Nonfiction > Jacob A. Riis > Theodore Roosevelt, the Citizen > VII. The Clash of War
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Jacob A. Riis (1849–1914). Theodore Roosevelt, the Citizen. 1904.
 
VII. The Clash of War
 
IT sounded like old times, to us who had stayed behind in Mulberry Street, when, within a few months after his departure for Washington, the wail came from down there that Roosevelt was playing at war with the ships, that he was spoiling for a row, and did not care what it cost. It seems he had been asking a million dollars or so for target practice, and, when he got that, demanding more—another half million. I say it sounded like old times, for that was the everlasting refrain of the grievance while he ran the police: there was never to be any rest or peace where he was. No, there was not. In Mulberry Street it was his business to make war on the scoundrels who had wrecked the force and brought disgrace upon our city. To Washington he had gone to sharpen the tools of war. War he knew must come. They all knew it; it was his business to prepare for it, since the first and hardest blows must be struck on the sea.   1
  Here let me stop a moment to analyze his attitude toward this war that was looming on the horizon even before he left Mulberry Street. It was perfectly simple, as simple as anything he ever did or said, to any one who had ever taken the trouble to “think him out.” I had followed him to Washington to watch events for my paper, and there joined the “war party,” as President McKinley called Roosevelt and Leonard Wood, poking fun at them in his quiet way. There was not a trace of self-seeking or of jingoism in Roosevelt’s attitude, unless you identify jingoism with the stalwart Americanism that made him write these words the year before:   2
  “Every true Patriot, every man of statesmanlike habit, should look forward to the time when not a single European power shall hold a foot of American soil.” Not, he added, that it was necessary to question the title of foreign powers to present holdings; but “it certainly will become necessary if the timid and selfish peace-at-any-price men have their way, and if the United States fails to check, at the outset, European aggrandizement on this continent.”   3
  That was one end of it, the political one, if you please; the Monroe Doctrine in its briefest and simplest form. Spain had by outrageous mismanagement of its West Indian colonies proved herself unfit, and had forfeited the right to remain. The mismanagement had become a scandal upon our own shores. Every year the yellow fever that was brewed in Cuban filth crossed over and desolated a thousand homes in our Southern States. If proof were wanted that it was mismanagement that did it, events have more than supplied it since, and justified the war of humanity.   4
  Plain humanity was the other end of it, and the biggest. I know, for I saw how it worked upon his mind. I was in Washington when a German cigar-manufacturer, whose business took him once or twice a year to Cuba, came to the capital seeking an interview with Senator Lodge, his home senator, since he was from Boston. I can see him now sitting in the committee-room and telling how on his last trip he had traveled to some inland towns where he was in the habit of doing business, but where now all had been laid waste; how when he sat down in the inn to eat such food as he could get, a famished horde of gaunt, half-naked women, with starving babies at barren breasts, crept up like dogs to his chair, fighting for the crumbs that fell from his plate. Big tears rolled down the honest German’s face as he told of it. He could not eat, he could not sleep until he had gone straight to Washington to tell there what he had witnessed. I can see the black look come into Roosevelt’s face and hear him muttering under his breath, for he, too, had little children whom he loved. And the old anger wells up in me at the thought of those who would have stayed our hand. Better a thousand times war with all its horrors than a hell like that. That was murder, and of women and innocent children. The war that avenges such infamy I hail as the messenger of wrath of an outraged God.   5
  The war was a moral issue with him, as indeed it was with all of us who understood. It was with such facts as these—and there was no lack of them—in mind and heart that he responded hotly to Senator Hanna pleading for peace for the sake of the country’s commerce and prosperity, that much as he appreciated those blessings, the honor of the country was of more account than temporary business prosperity. It has slipped my mind what was the particular occasion,—some club gathering,—but I have not forgotten the profound impression the Naval Secretary’s words made as he insisted that our country could better afford to lose a thousand of the bankers that have added to its wealth than one Farragut; that it were better for it never to have had all the railroad magnates that have built it up, great as is their deserving, than to have lost Grant and Sherman; better that it had never known commercial greatness than that it should miss from its history one Lincoln. Unless the moral overbalance the material, we are indeed riding for a fall in all our pride.   6
