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Theodore Roosevelt

1898–1899: The Spanish-American War

1886–1897: A National Figure

1898–1901: Returning to Politics

It is arguable that the Spanish-American War in 1898 was perhaps the most pointless war in the history of the United States. Although it was not known at the time, the war was not truly fought for territory, for markets, for principle, or even for honor. Rather, it began because William Randolph Hearst, editor of the popular New York Journal and future media tycoon, sought sensational material to print that would outsell his competition, The New York World. For years the two papers had battled over sales, each trying to find the most sensational piece of news to print. Hearst had heard rumors of atrocities committed by the Spanish Empire in their territories and began printing stories of Spanish abuses. The exposés quickly grabbed New Yorkers' attention, and soon all of America was reading Hearst's articles about the drama in Spain's Latin American territories. Hearst realized he had struck gold and continued printing stories. He sent his artist Frederic Remington to Cuba to capture the action on canvas. Remington soon requested to return to the U.S. when he realized that war would not erupt. Hearst replied with the now- famous words, "You furnish the pictures, and I'll furnish the war!" His sensationalistic style of journalism fueled American hearts with anger towards the Spanish for their acts of cruelty. In 1898 when the U.S. warship Maine mysteriously exploded and sank in Havana Harbor, killing 258 U.S. Navy crewmen, the American public assumed it had been attacked or sabotaged and demanded war. Thus, Congress was dragged into a war it did not particularly wish to fight.

As Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt took immediate action. Because his boss, the Secretary of the Navy, was away from the office when war erupted, Roosevelt assumed the title of Acting Secretary of the Navy and sent a telegram to Admiral Dewey who commanded the U.S. fleet in the Asian Pacific. The telegram instructed the admiral that if war should erupt between Spain and the United States, he was to take offensive action against the Philippine Islands, which were then part of the Spanish Empire. Dewey followed his orders. Within days after war was declared, Dewey sailed silently from Hong Kong toward Manila, and on the morning of May 1, 1898, launched a surprise attack on the Spanish fleet anchored in the bay. Within mere hours, Dewey had simultaneously captured the Philippines and demonstrated the power of the United States Navy for the very first time.

Meanwhile, President McKinley called for 100,000 volunteers to fight the Spanish in the Caribbean. The Secretary of War, General Russell Alger, offered the command of one of the three volunteer regiments to Roosevelt. Many of Roosevelt's friends begged him not to accept the offer, and to instead retain the prestigious political post of Assistant Secretary of the Navy. Roosevelt, however, did not listen. He resigned his position at the Navy Department and volunteered to fight as a soldier. He was granted the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in one of the most motley, if not most famous, Army divisions in history. Known as the Rough Riders, the 1,000 men in this battle group came from all walks of life from throughout America. Many were ranchers, cowboys, gamblers, and even outlaws. Others from the East had given up college and high society for a little excitement. All were adventurous to say the least, and all were willing to fight.

Aside from a brief skirmish upon landing in Cuba, the Rough Rider's greatest challenge came on July 1, 1898, at San Juan Hill outside the city of Santiago, Cuba. A Spanish entrenchment at the top of the hill, which protected the city, had to be captured in order to take Santiago. In what he later described as the "greatest day of [his] life", Colonel Theodore Roosevelt charged forth on horseback to lead the Rough Riders up the hill. The battle was thick, and by the end, fifteen of Roosevelt's men were dead and seventy-three more were wounded. Over the course of the war, the Rough Riders suffered more casualties than any other unit. Santiago was taken, and the war eventually ended after another American fleet, under Admiral Sampson's command, defeated the Spanish Navy in Santiago Harbor. Similar to the attack in Manila, this battle was also over within a matter of hours.

The results of the war were entirely ironic. First, the United States won the war only because the Spanish fought horribly, not because the American forces were superior to those of their enemy. The Spanish garrison on Cuba consisted of some 200,000 men, far outnumbering the American forces. Both Spanish fleets in Manila and in Santiago were unprepared as well. The Spanish military was poorly trained and incompetent, ensuring an easy victory for the Americans. Another point of sad irony was that more American troops died after the war was over than during the war. A wave of yellow fever hit the jungles of Cuba and killed thirteen times as many American men than the Spanish had killed in combat. This was partly because the U.S. forces were poorly equipped to handle a tropical war: the army had no khaki summer gear, so all of the soldiers wore heavy winter clothing. Food and supplies were low and the camps were filthy. Roosevelt, by now promoted to full Colonel for his bravery at San Juan, drafted a letter condemning the U.S. War Department for its incompetence and inefficiency, and sent it to the Associated Press to be published. Roosevelt also wrote the Round Robin letter, which many other high-ranking commanders signed, calling for the removal of U.S. troops from Cuba because of the horrible conditions. The letter was sent to the War Department, and when the troops were eventually withdrawn, the American people hailed Roosevelt as a national hero for bringing the soldiers home.

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