Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Book Review: The Boys of '98 by Dale L. Walker


The Boys of '98 is the complete and colorful story of the Rough Riders, led by Colonel Theodore Roosevelt. The book covers the recruitment of its members, their training in Texas and Florida; and their battles at Las Guasimas, Kettle Hill, and San Juan Hill. The book also describes why America went to war over Cuba, and how victory in the Santiago Campaign was achieved against the odds.
In this book, Dale L. Walker blends the politics and attitudes of the times with the personalities of the war, such as newspaper correspondents Richard Harding Davis and Stephen Crane, and, most particularly, the man behind the Rough Riders--Theodore Roosevelt.  The use of primary sources--including his interviews with the three remaining Rough Riders, Roosevelt's autobiography, and newspaper accounts—make for an excellent account of this “Splendid Little War”. The horrors of the fighting are mixed with the humor of a poorly planned, blundering attack conducted by an American volunteer force with little or no military training or experience. The American volunteers would of course persevere, as they have done in every American war.
Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, as described in the book were a collection of cowboys, frontiersmen and wealthy Eastern city boys and athletes seeking a piece of the action. They were not professional soldiers, and during the Spanish-American War these “Boys of 98”, spent only a few months in the military. The book describes their lack of cohesion as a fighting force in the description of the Rough Riders assault on San Juan (Kettle) Hill. Walker writes that, as the Gatling guns of Lieutenant John H. Parker provided a cover, Roosevelt ran ahead, jumping a wire fence was quickly separated from the main body of his regiment and had to return to gather them. “We didn't hear you,” the men said, “we didn't see you go, Colonel; lead on now, we'll sure follow you.”  Even with this blundering the cocky and confident Rough Riders managed to accomplish the task before them through grit and determination.
One wonders if the Rough Riders have made such a name for themselves and their accomplishments at Kettle Hill and San Juan Hill without the attention of the war correspondents that followed their every step. Probably so, since Theodore Roosevelt, former Assistant Secretary of the Navy was involved as the assistant commander of the regiment. He attracted great attention in the U.S. and among the media wherever he went, whatever he did, or said. There is no question that the correspondents, like Richard Harding Davis, contributed greatly to the story of the Rough Riders. The press had its best reporters in Cuba focused on the Rough Riders: Stephen Crane of the World (and The Red Badge of Courage), Edward Marshall of the Journal, Frederic Remington of the Herald, and others.
Not all action in the book is centered on the infamous San Juan Hill. The Rough Riders' first action was the skirmish at Las Guasimas shortly after their arrival. Several correspondents, including Davis, Crane and Marshall, were there. Marshall was shot in the spine by a Spanish sniper and nearly died. Crane wrote a controversial dispatch in which he said the Rough Riders had no idea of the whereabouts of the enemy and were ambushed. Davis, who originally seems to have agreed with Crane, later denied the ambush theory and wrote of the battle as a triumph of American soldiering, a tribute to General Joe Wheeler's grit and Roosevelt's and Leonard Wood's leadership. Roosevelt was livid over Crane's reporting and denied his regiment had been ambushed. Out of about 1,000 American troops in the battle, 16 were killed and 52 wounded. Half the dead were Rough Riders--eight men--and 31 of the wounded. If it was not an ambush, Wheeler's force was at least surprised when the Spanish attacked.
It seems that much of the Spanish-American War, and particularly the Rough Riders' role in it, was a quest for a moment of glory by Roosevelt and his fellow soldiers and officers. Roosevelt believed in the "glory" of war. But until the opportunity came for him to participate in battle in Cuba, he had to be content with rattling his saber.
According to the book, his father, whom Theodore loved and admired had purchased his way out of serving in the Civil War, and Theodore may have been trying to erase what he thought was a blot on the family record. Several of the Rough Riders--including Leonard Wood, who originally commanded the regiment--were Indian war veterans, and there was something of a spirit of a "last chance for military glory" in the whole campaign. Buckey O'Neill, as much a symbol of the regiment as any man other than Roosevelt, saw the war as a chance to either get killed or win a general's star. He got killed.
For all his inexperience in the military, Roosevelt did an excellent job overall. He was great in acquiring supplies and transportation and he became a tough, courageous and inspirational leader of men in battle. The Rough Riders were an unmilitary regiment of volunteers made up of frontiersmen, and cowboys mixed with college boys from wealthy families, and Harvard and Yale athletes. It is a miracle and a tribute to Roosevelt that such a motley crew of men could be turned into a fighting force. Yet, they became fine troops and fought as dependably as any of the Army's Regulars during the war.
The Book The Boys of '98: Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders” describes all of this in an excellent fashion. By a fine mixture of primary and secondary sources, Dale L. Walker tells the story of this motley crew of American volunteers in a way that describes not only the big picture but also the plight of the individual soldier.