We’re all sitting around the house with plenty of time on our hands, so here is a history lesson with relevance in a way that might surprise you. It’s a bit long, but these days it seems like hours and days all run together. What day is it anyway?
Captain Brett Crozier was recently relieved of command of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt. Captain Crozier had written a letter to his chain of command that requested the majority of the personnel be removed because COVID-19 was spreading through the ship. There is a remarkable irony to this in both the name of the ship and the reason Crozier was in effect “fired.”
On May 6, 1898, Theodore Roosevelt resigned as Assistant Secretary of the Navy and was commissioned Lieutenant Colonel of the newly organized 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry. His father had avoided military service in the Civil War by hiring a substitute. This was legitimate and common, especially among wealthy businessmen, but historians speculate that Theodore felt a sense of shame that drove his ambition for combat; and moreover, Teddy was forever in the shadow of the father he admired as “the greatest man I ever knew.” Military heroism was his chance to be a better man.
Whether this speculation is correct or not, the manly test of war was glorified by young men of his generation, and Roosevelt was no exception. He is often called a warmonger, and that is debatable, but unquestionably he saw tremendous value–for individuals and nations–in fighting a just war. He pushed hard for war with Spain and then put his own life on the line, enthusiastically leading his men into battle. On the other hand, as President of the United States he was a peacemaker, winning the Nobel Prize for mediating a war between Japan and Russia.
The Rough Riders, as they were known, included an assortment of his old friends including cowboys from out West and polo-playing buddies from Harvard. On June 24, 1898, two days after landing in Cuba, Roosevelt led his men into their first battle. His “crowded hour” of glory came on July 1, when the Rough Riders took Kettle Hill, then San Juan Hill, suffering the heaviest losses of the war. Colonel Roosevelt gallantly led the charge, first on horseback and then on foot, receiving only minor nicks from the hail of Spanish bullets as men dropped all around him. At the top of the hill, with his flair for poetic drama, Roosevelt shot a Spanish soldier with a pistol recovered from the sunken battleship Maine. Of the 490 Rough Riders who entered the battle for San Juan Heights, 89 had been killed or wounded.
Six months later, General Samuel Sumner recommended Colonel Roosevelt for the Medal of Honor “as a reward for conspicuous gallantry,” noting that Roosevelt did not just order a charge, he led it (twice). The Secretary of War rejected the request. Why? A month after the fighting ended, Roosevelt’s unit still sat in Cuba, suffering from malaria, waiting for the Army to transport them home. Roosevelt reported that of the 600 troops with whom he landed, over half were dead or sick in the hospital. At a meeting of division and brigade commanders in Santiago, including all the chief medical officers, the unanimous opinion was that instead of remaining in mosquito- infested Cuba indefinitely to be destroyed by malaria, the army had to be brought home immediately. They agreed that a report needed to be written, addressed to General William Rufus Shafter.
None of the regular officers dared to risk their careers by writing such a report, so Roosevelt volunteered to be the author. He would also write a letter to be circulated in round-robin fashion, for the signatures of all Shafter’s field commanders. Roosevelt loaded the report (dated August 3, 1898), with blunt language. Estimating at least 1,500 cases of malarial fever, he wrote: “The whole command is so weakened and shattered as to be ripe for dying like rotten sheep,” adding that the men would rather face Spanish bullets than death from malaria. “This army must be moved at once, or perish.” In the end, it was agreed that only Roosevelt’s name would be affixed to the report. The cover letter was signed by seven commanders including Roosevelt.
General Shafter refused to accept the letter, brushing aside Roosevelt’s hand and shoving the documents toward a correspondent for the Associate Press who had been invited by Roosevelt to witness and report on the meeting. (This was Roosevelt’s mistake.) The reporter’s story, complete with documents, appeared in newspapers a few days later. When the newspaper carrying the story reached President William McKinley and Secretary of War R. A. Alger, they were furious.
Probably the only man who felt more embarrassed and angry reading the newspaper that August morning than McKinley was Secretary Alger. He considered a court-martial for Roosevelt but instead chose to retaliate. He leaked to William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal a private letter previous written by Roosevelt bragging about the Rough Riders and disparaging the regular National Guard regiments. Alger and Hearst hoped it would ruin Roosevelt’s political career. Fortunately for Roosevelt, other newspapers rallied to his defense and condemned Alger for the treachery of leaking a private letter, obviously a petty act of retaliation.
Chastened by the press, Alger wrote Roosevelt a letter of apology and insisted that he had no intention of detracting from his much-deserved honors. This was untrue, however. He declined to endorse the recommendation that Roosevelt receive the Medal of Honor–signed by Major General Leonard Wood, General Sumner, General Young, and the officers and enlisted men who had been on San Juan Heights–and without Alger’s endorsement, the nomination was dead.
After the war, McKinley asked for Alger’s resignation. Roosevelt was elected Governor of New York and then was picked to be McKinley’s running mate in the 1900 reelection campaign. (His first vice president, Garrett Hobart, died in office.) Upon McKinley’s assassination in September 1901, Roosevelt stepped into the presidency.
In 1998, on the centennial of the war, Roosevelt was posthumously nominated for the Medal of Honor and it was presented to his grandson by President Bill Clinton in 2000. He is the only U.S. President to be awarded the Medal of Honor. The USS Theodore Roosevelt was commissioned in 1984, a fitting tribute to an American President who was passionate about a strong navy. Sailors aboard the ship cheered for Capt. Crozier as he disembarked the ship for the last time.
Written by Dave Hanson