Account of the Battle for Kettle and San Juan Hills

By Theodore Roosevelt

General:

Theodore Roosevelt was colonel of the Rough Riders (1st United States Volunteer Infantry) at the time of the Battles of Kettle and San Juan Hills. He recorded his recollections of these actions in his book, The Rough Riders. For his actions and leadership in this battle, he was nominated for a Congressional Medal of Honor, an honor denied him for political reasons until over eighty years after his death (his efforts to get the troops away from disease-ravaged Cuba had embarassed the Secretary of War).

The account is interesting, dynamic, and is some ways, very callous. Roosevelt, though a very compassionate man, showed little regard for life when it came to war, even when looking back over the years. He had expressed in private letters a concern that the war would be averted before he had a chance to get into battle, and asking that efforts be made to be sure that peace would not come before this happened. Though many people, writing in retrospect of killing an enemy in battle, will state that the action left them numb or unfeeling, or that they later had some regrets over killing of another human, albeit an enemy, Theodore Roosevelt never seemed to how this attitude. It is perhaps this disregard for life in battle, including his own life, that made him the excellent leader he was.

The Battles for Kettle and San Juan Hills

By Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt“The most serious loss that I and the regiment could have suffered befell just before we charged.  Bucky O'Neill was strolling up and down in front of his men, smoking his cigarette, for he was inveterately addicted to the habit.  He had a theory that an officer ought never to take cover - a theory which was, of course, wrong, though in a volunteer organization the officers should certainly expose themselves very fully, simply for the effect on the men; our regimental toast on the transport running, " The officers; may the war last until each is killed, wounded, or promoted." As O'Neill moved to and fro, his men begged him to lie down, and one of the sergeants said, " Captain, a bullet is sure to hit you." O'Neill took his cigarette out of his mouth, and blowing out a cloud of smoke laughed and said, " Sergeant, the Spanish bullet isn't made that will kill me." A little later he discussed for a moment with one of the regular officers the direction from which the Spanish fire was coming.  As he turned on his heel a bullet struck him in the mouth and came out at the back of his head; so that even before he fell his wild and gallant soul had gone out into the darkness.

My orderly was a brave young Harvard boy, Sanders, from the quaint old Massachusetts town of Salem.  The work of an orderly on foot, under the blazing sun, through the hot and matted jungle, was very severe, and finally the heat overcame him.  He dropped; nor did he ever recover fully, and later he died from fever.  In his place I summoned a trooper whose name I did not know.  Shortly afterward, while sitting beside the bank, I directed him to go back and ask whatever general he came across if I could not advance, as my men were being much cut up.  He stood up to salute and then pitched forward across my knees, a bullet having gone through his throat, cutting the carotid.

When O'Neill was shot, his troop, who were devoted to him, were for the moment at a loss whom to follow.  One of their number, Henry Bardshar, a huge Arizona miner, immediately attached himself to me as my orderly, and from that moment he was closer to me, not only in the fight but throughout the rest of the campaign, than an other man, not even excepting the color-sergeant, Wright.

Captain Mills was with me; gallant Ship had already been killed.  Mills was an invaluable aide, absolutely cool, absolutely unmoved or flurried in any way.

I sent messenger after messenger to try to find General Sumner or General Wood and get permission to advance, and was just about making up my mind that in the absence of orders I had better " march toward the guns," when Lieutenant-Colonel Dorst came riding up through the storm of bullets with the welcome command "to move forward and support the regulars in the assault on the hills in front." General Sumner had obtained authority to advance from Lieutenant Miley, who was representing General Shafter at the front, and was in the thick of the fire. The General at once ordered the first brigade to advance on the hills, and the second to support it. He himself was riding his horse along the lines, superintending the fight.  Later I overheard a couple of my men talking together about him.  What they said illustrates the value of a display of courage among the officers in hardening their soldiers; for their theme was how, as they were lying down under a fire which they could not return, and were in consequence feeling rather nervous, General Sumner suddenly appeared on horseback, sauntering by quite unmoved; and, said one of the men, “That made us feel all right.  If the General could stand it, we could."

