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San Juan Hill


It was on this date in 1898 that Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders stormed Kettle Hill in Cuba, and then helped capture San Juan Hill.

Four and a half months earlier, the Spanish had sunk the U.S.S. Maine in the Havana harbor, killing 260 American sailors, which led to the U.S. cry, “Remember the Maine! To hell with Spain!”

The Rough Riders’ first battle in the Spanish-American War took place a week earlier on June 24th. Author Stephen Crane said that “Teddy’s Terrors” were full of adventure as they set out that morning. “They wound along this narrow winding path,” Crane wrote, “babbling joyously, arguing, recanting, and laughing; making more noise than a train going through a tunnel.”

The laughter ended near Las Guasimas (gua-SEE-mus), where sudden Spanish gunfire led to a fierce engagement that lasted for more than two hours. It was the first land battle of the Spanish-American war. The cavalry had no horses, because there wasn’t enough room on the transport ship. Jessie Langdon, 17 year-old Rough Rider from North Dakota said, “These were the first shots fired in anger that most of us had ever heard, and so were the ones we fired back.”

When the shooting stopped, the troops bivouacked in steaming mud to wait for supplies and the order to advance. For the first time, Roosevelt learned that war was not as romantic as he had dreamed. Of 964 men, 16 were killed and 52 wounded. Others were getting sick.

General Shafter and his advisors decided to mount a full-scale attack on Santiago a week later, on July 1st. The Rough Riders, along with the regulars led by Colonel Leonard Wood, were to advance to Santiago through a well-fortified area consisting of Kettle Hill and San Juan Hill.

As Santiago was bombarded, two divisions of 8,000 men, led by the Rough Riders, advanced on Kettle Hill. During the opening hours, Teddy’s men became sitting ducks for the Spanish sharpshooters above. With 100 degree heat and mounting casualties, the men were pinned down until noon, when the order to advance finally came. Waving his hat from atop his horse, Little Texas, Roosevelt led the advance to the base of the hill. When no further orders came, he took the bull by the horns and charged upward.

Jessie Langdon wrote that it was “... open grass all the way, it was wide open... We’d run a ways and then stop... We didn’t run in a regular line. One part of the line would be lying down, and another part would be going up. It was just like a mob going there. Roosevelt went on and overran the trenches, and he was maybe 75 yards ahead of us – he was always ahead of us.”

With the Spanish now on the run, Roosevelt had what he called a “splendid view” of the frontal assault taking place on San Juan Hill to the south. As the American infantry approached its crest, T.R. dismounted and, on foot, led his troops through the valley to join them. By 2:30 that afternoon, the Americans controlled the San Juan Heights – 216 were dead and 1,169 wounded. Two days later, the American Navy destroyed the Spanish fleet. The war was over. Roosevelt later said, “I’ve had a bully time and bully fight. I feel as big and strong as a bull moose.”

But the dying wasn’t over. The toll from disease during the following month rose at an alarming rate and, horrified, Roosevelt led a campaign for their earliest possible return to the U.S. The War Department was reluctant to agree, but merchant steamers finally began transporting the Rough Riders and a squadron of regulars to Camp Wykoff, Long Island, on August 7th, 1898.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm