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Rough Riders replace stolen plaque honoring their namesake

In 1898, as they awaited deployment to Cuba for the Spanish-American War, Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders camped on land that now is home to Villa Brothers Park and the Fort Homer W. Hesterly Armory.

A plaque marking this distinction stood on the Howard Avenue side of the armory until it was stolen three years ago.

Now, a new marker has been erected just down the street — at Armenia Avenue and Lemon Street inside Villa Brothers Park.

It was paid for by the Tampa Rough Riders, the civic group that funded the original marker in 1978 and is named for Roosevelt's cavalry.

"I hope whoever took the first is at least a fan of the Rough Riders," said Charles Spicola, founder of the Tampa Rough Riders, a nonprofit organization with about 500 members dedicated to promoting the cavalry's history. "I hope people leave the new marker alone."

The Spanish-American War grew out of the Cuban War of Independence led by citizens of the island nation who were seeking to oust colonialist Spain from power.

Tampa was a staging ground for this campaign, too. Ybor City is where Cuba's beloved freedom fighter José Martí raised money to support the cause and in 1895 wrote the order for the war to begin.

Then in February 1898, an explosion sank the USS Maine, an American battleship that was anchored in Cuba's Havana Harbor to protect U.S. citizens and interests during the war.

The U.S. government blamed Spain, sent its military to support the Cubans in their fight against the European nation and named their conflict the Spanish-American War.

Because Tampa had the closest port to Cuba, it was the departure point for more than 16,000 soldiers beginning in June 1898.

While waiting to be sent into battle, Roosevelt and other military leaders slept at the Tampa Bay Hotel, now the Henry B. Plant Museum and part of the University of Tampa campus.

The largest concentration of troops stayed in West Tampa, where the historic marker now stands.

Around 3,000 men slept in tents there — 1,000 each from the 1st, 2nd and 5th U.S. volunteer cavalry regiments. The 1st Regiment would gain the nickname Rough Riders for daring exploits including the taking of Kettle Hill and later, helping take San Juan Hill.

According to the marker, the Rough Riders were a "diverse assortment of cowboys, ranchers, miners, lawmen, trappers, professional sportsmen, and socialites from 42 U.S. states, 4 U.S. territories and 13 foreign countries."

Aggressive in their pursuit of the enemy, the Rough Riders suffered more deaths than any other regiment in the war.

Spain surrendered in August 1898.

Roosevelt was later elected the 26th U.S. president and posthumously received the Medal of Honor in 2001.

The new marker cost the Tampa Rough Riders $2,500. In 1978, they paid $450.

In 2013, the civic group also donated $15,000 to rebuild a collapsed gazebo in Tampa's Spanish-American War Memorial Park. The park is dedicated to the troops, including the Rough Riders, who embarked from Port Tampa to fight in Cuba.

"Those who fought in Cuba became legends," Spicola said. "They need to be honored."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3394. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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