The instant I received the order I sprang on my horse and then my "crowded hour" began.  The guerillas had been shooting at us from the edges of the jungle and from their perches in the leafy trees, and as they used smokeless powder, it was almost impossible to see them, though a few of my men had from time to time responded.  We had also suffered from the hill on our right front, which was held chiefly by guerillas, although there were also some Spanish regulars with them, for we found their dead.  I formed my men in column of troops, each troop extended in open skirmishing order, the right resting on the wire fences which bordered the sunken lane. Captain Jenkins led the first squadron, his eyes literally dancing with joyous excitement.

I started in the rear of the regiment, the position in which the colonel should theoretically stay.  Captain Mills and Captain McCormick were both with me as aides; but I speedily had to send them off on special duty in getting the different bodies of men forward.  I had intended to go into action on foot as at Las Guasimas, but the heat was so oppressive that I found I should be quite unable to run up and down the line and superintend matters unless I was mounted; and, moreover, when on horseback, I could see the men better and they could see me better.

A curious incident happened as I was getting the men started forward.  Always when men have been lying down under cover for some time, and are required to advance, there is a little hesitation, each looking to see whether the others are going forward. As I rode down the line, calling to the troopers to go forward, and rasping brief directions to the captains and lieutenants, I came upon a man lying behind a little bush, and I ordered him to jump up.  I do not think he understood that we weremaking a forward move, and he looked up at me for a moment with hesitation, and I again bade him rise, jeering him and saying: "Are you afraid to stand up when I am on horseback?" As I spoke, he suddenly fell forward on his face, a bullet having struck him and gone through him lengthwise.  I suppose the bullet had been aimed at me; at any rate, I, who was on horseback in the open, was unhurt, and the man lying flat on the ground in the cover beside me was killed.  There were several pairs of brothers with us; of the two Nortons one was killed; of the two McCurdys one was wounded.

I soon found that I could get that line, behind which I personally was, faster forward than the one immediately in front of it, with the result that the two rearmost lines of the regiment began to crowd together; so I rode through them both, the better to move on the one in front.  This happened with every line in succession, until I found myself at the head of the regiment.

Both lieutenants of B Troop from Arizona had been exerting themselves greatly, and both were overcome by the heat; but Sergeants Campbell and Davidson took it forward in splendid shape.  Some of the men from this troop and from the other Arizona troop (Bucky O'Neill's) joined me as a kind of fighting tail.

The Ninth Regiment was immediately in front of me, and the First on my left, and these went up Kettle Hill with my regiment.  The Third, Sixth, and Tenth went partly up Kettle Hill (following the Rough Riders and the Ninth and First), and partlybetween that and the block-house hill, which the infantry were assailing.  General Sumner in person gave the Tenth the order to charge the hills; and it went forward at a rapid gait.  The three regiments went forward more or less intermingled, advancing steadily and keeping up a heavy fire.  Up Kettle Hill Sergeant George Berry, of the Tenth, bore not only his own regimental colors but those of the Third, the color-sergeant of the Third having been shot down; he kept shouting, Dress on the colors, boys, dress on the colors!” as he followed Captain Ayres, who was running in advance of his men, shouting and waving his hat.  The Tenth Cavalry lost a greater proportion of its officers than any other regiment in the battle - eleven out of twenty-two.

By the time I had come to the head of the regiment we ran into the left wing of the Ninth Regulars, and some of the First Regulars, who were lying down; that is, the troopers were lying down, while the officers were walking to and fro.  The officers of the white and colored regiments alike took the greatest pride in seeing that the men more than did their duty; and the mortality among them was great.

