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April 13, 1999

 

 

New Battle of San Juan Hill
Debate Rages over whether to award a Medal of Honor to Theodore Roosevelt

AP Photo, 1898
Roosevelt in his Rough Riders uniform; he unsuccessfully pursued the Medal of Honor.

By Bill Bleyer Staff Writer 

"I AM ENTITLED to the Medal of Honor and I want it,'' Theodore Roosevelt wrote to a friend after returning as a national hero from the Spanish-American War. Roosevelt _ never shy about expressing his opinions _ thought getting the medal was an open-and-shut case. But the Army decided otherwise, generating a controversy that endures a century later.

Now there's a chance the 26th president will finally get his medal. And everybody has a chance to charge into the debate. The Army is asking the public, as well as historians, whether T.R. deserves the nation's highest military honor for leading the Rough Riders and some Army regulars up Kettle and San Juan Hills in Cuba.

Scholars argue about whether he went unrewarded because he did nothing more heroic than other officers on that bullet-filled, smoke-obscured day in 1898 or whether enemies in Washington scuttled his chances for political and personal reasons. Whatever the reason, it was one of the biggest disappointments in Roosevelt's very crowded life.

Roosevelt could conceivably have his medal before the end of the year. The Army is soliciting comment for 60 days as a result of a bill signed last November by President Bill Clinton. The legislation ``authorizes and requests'' the president to award the medal, but key legislators wrote Clinton, asking that he ``seek the advice of the secretary of the Army,'' Louis Caldera, who would ``prepare a full and formal record of Theodore Roosevelt's valor.''

The Army Center of Military History in Washington will accept comments through May 31. They will be reviewed by a panel of historians assembled by Graham Cosmas of the center, who said the panel will include outside historians and some government experts. ``We're looking for people who are well-established scholars in military history. We're looking for a fresh view of the whole thing.''

The panel has until the end of July to make a recommendation to make a report that will go to the Senior Army Decorations Board, said Army spokeswoman Elaine Kanellis. The board will make a recommendation to Caldera, probably in the fall.

Congressional sources expect Clinton _ who keeps a bust of Roosevelt and a complete set of his writings in the Oval Office _ to award the medal, regardless of what Caldera recommends. They expect the secretary and the decorations board to oppose the medal. The Army is believed to resent interference from outsiders and second-guessing of its original denial.

But one historian who thinks T.R. deserves the medal, Herbert Hart, a retired Marine colonel and former head of the Marine Corps Historical Branch, believes the Army process will be impartial. ``It was the Army 100 years ago'' that denied the medal, he said.

Newsday Photo/Tony Jerome
``There was no military merit that I could see that warranted this medal,'' said Gerald White of Lindenhurst, author of ``Medal of Honor, 1863-1994.'' He said TR should have received a lesser honor, the Congressional Gold Medal.

When the war erupted, Roosevelt resigned as assistant secretary of the Navy and teamed up with his friend Leonard Wood to form the Rough Riders. During the climactic land battle on the outskirts of Santiago de Cuba, Roosevelt, conspicuous as the only American on horseback in the first phase of the attack, led dismounted Rough Riders and white and black Army regulars up Kettle Hill. Then on foot he led them to join the larger assault on adjacent San Juan Hill. In the process, he was nicked in the elbow by one Spanish bullet; another knocked off his glasses.

After the battle, three Army generals immediately above Roosevelt in the chain of command, including two who had already won the Medal of Honor themselves, recommended him for the honor. But Secretary of War Russell Alger did not award it. Part of the reason may have been that Roosevelt criticized the McKinley administration's failure to bring the troops home from Cuba promptly to protect them from disease. And T.R.'s strenuous and public campaign for the medal also alienated many in the military and government.

Eventually, 22 Medals of Honor were awarded for heroism on July 1, 1898, including two to other Rough Riders.

As for T.R., ``he was put in for it and it went through the appropriate steps,'' Hart said, ``and then was stopped somewhere along the way _ for political reasons.''

Other historians argue that if T.R. had received the medal, it would have only been because of politics. ``There was no military merit that I could see that warranted this medal,'' said Gerald White of Lindenhurst, author of ``Medal of Honor, 1863-1994.'' White said Roosevelt should have received a lesser honor, the Congressional Gold Medal. But the historian also conceded that ``he alienated himself with a lot of people including the president [William McKinley] because of comments he made.''

Mitchell Yockelson, a researcher for the National Archives who wrote an article about T.R. and the medal for the agency's Prologue magazine last year, said historic documents support the denial. ``The main reason is that nobody was able to witness exactly what he did. It was a very complicated battle.''

Newsday Photo, 1997/Bill Davis
John A. Gable, executive director of the Theodore Roosevelt Association, said the entire chain of command above TR witnessed the future 26th president's leadership and bravery on July 1, 1898.

Which brought the comment ``that's absurd'' from Theodore Roosevelt Association executive director John A. Gable. Among the witnesses Gable cited were ``the entire chain of command above Roosevelt, including his brigade commander, Brig. Gen. Leonard Wood, Maj. Gen. Joseph Wheeler and Maj. Gen. Daniel F. Sumner, who was in charge of the division and who saw the whole battle from a distance through his field glasses.''

Hart agrees. ``There were eyewitnesses, and all you need is two.''

``He did take the initiative, but I think he didn't do any more than anybody else did on that day,'' Yockelson said.

Answered Hart, a member of the Theodore Roosevelt Association, ``Some people in the Army say that a lot of other people did heroic things, too, but they were not recommended for the medal at the time.''

Hart is one of 13 historians, including T.R. biographer Edmund Morris and Stephen E. Ambrose, who has written best-selling accounts of D-Day and the explorations of Lewis and Clark, who signed a joint letter to the Army panel, urging the medal be awarded. ``Roosevelt was denied the medal for political reasons in 1898,'' the letter says. ``Time now to right a century-old wrong.''

 

2002, by Newsday
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