Roosevelt's Rough Riders

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Congress of Rough Riders
US Cavalry of Buffalo Bill's Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders (n.d.)

When the United States declared war on Spain in 1898, Theodore Roosevelt resigned as Assistant Secretary of the Navy to organize the 1st Volunteer Cavalry with Colonel Leonard Wood. Roosevelt reached out to a mix of volunteers, mostly westerners, including many cowboys, from New Mexico, Arizona, and the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), which provided many American Indian recruits. The regiment also recruited well-to-do Easterners who graduated from Ivy League universities such as Harvard and Yale. Members of the press and others recommended various nicknames, including “Teddy’s Terrors” and “Cowboy Cavalry,” yet everyone eventually settled on the name “Rough Riders.” Buffalo Bill Cody used the term “The Congress of Rough Riders of the World” beginning in 1893, and Roosevelt initially disliked the application of the name Rough Riders to his regiment due to his concerns many may view the group as “a hippodrome affair.” The popularity of the moniker won over Roosevelt and he eventually embraced the name “Roosevelt’s Rough Riders.”

Despite training in Texas as a cavalry unit, the Rough Riders arrived in Cuba to fight the Spanish without their horses. Lieutenant Colonel Roosevelt and Colonel Wood led the group through the Battle of Las Guasimas after landing in Cuba. Roosevelt, now promoted to colonel, led the unit at the Battle of San Juan Heights were he and his men secured Kettle Hill and then joined the 10th US Cavalry composed of Buffalo Soldiers. The popularity of the Rough Rider regiment propelled Roosevelt through his political career leading him to the presidency, yet he never did offer credit to Buffalo Bill for originating the name. Despite the perceived slight, in March 1899 Buffalo Bill’s Wild West first staged a reenactment of the Battle of San Juan Hill at Madison Square Garden, featuring soldiers who served under Roosevelt and members of the 10th Cavalry. This reenactment and others, including the Boxer Rebellion, not only reflected Buffalo Bill’s method of using authentic participants to recreate past events, but also signified how the Wild West program’s focus on westward expansion continued to accommodate American imperialism overseas.

Funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and private donors.

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