I spoke to the captain in command of the rear platoons, saying that I had been ordered to support the regulars in the attack upon the hills, and that in my judgment we could not take these hills by firing at them, and that we must rush them.  He answered that his orders were to keep his men lying where they were, and that he could not charge without orders.  I asked where the Colonel was, and as he was not in sight, said, " Then I am the ranking officer here and I give the order to charge" - for I did not want to keep the men longer in the open suffering under a fire which they could not effectively return.  Naturally the Captain hesitated to obey this order whenno word had been received from his own Colonel.  So I said, “Then let my men through, sir," and rode on through the lines, followed by the grinning Rough Riders, whose attention had been completely taken off the Spanish bullets, partly by my dialogue with the regulars, and partly by the language I had been using to themselves as I got the lines forward, for I had been joking with some and swearing at others, as the exigencies of the case seemed to demand.  When we started to go through,however, it proved too much for the regulars, and they jumped up and came along,their officers and troops mingling with mine, all being delighted at the chance. When I got to where the head of the left wing of the Ninth was lying, through the courtesy of Lieutenant Hartwick, two of whose colored troopers threw down the fence, I was enabled to get back into the lane, at the same time waving my hat, and giving the order to charge the hill on our right front.  Out of my sight, over on the right, Captains McBlain and Taylor, of the Ninth, made up their minds independently to charge at just about this time; and at almost the same moment Colonels Carroll and Hamilton, who were off, I believe, to my left where we could see neither them nor their men, gave the order to advance.  But of all this I knew nothing at the time.  The whole line, tired of waiting, and eager to close with the enemy, was straining to go forward; and it seems that different parts slipped the leash at almost the same moment.  The First Cavalry came up the hill just behind, and partly mixed with my regiment and the Ninth.  As already said, portions of the Third, Sixth, and Tenth followed, while the rest of the members of these three regiments kept more in touch with the infantry on our left.

By this time we were all in the spirit of the thing and greatly excited by the charge, the men cheering and running forward between shots, while the delighted faces of the foremost officers, like Captain C. J. Stevens, of the Ninth, as they ran at the head of their troops, will always stay in my mind.  As soon as I was in the line I galloped forward a few yards until I saw that the men were well started, and then galloped back to help Goodrich, who was in command of his troop, get his men across the road so as to attack the hill from that side.  Captain Mills had already thrown three of the other troops of the regiment across this road for the same purpose.  Wheeling around, I then again galloped toward the hill passing the shouting, cheering, firing men, and went up the lane, splashing through a small stream; when I got abreast of the ranch buildings on the top of Kettle Hill, I turned and went up the slope.  Being on horseback I was, of course, able to get ahead of the men on foot, excepting my orderly, Henry Bardshar, who had run ahead very fast in order to get better shots at the Spaniards, who were now running out of the ranch buildings.  Sergeant Campbell and a number of the Arizona men, and Dudley Dean, among others, were very close behind.  Stevens, with his platoon of the Ninth, was abreast of us; so were McNamee and Hartwick.  Some forty yards from the top I ran into a wire fence and jumped off Little Texas, turninghim loose.  He had been scraped by a couple of bullets, one of which nicked my elbow, and I never expected to see him again.  As I ran up to the hill, Bardshar stopped to shoot, and two Spaniards fell as he emptied his magazine.  These were the only Spaniards I actually saw fall to aimed shots by any one of my men, with the exceptionof two guerillas in trees.

Almost immediately afterward the hill was covered by the troops, both Rough Riders and the colored troopers of the Ninth, and some men of the First.  There was the usual confusion, and afterward there was much discussion as to exactly who been on the hill first.  The first guidons planted there were those of the three New Mexican troops, G, E, and F, of my regiment, under their Captains, Llewellen, Luna, and Muller, but on the extreme right of the hill, at the opposite end from where we struck it, Captains Taylor and McBlain and their men of the Ninth were first up.  Each of the five captains was firm in the belief that his troop was first up.  As for the individual men, each of whom honestly thought he was first on the summit, their name was legion.One Spaniard was captured in the buildings, another was shot as he tried to hide himself, and a few others were killed as they ran.

Among the many deeds of conspicuous gallantry here performed, two, both to the credit of the First Cavalry, may be mentioned as examples of the others, not as exceptions.  Sergeant Charles Karsten, while close beside Captain Tutherly, the squadron commander, was hit by a shrapnel bullet.  He continued on the line, firing until his arm grew numb; and he then refused to go to the rear, and devoted himself to taking care of the wounded, utterly unmoved by the heavy fire.  Trooper Hugo Brittain, when wounded, brought the regimental standard forward, waving it to and fro, to cheer the men.

No sooner were we on the crest than the Spaniards from the line of hills in our front, where they were strongly entrenched, opened a very heavy fire upon us with their rifles.  They also opened upon us with one or two pieces of artillery, using time fuses which burned very accurately, the shells exploding right over our heads.

