In 1898, Teddy Roosevelt charged up a hill in Cuba and into history. Along the way, he put Tampa on the map.
The Rough Riders, the volunteer unit that Roosevelt recruited and helped lead, sailed from Tampa into national legend. In The Crowded Hour: Theodore Roosevelt, the Rough Riders, and the Dawn of the American Century, Clay Risen has written an engaging, deeply researched account of one the most famous battles in American military history.
Risen, who is the deputy op-ed editor of the New York Times, is also the author of The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act and A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination. He will be a featured author at the Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading on Nov. 9.
In The Crowded Hour — its title borrowed from Roosevelt’s own description of the battle — Risen frames his account of the Rough Riders and their part in the attack on Santiago de Cuba with the historical and political context of the Spanish-American War on one hand, and, on the other, the personal accounts in letters and journals of the men who were part of it.
As the 20th century approached, Risen writes, the United States faced changes. The deep scars of the Civil War still divided the nation, and the long wars against indigenous tribes that marked the closing of the Western frontier took their toll as well. For decades most Americans had opposed intervention in foreign nations that might lead to war. So widespread was this pacifism and isolationism that by the 1890s the U.S. Army had dwindled to only 28,000 men.
But the United States was beginning to see itself as a global power, and public support grew for the Cuban rebels who for several years had been fighting to throw off Spanish rule. Spain had controlled Cuba since Christopher Columbus landed there almost four centuries before, and Spain’s ruthless treatment of the rebels evoked American sympathies. Newspaper accounts of the rebellion by star reporters such as Richard Harding Davis (who plays a large role in this book) appealed to American idealism, casting intervention in Cuba as an extension of national values of liberty and self-determination.
In 1898, Theodore Roosevelt was 39 years old. He had been a bestselling author, politician, rancher, naturalist and historian, but he had no military experience. He was serving as assistant secretary of the Navy under President William McKinley as the drumbeat of war grew. He found a kindred spirit in McKinley’s personal physician, Leonard Wood, an Army captain who had served in the Indian wars and was, like Roosevelt, an “adventure junkie,” Risen writes.
The famous explosion of the Maine, a U.S. warship, in Havana’s harbor in February 1898 was probably an accident, Risen writes, but it set off war fever across the United States, not least in Roosevelt and Wood. By May, Roosevelt had resigned his cabinet position and volunteered for the Army, and he and Wood set out to recruit a volunteer regiment. They received 27 mail sacks of applications in the first weeks of the war.
They also received huge amounts of press coverage. “The fact that he would be leading a band of cowboys into battle,” Risen writes, “made the story of Roosevelt and his regiment irresistible.”
The troops weren’t all cowboys, although many were, or Westerners who had fought in the Indian wars. Others were scions of wealthy Eastern families with Ivy League degrees, lawyers or doctors or professional tennis players. And pretty soon they were all media darlings. In San Antonio, Texas, where they first gathered for training, so many thousands of civilians came to tour the camp that they had to be banned. At the center of attention was Roosevelt, a charismatic dynamo with “no inside voice” and a swaggering back story.
From Texas the Rough Riders traveled by train to Tampa. It was an odd choice. At the time Tampa was a town of 15,000 people. Roosevelt called it “a perfect welter of confusion”; Davis described it as “derelict wooden houses drifting in a sea of sand.” The only place for the regiment to board ships for Cuba was Port Tampa, 9 miles from the city at the southern tip of the Interbay Peninsula.
So why were they here? Henry Plant. The railroad and hotel magnate saw the war as a fine branding opportunity for his Tampa Bay Hotel, an improbable tourist resort (its minaret-topped building is now part of the University of Tampa) that was in its slow season in the heat of the Florida summer. So he lobbied McKinley to send the troops to Tampa and, Risen writes, the “Department of War, without considering the alternatives, agreed.”
So many soldiers arrived in Tampa that the city’s population tripled, leaving food and almost everything else in short supply, although the locals welcomed them warmly. The troops slept in tents to the north and east of town, around what is now Tampa Heights and other areas, while officers bunked at the posh hotel — except Roosevelt and Wood, now colonels, who spent their days at the hotel but preferred to camp with their men at night. As Plant had hoped, members of the press who swarmed the camp gave Tampa, and his hotel, some of their coverage.
Risen writes vividly about the bungled departure from Tampa, on a mismatched fleet of rented ships so inadequate that most of the regiment’s horses and artillery had to be left behind. After more than a week of delays, they departed on June 13.
“That morning," he writes, "thirty-one ships carrying 10 million pounds of rations, 2,295 horses and mules, 16 pieces of artillery, and 16,987 men — including 89 war correspondents and 11 foreign observers — slipped out of Hillsborough Bay toward the Gulf of Mexico.”
They were headed for further chaos and shining heroism. Davis wrote in his report of the battle on July 1 that "Roosevelt, mounted high on horseback, and charging the rifle-pits at a gallop and quite alone, made you feel you would like to cheer” as he led the Rough Riders’ pivotal charge up a hill above Santiago de Cuba — although perhaps not the hill you think.
The Spanish-American War would last for less than four months, with the United States taking possession of not only Cuba but Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines. Many of the Rough Riders never returned, felled by bullets and bombs as well as by heat stroke, malaria, yellow fever and dysentery. Others came back heroes. The United States had a new vision of itself that would carry forward into all the wars of the 20th century and beyond.
By the end of 1898, Roosevelt would be elected governor of New York. In 1901, he became vice president and, after William McKinley was assassinated six months later, president. The battle in Cuba was just one crowded hour in a crowded and extraordinary life; this book makes it both a dashing adventure story and a revealing window into our history.
The Crowded Hour: Theodore Roosevelt, the Rough Riders, and the Dawn of the American Century
By Clay Risen
Scribner, 355 pages, $30
Meet the author
Clay Risen will be a featured author at the 2019 Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading on Nov. 9 at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg; tampabay.com/expos/festival-of-reading/.