On July 1, 1898, during the heat of a Cuban summer, the 1st New Mexico Cavalry, better known as The Rough Riders, stormed up San Juan Hill, propelling the future president, and his regiment, to legendary status while helping the United States defeat a former European colonial power, helping to establish America as a player on the international stage.
“Roosevelt served gallantly during this brief conflict, which lasted from May to July, 1898,” writes the National Parks Service. “An eager Roosevelt resigned his post of Assistant Secretary of the Navy and petitioned Secretary of War Alger to allow him to form a volunteer regiment. Although he had three years of experience as a captain with the National Guard, Roosevelt deferred leadership of the regiment to Leonard Wood, a war hero with whom he was friendly. Wood, as Colonel, and Roosevelt, as Lt. Colonel, began recruiting and organizing the First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry. They sorted through twenty-three thousand applications to form the regiment! Roosevelt’s fame and personality turned him into the de-facto leader of this rag-tag group of polo players, hunters, cowboys, Native Americans, and athletic college buddies. The regiment of “Roosevelt’s Rough Riders” was born.
The Rough Riders participated in two important battles in Cuba. The first action they saw occurred at the Battle of Las Guasimas on June 24, where the Spanish were driven away. The Rough Riders lost seven men with thirty-four wounded. Roosevelt narrowly avoided bullets buzzing by him into the trees, showering splinters around his face. He led troops in a flanking position and the Spanish fled. American forces then assembled for an assault on the city of Santiago through the San Juan Hills. Colonel Wood was promoted in the field, and in response, Roosevelt happily wrote,”I got my regiment.”
The Battle of San Juan Heights was fought on July 1, which Roosevelt called “the great day of my life.” He led a series of charges up Kettle Hill towards San Juan Heights on his horse, Texas, while the Rough Riders followed on foot. He rode up and down the hill encouraging his men with the orders to “March!” He killed one Spaniard with a revolver salvaged from the Maine. Other regiments continued alongside him, and the American flag was raised over San Juan Heights.
The battle itself was fierce, with intense fighting and casualties on both sides. The Rough Riders engaged in close combat, storming trenches and capturing Spanish positions with their trademark eagerness for a fight. Their marksmanship and determination helped break the Spanish resistance and secure the victory for the United States. The bravery displayed by the Rough Riders at San Juan Hill earned them widespread acclaim and contributed to their lasting legacy in American military history.
The Battle of San Juan Hill and the heroics of the Rough Riders marked a turning point in the Spanish-American War. The victory at San Juan Hill demonstrated the effectiveness of American military strategy and helped lead to the eventual defeat of the Spanish forces. The courage and valor displayed by the Rough Riders became an enduring symbol of American bravery and the spirit of volunteerism. Their role in the battle and the subsequent war elevated Colonel Theodore Roosevelt’s profile, propelling him into the national spotlight and setting the stage for his future political career.