A Splendid Little War

No. 261

by Jacquelyn Procter Reeves

Jim Donnell studied the face of the impatient conductor as the train engine idled. “Well, Jim, are you coming with me to Cuba, or not?” his brother-in-law called again over the noise of the train. Jim was standing outside, holding a load of firewood for his sister’s cook-stove. He shifted his weight as he pondered his choice. He could stay here in his life of boring predictability, or he could go to a foreign country and experience exciting adventures at the expense of Uncle Sam. The train slowly rumbled forward. “Ah, to hell with it!” he said as he threw his load of wood on the ground. Without stopping to tell his sister good-bye, he was running to the train.

When Teddy Roosevelt brought his Rough Riders through the Deep South on their way to Tampa, Florida, they were greeted by cheering crowds eager to shower them with support and admiration. Ladies brought pails of milk and fresh fruit, and smiling young girls asked for buttons and cartridges as souvenirs from the polished soldiers. Tired old men who had fought for the Confederacy cheered the flag of the United States, because more than three decades after the Civil War, they were finally proud to be Americans. Only the old women did not smile at the joyous celebration around them. Looking into the exuberant faces of men anxious for blood and gunpowder, they saw the reflections of husbands, brothers and fathers who never came home from the Civil War.

In early 1898, escalating hostilities between the Cubans and Spaniards threatened to turn into a full-scale war. The United States sent the battleship Maine down to Cuba as a measure of protections for Americans who might get caught in the middle of the conflict. The inevitable happened when an explosion aboard the Maine sunk it on February 15, 1898, killing 260 on the ship.

America’s involvement in the Spanish-American War has been blamed on William Randolph Hearst, who used the crisis as a vehicle to showcase yellow journalism at its worst. The cause of the sinking of the Maine was never determined, but Hearst smelled a story that would sell, and with the encouragement of sensational newspaper reporting, Americans demanded nothing less than revenge. On April 25, the United States declared war on Spain.

Teddy Roosevelt was Assistant Secretary of the Navy at this time. He and his good friend Leonard Wood were promoting U.S. involvement in the crisis, and in order to personally participate, Roosevelt resigned his position to raise a company of rugged fighters from the frontier known as “the wild and woolly West.” Wood became the Colonel of the First Volunteer Cavalry Regiment because he had military experience that Roosevelt lacked; Roosevelt took the second-place command as Lieutenant Colonel. Worried that they would not have enough volunteers to fill a regiment, they were surprised when they were inundated with applicants, many who were turned away. What they ended up with was a curious mixture of lawmen, ranch hands, ex-cons using aliases, and even more unusual, Roosevelt’s former Harvard classmates who spent their leisure time atop polo ponies. Applicants from Princeton and Yale, along with members of the elite Knickerbocker and Somerset men’s clubs, rounded out the group of Easterners destined for the training camps in the untamed Southwest. These Ivy League dandies converged in San Antonio for training with tough and rugged cowboys who had nothing in common with them, except for knowing how to ride and shoot, and a desire to fight.