen begins his account. The war Spain waged against this last Cuban revolt was, if anything, more brutal than its conduct in the earlier Ten Years War. To deal with the rebels the Spanish government dispatched Valeriano Weyler y Nicolau. Weyler ordered Cuban civilians to relocate from the countryside into fortified towns and encampments, in essence concentration camps; those who refused or otherwise remained outside lived a precarious existence in what would later be called free fire zones. Those inside the camps, the reconcentrados, fared even worse from lack of food and medical supplies. The death toll from Weyler’s policies reached, perhaps, 100,000.

United States foreign policy from the time the nation gained its own independence always opposed European imperialism. The McKinley administration’s opposition to Spain’s oppression of Cuba was no exception. And Spain’s policies in that colony coincided with a period “when literacy rates and the middle class [in the United States] were growing; the market for news was endless….” The horrors in Cuba were real enough, but the United States press, by and large, was hardly objective in its coverage, “encouraging in their readers an insatiable demand for the next tale of blood and injustice at the hands of Spain, and publishers like William Randolph and Joseph Pulitzer were happy to give it to them – the more sensational, the better.”

On February 16, 1898, the battleship U.S.S. Maine was anchored in Havana harbor. It was there as a not-so-subtle gesture of United States disapproval of Spain’s policies in Cuba. Around 2 a.m. that morning the Maine was blown apart in a shattering explosion; 266 American sailors died. The cause was most likely a spontaneous combustion of coal dust in a fuel bin, but public and political opinion in the United States overwhelmingly attributed the sinking of the Maine to an exterior mine planted by Spanish treachery. In response to United States demands, the Spanish government offered to enact reforms and suspend hostilities, if the rebels would agree to do the same. Like many political crises when war is involved, the Cuban crisis had taken on a life of its own. Neither politicians nor the public in the United States at this point believed that Spain was sincere or that the Cuban rebels would or should accept anything less than complete independence. By late April the United State declared war on Spain. Theodore Roosevelt, long an advocate of a war of liberation, resigned his position as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, requested and was allowed by the administration to raise a volunteer regiment of cavalry.

Illustration of the USS Maine en route to doom. February 22, 1898. The San Francisco Call (San Francisco, California), Image 1. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers.

In his introduction, Risen says:

It is only in hindsight that we can recognize how America’s many subsequent interventions, almost always taken under the cover of promoting human rights and liberty, often hurt the country, and the world as much as they have helped (indeed, disgust at the Army’s actions in the Philippines fueled a vocal anti-imperialist movement back home). We can recognize that the story of the Rough Riders became one of the many myths that helped twentieth-century America build an empire yet deny that it had any intention of doing so. We can recognize that Roosevelt’s talk about the Rough Riders as ‘American through and through’ was an advertisement for a type of American unity that excluded blacks, Latinos, and women…. And yet in the Rough Riders story, we can also recognize the best of America: citizens who set aside families, careers, wealth, and celebrity to fight and die for something other than themselves. We can recognize, above all, that the story of the American century, is neither entirely heroic nor entirely tragic – rather, it is both.

Risen captures the dashing heroism and idealism, especially of the Ivy League students and young alumni who fought and some of whom died to free Cuba from the grip of the exploitative, corrupt, and dying Spanish Empire. The most colorful of the Ivy League contingent in the Rough Riders was Hamilton Fish, Jr., scion of an old and extremely prominent New York family. Fish rowed crew at Columbia, dropped out after his junior year, and moved to the West, where he worked as a railroad brakeman. A large, powerfully built man, Fish’s personality combined wanderlust, love of brawling, and idealistic patriotism. 

During the tortuously long train-trip from their base in San Antonio to Tampa, the Rough Riders were delayed for hours for no apparent reason in the stockyards of Houston. When Roosevelt could stand the delay no longer, he ordered the conductor to get the train moving.

The conductor got into Roosevelt’s face and screamed: ‘This train don’t go, damn you, until I get good and ready! I am running this caboose, not you, and you mind your own business, damn you, these are my orders! Who in the hell are you anyway?’

Out of nowhere came Hamilton Fish and his fist; it crashed into the man’s jaw and sent him reeling. ‘Do you know who you are talking to?’ Fish screamed.

The train was moving a half hour later.

In the run up to the United States’ entry in the war and during its early stages, Cuba was depicted in posters and sculptures – occasionally quite literally – as a damsel in distress, who would be saved by United States forces motivated solely by gallantry and a love of liberty and justice for the oppressed.

Cartoon By C Jay Taylor 1896

But by the end of hostilities, the influential journalist William Allen White voiced widespread public and political opinion to the effect that the Cubans were no different and no better than their former Spanish masters. Both, he wrote, “are yellow-legged, garlic eating, dagger-sticking, treacherous crowds…. It is folly to spill good Saxon blood for that kind of vermin.”

While long on the heroism involved in 1898, Risen is comparatively short on the tragic aspects of the century-long aftermath of our intervention in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. The Teller Amendment, tacked on to the bill authorizing war against Spain in 1898, prohibited the United States from annexing Cuba. Independence for Cuba finally came in 1902 after three years of United States control and only after another act of congress in 1901 included the Platt Amendment, which severely circumscribed that independence. Among other limitations, the Cuban government could not take on additional debt and was required to allow the United States to intervene whenever it saw fit. Indeed, in 1906 when the government of Cuban President Tomas Palma collapsed, Roosevelt, by then President, did see fit to intervene, ordering United States forces to occupy Cuba. Their mission included the protection of United States economic interests in Cuba, which had become paramount during the first occupation and remained the dominant force in Cuba’s economy until the corrupt, American gangster-connected dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista gave way to yet another dictatorship – the communist dictatorship of the Castro brothers, Fidel and Raul.   

Since 1960 Cuba’s independence, such as it is, has been heavily dependent first on the economic largess of the Soviet Union and then on subsidies from socialist Venezuela, largely in the form of below market price petroleum. Cuba’s undiversified, centrally controlled economy remains sterile and unresponsive to the needs of its citizens.

Cubans live in an independent country, but they are hardly free. So much for the beautiful myths and dreams of 1898 entertained by Hamilton Fish and many of his brother Rough Riders.

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From Jennifer: Were their sacrifices entirely in vain? Do their – our – ideals still resonate in the world today? 

Photo from Boston Globe

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Jack Barnwell, Jennifer Puryear, bandleader

Jack and Leigh Barnwell a few years ago. Before she got married.


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