What Are the Rough Riders?

Renee Booker
Renee Booker
A cowboy hat, like those worn by the Rough Riders.
A cowboy hat, like those worn by the Rough Riders.

Since the U.S. Army was so depleted from the Civil War, which took place a mere 30 years before the Spanish-American War, President William McKinley called on the country's citizens to volunteer for duty in 1898. As a result, three regiments were called up to fight, though only one — The Rough Riders of the 1st United States Volunteer Cavalry regiment — were actually in combat from April to August of 1898 under the command of Colonel Leonard Wood. They were given the nickname due to their rugged cowboy-like appearance from their unique uniforms which consisted of a blue-flannel shirt with brown trousers and leggings tucked into their boots, a slouched cowboy hat, and bandannas knotted on their necks. Later known as "Roosevelt's Rough Riders," the group was ultimately commanded by Theodore Roosevelt when Colonel Wood assumed command of the 1st Cavalry Brigade. The group ultimately found success despite numerous odds against it while fighting in Cuba.

This volunteer group consisted of men from every walk of life with the main requirement being that the men be able-bodied, adept in horseback riding, and able to handle a rifle. From cowboys to Native Americans, prospectors to gamblers, college students to Buffalo soldiers, the crew was easily assembled and, in fact, Colonel Wood had to reject many men once the 1,250 slots were filled. Pulled from Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, and Indian Territory, Wood hoped that their normal work environment would make these men well-suited for the climate of Cuba. Among the ranks were military veterans of the American Civil War, who served as commanders within the unit and helped establish an effective training program for the soldiers.

Thanks to Roosevelt's previous position as the Assistant Secretary of the Navy and firm belief that the US should be involved in the fight for Cuban independence, the Rough Riders had a multitude of weaponry from which to choose. Every member was issued a M1892/98 Springfield bolt-action rifle, and the officers carried new lever-action M1895 Winchester rifles, both chambered in .30 Army caliber. In addition to standard issue equipment, the regular cavalry also carried a Krag-Jorgensen carbine rifle and a wealthy donor gifted them two gas-operated M1895 Colt-Browning machine guns.

A group of 1060 Rough Riders, along with 1258 horses and mules, departed for Tampa, Florida, in May 1898. Due to political pressure from Washington, D.C., the unit left early for Cuba, causing them to have to leave behind around 400 men and nearly all of the horses on which they were trained. After arriving in Cuba with only the supplies the men could carry on their back, no transportation, and missing a fourth of their fighting force, the men proceeded to successfully overtake an entrenched enemy that was fighting completely on their own terms and take control of multiple strategic locations on the island. The Rough Riders returned to Long Island, New York, on 14 August 1898.

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    • A cowboy hat, like those worn by the Rough Riders.
      A cowboy hat, like those worn by the Rough Riders.