On the top of the hill was a huge iron kettle, or something of the kind, probably used for sugar refining.  Several of our men took shelter behind this.  We had a splendid view of the charge on the San Juan block-house to our left, where the infantry of Kent, led by Hawkins, were climbing the hill.  Obviously the proper thing to do was to help them, and I got the men together and started them volley-firing against the Spaniards in the San Juan block-house and in the trenches around it.  We could only see their heads; of course this was all we ever could see when we were firing at them in their trenches.  Stevens was directing not only his own colored troopers, but a number of Rough Riders; for in a melee good soldiers are always prompt to recognize a good officer, and are eager to follow him.

We kept up a brisk fire for some five or ten minutes; meanwhile we were much cut up ourselves. Gallant Colonel Hamilton, than whom was never a braver man, was killed, and equally gallant Colonel Carroll wounded.  When near the summit Captain Mills had been through the head, the bullet destroying the sight of one eye permanently and of the other temporarily.  He would not go back or let any man assist him, sitting down where he was and waiting until one of the men brought him word that the hill was stormed.  Colonel Veile planted the standard of the First Cavalry on the hill, and General Sumner rode up.  He was fighting his division in great form, and was always himself in the thick of the fire.  As the men were much excited by the firing, they seemed to pay very little heed to their own losses.

Suddenly, above the cracking of the carbines, rose a peculiar drumming sound, and some of the men cried, "The Spanish machine-guns!" Listening, I made out that it came from the flat ground to the left, and jumped to my feet, smiting my hand on my thigh, and shouting aloud with exultation, "It's the Gatlings, men, our Gatlings!" Lieutenant Parker was bringing his four gatlings into action, and shoving them nearer and nearer the front.  Now and then the drumming ceased for a moment; then it would resound always closer to San Juan hill, which like ourselves, was hammering to assist entry attack.  Our men cheered lustily.

We saw much of Parker after that, and there was never a more welcome sound than his Gatlings as they opened.  It was the only sound which I ever heard my men cheer in battle.

The infantry got nearer and nearer the crest of the hill.  At last we could see the Spaniards running from the rifle-pits as the Americans came on in their final rush. Then I stopped my men for fear they should injure their comrades, and called to them to charge the next line of trenches, on the hills in our front, from which we had been undergoing a good deal of punishment.  Thinking that the men would all come, I jumped over the wire fence in front of us and started at the double; but, as a matter of fact, the troopers were so excited, what with shooting and being shot, and shouting and cheering, that they did not hear, or did not heed me; and after running about a hundred yards I found I had only five men along with me.  Bullets were ripping the grass all around us, and one of the men, Clay Green, was mortally wounded; another, Winslow Clark, a Harvard man, was shot first in the leg and then through the body.  He made not the slightest murmur, only asking me to put his water canteen where he could get at it, which I did; he ultimately recovered.  There was no use going on with the remaining three men, and I bade them stay where they were while I went back and brought up the rest of the rest of the brigade. This was a decidedly cool request, for there was really no possible point in letting them stay there while I went back; but atthe moment it seemed perfectly natural to me, and apparently so to them, for they cheerfully nodded, and sat down in the grass, firing back at the line of trenches from which the Spaniards were shooting at them.  Meanwhile, I ran back, jumped over the wire fence, and went over the crest of the hill, filled with anger against the troopers, and especially those of my own regiment, for not having accompanied me.  They, of course, were quite innocent of wrong-doing; and even while I taunted them bitterly for not having followed me, it was all I could do not to smile at the look of injury and surprise that came over their faces, while they cried out, "We didn't hear you, we didn't see you go, Colonel; lead on now, we'll sure follow you." I wanted the other regiments to come too, so I ran down to where General Sumner was and asked him if I might make the charge; and he told me to go and that he would see that the men followed.  By this time everybody had his attention attracted, and when I leaped over the fence again, with Major Jenkins beside me, the men of the various regiments which were already on the hill came with a rush, and we started across the wide valley which lay between us and the Spanish entrenchments. Captain Dimmick, now in  command of the Ninth, was bringing it forward; Captain McBlain had a number of Rough Riders mixed in with his troop, and led them all together; Captain Taylor had been severely wounded.  The long-legged men like Greenway, Goodrich, sharpshooter Proffit, and others, outstripped the rest of us, as we had a considerable distance to go.  Longbefore we got near them the Spaniards ran, save a few here and there, who either surrendered or were shot down.  When we reached the trenches we found them filled with dead bodies in the light blue and white uniform of the Spanish regular army. There were very few wounded.  Most of the fallen had little holes in their heads from which their brains were oozing; for they were covered from the neck down by the trenches.