  So he made ready for the wrath to come. And now his early interest in naval affairs, that gave us his first book, bore fruit. When the work of preparation was over, and Roosevelt was bound for the war to practice what he had preached, his chief, Secretary Long, said, in bidding him good-by, that he had been literally invaluable in his place, and that the navy would feel the stimulus of his personality for a long time. His industry was prodigious. He bought ships for the invasion of Cuba, and fitted them out. He recruited crews and shot away fortunes with the big guns—recklessly shouted the critics. He knew better. His experience as a hunter had taught him that the best gun in the world was wasted on a man who did not know how to use it. The Spaniards found that out later. Roosevelt loaded up with ammunition and with coal. When at last the war broke out, Dewey found everything he needed at Hong Kong where he sought it, and was able to sail across to Manila a week before they expected him there. And then we got the interest on the gun-practice that had frightened the economical souls at home.   7
  In Mulberry Street it was corruption that defied him; now it was the stubborn red tape of a huge department that dragged and dragged at his feet, and threatened to snare him up at every second step he took,—themost disheartening of human experiences. The men he came quickly to like. “They are a fine lot of fellows,” he wrote to me, “these naval men. You would take to them at sight.” Of the other he never spoke, but I can imagine how it must have nagged him. To this day, when I have anything I want to find out or do in the Navy Department, it seems flatly impossible to make a short cut to the thing I want. So many bureaus, so many chief clerks, and so many what-you-may-call-’ems have to pass upon it. It is the way of the world, I suppose, to go on magnifying and exalting the barrel where the staves are men with their little interests and conceits, until what it is made to hold is of secondary importance or less. In the end he burst through it as he did through the jobs the police conspirators tried to put up on him; kicked it all to pieces and went on his way.   8
  A new light shone through the dusty old windows. For generations, since steam came to replace sail, there had been a contention between the line and the engineer corps, as to rank and pay, that cut into the heart of the navy. It was the fight of the old against the new that goes on in all days. The old line-officer was loath to give equal place to the engineer, who, when he was young, was but an auxiliary, an experiment. The place of honor was still to be on the deck, though long since the place of responsibility had moved to the engine-room. The engineer insisted upon recognition; met the other upon the floor of Congress and checkmated him in his schemes of legislation. The quarrel was bitter, irreconcilable; on every ship there were hostile camps. Neither could make headway for the other. Roosevelt, as chairman of a board to reconcile the differences that were older than the navy itself as it is to-day, steered it successfully between the two fatal reefs and made peace. Under his “personnel bill” each side obtained its rights, and, with the removal of the pretext for future quarrels, the navy was greatly strengthened. Cadets now receive the same training; the American naval officer in the next war will be equally capable of commanding on deck and of mending a broken engine.   9
  When it came to picking out the man who was to command in the East, where the blow must be struck, Roosevelt picked Dewey. They laughed at him. Dewey was a “dude,” they said. It seems the red tape had taken notice of the fact that the Commodore was always trim and neat, and, judging him by its own standard, thought that was all. Roosevelt told them no, he would fight. And he might wear whatever kind of collar he chose, so long as he did that. I remember, when Dewey was gone with his ships, the exultation with which Roosevelt spoke of the choice. We were walking down Connecticut Avenue, with his bicycle between us, discussing Dewey. Leonard Wood came out of a side street and joined us. His mind was on Cuba. Roosevelt, with prophetic eye, beheld Manila and the well-stocked ammunition-bins in Chinese waters.   10
  “Dewey,” he said, “is the man for the place. He has a lion heart.”   11
  I guess none of us feels like disputing his judgment at this day, any more than we do the wisdom of the gun-practice.   12
  When Dewey was in the East, it was Roosevelt’s influence in the naval board that kept his fleet intact. The Olympia had been ordered home. Roosevelt secured the repeal of the order. “Keep the Olympia,” he cabled him, and “keep full of coal.” The resistless energy of the man carried all before it till the day when orders were cabled under the Pacific to the man with the lion heart to go in and smash the enemy. “Capture or destroy!” We know the rest.   13
  Roosevelt’s work was done. “There is nothing more for me to do here,” he said. “I’ve got to get into the fight myself.”   14
  They told him to stay, he was needed where he was. But he was right: his work was done. It was to prepare for war. With the fighting of the ships he had, could have, nothing to do. Merely to sit in an office and hold down a job, a title, or a salary, was not his way. He did not go lightly. His wife was lying sick, with a little baby; his other children needed him. I never had the good fortune to know a man who loves his children more devotedly and more sensibly than he. There was enough to keep him at home; there were plenty to plead with him. I did myself, for I hated to see him go. His answer was as if his father might have spoken: “I have done all I could to bring on the war, because it is a just war, and the sooner we meet it the better. Now that it has come, I have no business to ask others to do the fighting and stay at home myself.”   15
  It was right, and he went. I have not forgotten that gray afternoon in early May when I went with him across the river to the train that was to carry him and his horse South. He had made his will; the leave-taking was over and had left its mark. There was in him no trace of the “spoiling for a fight” that for the twentieth time was cast up against him. He looked soberly, courageously ahead to a new and untried experience, hopeful of the glad day that should see our arms victorious and the bloody usurper driven from Cuba. “I won’t be long.” He waved his hand and was gone; and to me the leaden sky seemed drearier, the day more desolate than before.   16
  Two weary months dragged their slow length along. There had been fighting in Cuba. Every morning my wife and I plotted each to waylay the newsboy to get the paper first and make sure he was safe before the other should see it. And then one bright and blessed July morning, when the land was ringing with the birthday salute of the nation, she came with shining eyes, waving the paper, in which we read together of the charge on San Juan Hill; how the Rough-Riders charged, with him at their head, through a hail of Spanish bullets, the men dropping by twos and threes as they ran.   17
  “When they came 1 to the open, smooth hillside there was no protection. Bullets were raining down at them, and shot and shells from the batteries were sweeping everything. There was a moment’s hesitation, and then came the order: ‘Forward! charge!’ Lieutenant-Colonel Roosevelt led, waving his sword. Out into the open the men went, and up the hill. Death to every man seemed certain. The crackle of the Mauser rifles was continuous. Out of the brush came the riders. Up, up they went, with the colored troops alongside of them, not a man flinching, and forming as they ran. Roosevelt was a hundred feet in the lead. Up, up they went in the face of death, men dropping from the ranks at every step. The Rough-Riders acted like veterans. It was an inspiring sight and an awful one.   18
  “Astounded by the madness of the rush, the Spaniards exposed themselves. This was a fatal mistake. The Tenth Cavalry (the colored troops) picked them off like ducks and rushed on, up and up.   19
  “The more Spaniards were killed, the more seemed to take their places. The rain of shells and bullets doubled. Men dropped faster and faster, but others took their places. Roosevelt sat erect on his horse, holding his sword and shouting for his men to follow him. Finally, his horse was shot from under him, but he landed on his feet and continued calling for his men to advance. He charged up the hill afoot.   20
  “It seemed an age to the men who were watching, and to the Rough-Riders the hill must have seemed miles high. But they were undaunted. They went on, firing as fast as their guns would work.   21
  “At last the top of the hill was reached. The Spaniards in the trenches could still have annihilated the Americans, but the Yankees’ daring dazed them. They wavered for an instant, and then turned and ran.   22
  “The position was won and the block-house captured.… In the rush more than half of the Rough-Riders were wounded.”   23
  In how many American homes was that splendid story read that morning with a thrill never quite to be got over! We read it together, she and I, excited, breathless; and then we laid down the paper and gave two such rousing cheers as had n’t been heard in Richmond Hill that Fourth of July morning, one for the flag and one for Theodore Roosevelt. What was breakfast? The war was won and over!   24
  We live in a queer world. One man sees the glorious painting, priceless for all time; the other but the fly-speck on the frame. A year or two after, some one, I think he was an editor, wrote to ask me if the dreadful thing was true that in the rush up that hill Roosevelt said, “Hell!” I don’t know what I replied—I want to forget it. I know I said it, anyhow. But, great Scott! think of it.   25
