White Publishing Company

"The Rough Riders" (9.4.20)

"Free" is a very attractive price point these days. Lately I've been skimming through all the public domain books you can get for free on Kindle, and one jumped out at me: "The Rough Riders," Theodore Roosevelt's personal history of the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry during the Spanish-American War.

I picked it because I had just read about the press coverage of the war in Cuba in "The Uncrowned King." And because I like history. And again, and this cannot be stressed enough, it was free.

People know Roosevelt was a politician and a cowboy. He's less well known as an author, even though his writing paid the bills in his adult life. He wrote an extensive history of U.S. naval power during the war of 1812, and that might have helped him land the job of assistant secretary of the Navy under President McKinley. "The Winning of the West," his synopsis of U.S. expansion across North America, helped square his finances in the late 1880s after his ranching operation failed.

"The Rough Riders" was probably a quick way to cash in. Roosevelt was already a well-known public figure before the war. When hostilities were declared, he resigned from his Navy job, and successfully petitioned to form a volunteer cavalry drawing from the western territories. The unit ended up being a bizarre mix of people from the various chapters of TR's life: rich Ivy League kids looking to prove their manhood, grizzled cowboys, international drifters, and a few career crimimals to boot. The unit had the benefit of great PR: Roosevelt himself was an attention magnet, plus he was on friendly terms with many of the reporters embedded in the Army to cover the fighting in Cuba. The reports of the fabled charge up San Juan Hill were so glowing that TR became a military legend with almost no military experience.

As historian Edmund Morris puts it, right after the war TR was the most famous man in America. Within a year, "The Rough Riders" was on sale. And it reads like something banged out pretty fast.

For long stretches, "Rough Riders" is a celebrity awards show acceptance speech. Paragraph after paragraph thanks or acknowledges some guy in the unit, and (shocker) they're all virile examples of selflessness and courage. And while there was real fighting in Cuba, Roosevelt really tries to make the danger as dramatic as possible. You see something like this about six times: "Smith and Jones were the very pinnacle of American bravery. Our nation has never produced finer specimens, and they promised victory to me over dinner. Both were dead within 12 hours."

The unit saw action in two battles (including the charge up San Juan Hill), but Roosevelt's play-by-play isn't all that compelling. He's describing troop movements through the jungle, and most of the battles involved the Americans shooting at entrenched Spanish soldiers they couldn't even see. So it was brave, but it wasn't all that glorious.

Weirdly enough, the most interesting stuff (to me) was Roosevelt bitching about logistics. The unit organized and trained in San Antonio, but the process of equipping them, moving them to Tampa and sailing to Cuba was a giant clusterf***. Once they were on the ground in Cuba, supplying the troops was a daily headache. The food and clothing provided were subpar. They never even had their horses with them, since no one could figure how to ship all the animals to the front. The vast majority of U.S. deaths in Cuba probably came from disease -- the fighting stopped quickly, and as the troops sat around waiting on a peace treaty, malaria devastated the ranks. Roosevelt used his book to very publicly criticize the administration of the war effort; the end of the book is addendums reprinting his formal reports to his superiors complaining about these things.

To his credit, if you set aside some of the 1898ish aspects of his writing, Roosevelt is still pretty accessible. (Even though TR was an open-minded guy for his time, modern audiences will likely cringe when he starts going off about the characteristics of various races.) It's not hard to get through "The Rough Riders," and it is interesting to experience TR's personality on the page.

But if you had to pick any public domain TR book, I think I'd go with his 1913 autobiography. It's not comprehensive, as it's glommed together from some shorter essays published in magazines. It's a lot sharper and more charming.

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