Every schoolchild (in the United States, at least) grows up with the so-called “Great Man” theory of history etched into his or her mind. Rather than teaching trends and contingencies, which is hard, much of history education takes the form of memorizing the names of whoever went to the Moon, won some battle, or chopped down a cherry tree.
While bad enough as it is, many of the unimportant details we learn in school aren’t even accurate. While it’s true that Neil Armstrong really was the first man on the Moon, many of the other “firsts” your history book taught you were actually done by other people, often years or centuries before the guy who got famous did what he did. Thus, it falls to the Internet (again) to fix the shortcomings of the nation’s school systems.
Teddy Roosevelt And The Rough Riders Braved The Battle Of San Juan “Alone”
The battle of San Juan Hill was a really big deal when it happened–like, president-making kind of big. The battle took place in three stages: an assault on the Spanish position at El Caney; a small redoubt just east of Santiago, Cuba; a charge up Kettle Hill, and then a run across the saddle road to San Juan Hill, the main objective. As we all know, Theodore Roosevelt practically won the battle all by himself and got to be president because of his awesome quotient (AQ).
First, the facts of the battle: Around 8,000 US troops landed for the assault, which was scheduled for June 1, 1898. Because the US Army wasn’t clear on logistics at the time, most of the cavalry’s horses got lost on the way, leaving cavalry units, such as the Rough Riders, to fight on foot. About 500 Spanish soldiers spent much of the day holding off 5,000 American soldiers at El Caney, which American commanders eventually just decided to bypass for Kettle Hill. Since jogging past one fortified position to assault a second is absurdly dangerous work, the first unit sent was none other than the elite fighting force known as the Rough Riders.
Just kidding–that task fell on the Buffalo Soldiers of the 9th and 10th Colored Cavalry. Though the Rough Riders were part of the charge, the black soldiers acted as the bullet sponges who marched first. This wasn’t 100 percent due to racism – the 9th and 10th were regular army units, staffed with professional veterans, rather than cowboys and East Coast dilettantes like Roosevelt, who actually brought his own publicist to the battle. It made sense to lead with the army’s strength when doing something really stupid.
Black and white units merged into a single column on the chaotic charge up Kettle Hill. After the position was secure, Lt. Col. Roosevelt, seeing people who weren’t him getting a bit of glory on nearby San Juan Hill, defied orders to hold the position and ordered a charge. Officially, nobody heard him, and he charged all by himself. Though, it’s worth considering that the men under his command might have preferred to be a little hard of hearing rather than charge after a glory-seeking nut immediately after securing a safe position. Roosevelt walked back to the line, passed orders for a proper charge, and finally led men up the hill that would buy him a place in history.
That is, of course, right after the all-black 24th infantry finished their advance up San Juan Hill, which probably made the walk much nicer for everybody else, future presidents included. Incidentally, the first soldier to enter the El Caney blockhouse, which was finally taken near evening, was Pvt. Thomas Butler of Baltimore, an infantryman of the 25th Colored regiment.