  Of that war and of his regiment, from the day it was evolved, uniformed, armed, and equipped, through “ceaseless worrying of excellent bureaucrats who had no idea how to do things quickly or how to meet an emergency,” 2 all through the headlong race with a worse enemy than the one in front,—the malaria, upon which the Spaniards counted openly as their grewsome ally,—down to the day when, the army’s work done, Colonel Roosevelt “wrecked his career” finally and for good, by demanding its recall home, he himself has told the story in “The Rough-Riders.” Every school-boy in the land knows it. The Rough-Riders came out of the heroic past of our country’s history, held the forefront of the stage for three brief months, and melted back into college, and camp, and mine with never a ripple. But they left behind them a mark which this generation will not see effaced. To those who think it a sudden ambitious thought, a “streak of luck,” I commend this reference to the “rifle-bearing horsemen” on page 249 of the second volume of his “Winning of the West,” written quite ten years before: “They were brave and hardy, able to tread their way unerringly through the forests, and fond of surprises; and though they always fought on foot, they moved on horseback, and therefore with great celerity. Their operations should be carefully studied by all who wish to learn the possibilities of mounted riflemen.” Before he or any one else dreamed of the war, he had studied and thought it all out, and when the chance came he was ready for it and took it. That is all there ever was in “Roosevelt’s luck”; and that is about all there is in this luck business, anyhow, as I have said before.   26
  The chance came to one man beside him who was ready, and the world is the better for it. I saw the growing friendship between the two that year in Washington, and was glad; for Leonard Wood is another man to tie to, as one soon finds out who knows him. They met there for the first time, but in one brief year they grew to be such friends that when the command of the regiment was offered Roosevelt, he asked for second place under Wood; for Wood had seen service in the field, as Roosevelt had not. He had earned the medal of honor for undaunted courage and great ability in the arduous campaigns against the Apaches. Both earned their promotion in battle afterward. I liked to see them together because they are men of the same strong type. When Roosevelt writes of his friend that, “like so many of the gallant fighters with whom it was later my good fortune to serve, he combined in a very high degree the qualities of entire manliness with entire uprightness and cleanliness of character; it was a pleasure to deal with a man of high ideals who scorned everything mean and base, and who also possessed those robust and hardy qualities of body and mind, for the lack of which no merely negative virtue can ever atone”—he draws as good a picture of himself as his best friend could have done. While the Roosevelts and the Woods come when they are needed, as they always have come, our country is safe.   27
  Together they sailed away in the springtime, southward through the tropic seas, toward the unknown. “We knew not whither we were bound, nor what we were to do; but we believed that the nearing future held for us many chances of death and hardship, of honor and renown. If we failed, we would share the fate of all who fail; but we were sure that we would win, that we should score the first great triumph in a mighty world-movement.” The autumn days were shortening when I stood at Montauk Point scanning the sea for the vessels that should bring them back. Within the year one was to sit at Albany, the Governor of his own, the Empire State; the other in the palace of the conquered tyrant on the rescued isle. For Roosevelt committees were waiting, honors and high office. The country rang with his name. But when he stepped ashore his concern was for his own at home,—for his wife; and when I told him that I had brought her down to see his triumph, he thanked me with a handshake that told me how glad he was.   28
  I see him now riding away over the hill, in his Rough-Rider uniform, to the hospital where his men lay burning up with the fever. Wherever he came, confusion, incapacity, gave way to order and efficiency. Things came round at once. So did his men. The sight of his face was enough to make them rally for another fight with the enemy. They had seen him walking calmly on top of the earth wall when, in the small hours of the morning, drenched by pouring rains, chilled to the bone, and starving in the trenches, they were roused by the alarm that the Spaniards were coming, and the sight made them heroes. They had heard his cheering voice when the surgeons were dressing the wounded by candle-light, after the fight at Las Guasimas: “Boys, if there is a man at home who would n’t be proud to change places with you he is not worth his salt, and he is not a true American”; and the ring of it was with them yet. So they took heart of hope and got well, and went back to those who loved them, even as did he for a little while. Then we needed him again, and he came when he was called.   29

Note 1. This was the account we read in the New York “Sun.” [ back ]

Note 2. I am quoting “The Rough-Riders.” It seems, then, the navy has no patent on red tape. I thought as much. [ back ]

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