Roosevelt’s Rough Riders’ victory beginning of end for Spain

Editor’s note: This is part of a weekly series marking the 120th anniversary of Niles native William McKinley’s U.S. presidency.

With all of the patriotic feelings leading up to the war with Spain, there was no group the media or Americans loved more than the First United States Volunteer Cavalry.

Better known as “The Rough Riders,” they were a larger-than-life diverse unit made up of the rich, poor, athletes, police officers, cowboys and Native Americans, with a second-in-command by the name of Theodore Roosevelt, who left his safer post as assistant secretary of the U.S. Navy in Washington, D.C., to lead men into combat, which was his dream and passion.

President William McKinley was busy dealing with Congress on the annexation of Hawaii, but took time out in the war room at the White House to look at the strategy for taking Santiago in early July. The goal was to take the San Juan heights surrounding the city to have the clear advantage to shell the city into submission and to hasten Spain’s surrender. The first order was to gain the high ground, a move that would come at a heavy loss to the Americans and rebels.

In the early hours of July 1, 1898, the American artillery positioned below opened fire on the Spaniards’ mountaintop stone fort. Very little damage occurred and, unfortunately, the hope the projectiles would cause enough damage to make a frontal assault easier did not happen.

It would be up to infantry units, as well as the Rough Riders, to make their way up the hills to the Spaniards positioned in trenches around the fort. The reporters stationed behind the artillery line watched as streams of shrapnel would rain down on the advancing forces at the bottom of the hills then direct fire from rifles when the troops ascended close to the top.

The other problem was the Americans’ observation balloons allowed the Spanish to get a fix on the advancing positions. More men died here on the hills than at any other place during the war.

Unit members positioned themselves in a sunken lane near Kettle Hill, not knowing their brigade commander as well as two other officers in command were shot and killed. The battle looked to be a disaster, but then a young Col. Roosevelt made history by riding his horse, Texas, up the slopes as one bullet grazed his elbow and many hit his horse, to lead his Rough Riders to take the hill.

Many in the media felt the Spaniards were intimidated by the charge and American rush following their leader, so when Roosevelt’s Rough Riders and the Ninth Cavalry, an African-American unit, reached the peak, the Spanish trenches were empty.

From the top of Kettle Hill, Roosevelt could see the action on neighboring San Juan Hill, which was turning in favor of the Americans thanks to a new weapon called the Gatling gun. It provided the cover the infantry needed as it advanced. The Rough Riders then moved across the side of San Juan Hill to support and meet the other American troops and take the fort. This is the site of the famous photo of Roosevelt and the Rough Riders with the U.S. flag flying high in the wind.

This victory began the end for the Spanish military in Cuba.

— Mike Wilson is the Director of SCOPE Senior Services of Trumbull County and has traveled around the nation performing as William McKinley for the past 25 years.