Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

The Rough Riders Don't Ride Again

Teddy Roosevelt, Rough Rider


By James Patton

Two months before the U.S. declared war, the former president had begun to re-assemble his Rough Riders of Spanish-American War fame. Through his many connections, including his son-in-law, Rep. Nicholas Longworth, language was inserted into the Selective Service Act of 1917 (enacted 18 May 1917) authorizing the creation of "voluntary regiments," but he couldn’t get President Wilson to order the Army to accept his new Rough Riders. Sometimes it is best to hear the story as told by a participant. In this case, Theodore Roosevelt, himself.

The President has announced that he will decline to permit those divisions to be organized or to permit me to have a command in connection with such a force. After consultation yesterday, personally or by wire, with some of the men who have volunteered to raise units…it was decided unanimously that … the only course open to us is forthwith to disband and to abandon all further effort … thereby leaving each man free to get into the military service in some other way, if that is possible, and, if not, then to serve his country in civil life as he best can.

As good American citizens we loyally obey the decision of the Commander-in-Chief … The men who have volunteered will now consider themselves absolved from all further connection with this movement. The funds that have been promised will be treated as withdrawn and applied to other purposes…

Our sole aim is to help in every way in the successful prosecution of the war and we most heartily feel that no individual’s personal interest should for one moment be considered save as it serves the general public interest. We rejoice that a division composed of our fine regular soldiers and marines … is to be sent abroad…

The Brooklyn Eagle last evening stated authoritatively that ‘the sending of this expedition was a compromise between the original plans of the General Staff, which favored no early expedition, and the request of Colonel Roosevelt for authority for an immediate expedition. The Roosevelt agitation… unquestionably had its effect in bringing about the Pershing expedition. The compromise is that France gets American soldiers …, but Roosevelt will not lead or accompany them. It is believed in Washington that any criticism for turning down Roosevelt will be fully answered by the fact that American soldiers are going over.’

If this gives the explanation of the matter, I gladly say that we are all unselfishly pleased to have served this use… It is due to the men who have come forward in this matter … since February 2nd, when I began the work …, that the following facts should be known:

If yesterday my offer immediately to raise four divisions for immediate use at the front had been accepted the various units of the first division would tomorrow have begun to assemble at whatever points the War Department had indicated, and they would have assembled in full force … as rapidly as the War Department directed them where to go and as soon as it provided them camping places, tents, blankets, etc.

We were prepared by the use of private funds partly to make good any immediate lack in such supplies as regards many of the units. Fifteen days afterward the second division would have mobilized in a similar fashion, and then, at intervals of thirty days, the two other divisions.

Roosevelt and Wilson Had Faced Off Against Incumbent William Howard Taft in the 1912 Presidential Election

…each of the divisions would have been ready to sail for France for intensive training at the theater of war within thirty days of the time it began to mobilize, if the War Department were able to furnish supplies and … the rifles and ammunition now in use in the French and British armies.

All four divisions would have sailed and two would have been on the firing line by September 1st, the time at which the Secretary of War has announced that the assembling of the selective draft army is to begin. About one-half of our men, at least of those in the first division, were men who had already seen military service.

I wish respectfully to point out certain errors into which the President has been led … He states that the purpose was to give me an “independent” command. In my last letter to the Secretary of War I respectfully stated that if I were given permission to raise an army corps of two divisions, I desired for myself only the position of junior among the eight brigade commanders…

The President alludes to our proffered action as one that would have an effect “politically,” but as not contributing to the “success of the war,” and as representing a “policy of personal gratification or advantage.” I wish respectfully but emphatically to deny that any political consideration whatever or any desire for personal gratification or advantage entered into our calculations. Our undivided purpose was to contribute effectively to the success of the war.

I know nothing whatever of the politics of the immense majority of the men who came forward… My purpose was to enable the Government to use … men who would not be reached under the selective draft, who were fit for immediate service, and the great majority of whom would not otherwise be used at all.

As above pointed out, all four divisions … would have been sent to the aid of our hard-pressed allies before the training of the selective draft army was even begun, and they would not have been put into the firing line until the French and British military authorities deemed them fit.

The President says in effect that to comply with our offer would have been mischievous from the military standpoint and he adds that the regular officers whom I have asked to have associated with me are “some of the most effective officers of the regular army, “who” cannot possibly be spared from the duty of training regular troops” …

As for my withdrawing them from the “more pressing and necessary duty of training” the troops, I wish to point out that … the present plan will take from “most pressing and necessary duty” about ten times as many regular officers as would have been taken under our proposal.

It has been stated that the regular officers are opposed to our plan. As a matter of fact “the most effective” fighting officers have been eager to be connected with or to have under them the troops we proposed to raise. The President condemns our proposal on the ground that “undramatic” action is needed, action that is “practical and of scientific definiteness and precision.” There was nothing dramatic in our proposal save as all proposals indicting eagerness or willingness to sacrifice life for an ideal are dramatic….

As you doubtless know, I am very proud of the Rough Riders, the First Volunteer Cavalry, with whom I served in the Spanish-American War. I believe it is a just and truthful statement of the facts when I say that this regiment did as well as any of the admirable regular regiments with which it served in the Santiago campaign. It was raised, armed, equipped, drilled, mounted, dismounted, kept two weeks aboard transports and put through two victorious aggressive fights in which it lost one-third of the officers and one-fifth of the men; all within sixty days from the time I received my commission.

If the President had permitted me to raise the four divisions, I am certain that they would have equaled the record, only on a hundredfold larger scale. They would have all been on the firing line before or shortly after the draft army had begun to assemble, and moreover they could have been indefinitely reinforced, so that they would have grown continually stronger and more efficient.”                                                                                                                   

                                                                            — Theodore Roosevelt, 21 May 1917


This article originally appeared in Kansas WWI, 2 May 2018


  1. There's a Michael Resnick (I think) alternate history short story about TR actually going to the western front.

  2. I doubt Pershing would have accepted Teddy due to his physical condition.

  3. Wilson hated Teddy and danced a jig when word reached him in Paris that Roosevelt had died in his sleep. Wilson's VP, Thomas Marshall, with greater magnanimity, said : " Death came for Roosevelt while he slept because he knew that if he were awake he'd have a fight on his hands !"

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