It was at this place that Major Wessels, of the Third Cavalry, was shot in the back of the head.  It was a severe wound, but after having it bound up he again came to the front in command of his regiment.  Among the men who were foremost was Lieutenant Milton F. Davis, of the First Cavalry.  He had been joined by three men of the Seventy-first New York, who ran up, and, saluting, said, " Lieutenant, we want to go with you, our officers won't lead us." One of the brave fellows was soon afterward shot in the face.  Lieutenant Davis's first sergeant, Clarence Gould, kill a Spanish soldier with his revolver, just as the Spaniard was aiming at one of my Rough Riders .  At about the same time I also shot one.  I was with Henry Bardshar, running up at the double, and two Spaniards leaped from the trenches and fired at us, not ten yardsaway.  As they turned to run I closed in and fired twice, missing the first and killing the second.  My revolver was from the sunken battleship Maine, and had been given me by my brother-in-law, Captain W. S. Cowles, of the Navy.  At the time I did not knowof Gould's exploit, and supposed my feat to be unique; and although Gould had killed his Spaniard in the trenches, not very far from me, I never learned of it until weeks after.  It is astonishing what a limited area of vision and experience one has in the hurly-burly of a battle.

There was very great confusion at this time, the different regiments being completely intermingled-white regulars, colored regulars, and Rough Riders . General Sumner had kept a considerable force in reserve on Kettle Hill, under Major Jackson, of the Third Cavalry.  We were still under a heavy fire and I got together a mixed lot of men and pushed on from the trenches and ranch-houses which we had just taken, driving the Spaniards through a line of palm-trees, and over the crest of a chain of hills.  When we reached these crests we found ourselves overlooking Santiago.  Some of the men, including Jenkins, Greenway, and Goodrich, pushed on almost by themselves far ahead.  Lieutenant Hugh Berkely, of the First, with a sergeant and two troopers, reached the extreme front.  He was, at the time, ahead of everyone; the sergeant was killed and one trooper wounded; but the lieutenant and the remaining trooper stuck to their post for the rest of the afternoon until our line was gradually extended to include them.

While I was re-forming the troops on the chain of hills, one of General Sumner's aides, Captain Robert Howze - as dashing and gallant an officer as there was in the whole gallant cavalry division, by the way - came up with orders to me to halt where I was, not advancing farther, but to hold the hill at all hazards.  Howze had his horse, and I had some difficulty in making him take proper shelter; he stayed with us for quite a time, unable to make up his mind to leave the extreme front, and mean while jumping at the chance to render any service, of risk or otherwise, which the moment developed.

I now had under me all the fragments six cavalry regiments which were at the extreme front, being the highest officer left there, and I was in immediate command of them for the remainder of the afternoon and that night.  The Ninth was over to the right, and the Thirteenth Infantry afterward came up beside it.  The rest of Kent's infantry was to our left.  Of the Tenth, Lieutenants Anderson, Muller, and Fleming reported to me; Anderson was slightly wounded, but he paid no heed to this.  All three, like everyother officer, had troopers of various regiments under them; such mixing wasinevitable in making repeated charges through thick jungle; it was essentially a troop commanders', indeed, almost a squad leaders', fight.  The Spaniards who had been holding the trenches and the line of hills, had fallen back upon their supports and we were under a very heavy fire both from rifles and great guns.  At the point where we were, the grass-covered hill-crest was gently rounded, giving poor cover, and I made
my men lie down on the hither slope.

On the extreme left Captain Beck, of the Tenth, with his own troop, and small bodies of the men of other regiments, was exercising a practically independent command, driving back the Spaniards whenever they showed any symptoms of advancing.  He had received his orders to hold the line at all hazards….


Bibliography:

(As a service to our readers, clicking on title in red will take you to that book on Amazon.com)

Excerpted  from:

Roosevelt, Theodore, The Rough Riders (Da Capo Paperback). (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1920). This is a reprint of Roosevelt's classic 1902 edition.

Otis, James, The Boys of '98. (Boston: Dana Estes & Company,1898) 218 (image of Roosevelt).


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