Theodore Roosevelt: Sailor and Soldier

Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt, man of a zillion interests, always loved the military.

TR: The Sailors’ Nephew

Theodore Roosevelt was a little child during the tumultuous Civil War years.   His was a well-to-do prominent New York family, but his mother, Martha (Mittie) Bulloch, was a  born into an equally well-to-do and prominent Georgia family.

To the eternal chagrin of his son, TR Sr, in his thirties, purchased a substitute to serve in the Union Army rather than risk possible armed battle with family members.  Two of Mittie’s brothers fought for the Confederacy.

James and Irvine Bulloch were heroes of the Confederate Navy.

Those two brothers, James and Irvine Bulloch, were heroes – NAVAL heroes – whose derring-do as blockade runners were the stuff of legends.  Mittie Roosevelt made sure her children knew the glorious stories of their Southern kin.

Theodore, an asthmatic and nearsighted boy, reveled in those adventure tales and would always point with pride to his Southern antecedents. But like his father, he was and always would be a Northerner, strongly opposed to slavery, and just as strongly, a Unionist.

TR: The Sailor Student

Theodore Roosevelt as a college student.

By the time TR went to Harvard, his health had improved, largely due to his regimen of vigorous exercise and body building. His inquisitive mind and always-superb intellect had also matured and expanded along with his stronger body.

He easily sailed through his studies, his social club life, a romance with Bostonian Alice Hathaway Lee, (who he married upon graduation) and his continued vigorous exercise. But, as throughout his life, he was easily bored and needed challenges.

Image result for TR book "The Naval War of 1812

Theodore’s first book. Many more would follow.

Partly to relieve said boredom, and partly due to sincere interest in history, he began a book on the Naval War of 1812 – battles that had been fought sixty years earlier. Few participants were still alive. But TR diligently researched all available material and decided that he liked writing about history. Back in New York, he enrolled in Columbia University Law School – briefly. He was bored.  But the university boasted a fine library where he could finish his naval history project.

Once completed, it was published to much acclaim and success and The Naval War of 1812 would be a gold standard for War of 1812 enthusiasts for two generations.

TR: The Political Soldier-Sailor

Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) had a bellicose nature, period. Even in politics, he always alluded to the “fight” and was evermore the “man in the arena.” Tilting in the political lists, and proving his mettle in the strenuous life in the Dakotas of the 1880s only strengthened that side of him that loved action and glory.

For the young political-cowboy, that meant fighting cattle rustlers, rain and snow, and political corruption on all fronts. Since the country was at peace; his wars would have to be fought against the elements and social corruption.

Alfred Thayer Mahan was the foremost champion of a strong and modern navy.

In 1897, when William McKinley became President, TR was appointed Assistant Secretary of the Navy. He had become an ardent supporter of the theories and strategies of Alfred Thayer Mahan, who believed that a strong and modern navy was essential to a prosperous country.

Admiral George Dewey would be the hero of Manila Bay. His exploits helped make the USA a world power.

Theodore-the-sailor (whose hands-on maritime experience was never more than rowing on Long Island Sound), was now in a position to help effect the growth of the minuscule and unimportant U.S. Navy. The trouble was that both the Secretary of the Navy and indeed, the President himself, were happy with a minuscule and unimportant Navy.

All that changed, once events in Cuba escalated. Rebels fighting against corrupt and oppressive Spanish rule appealed to freedom-loving Americans, and TR was happy to help whip the country into a righteous and indignant jingoistic frenzy.

Having issued strategic orders to the Pacific fleet commander (on a day his boss was away), TR effectively helped push Admiral Dewey’s rout of the Spanish Navy in the Philippines into the headlines.

Then, in a seeming about-face, the Navy man became an Army man.

TR: The Crowded Hour

An artistic rendering of the Rough Riders riding rough in Cuba.

The War with Spain reached fever pitch when the battleship Maine suspiciously blew up in Havana Harbor. Assistant Naval Secretary Roosevelt immediately resigned his post, and became a soldier, personally raising a voluntary cavalry regiment. He became Colonel of the “Rough Riders,” a nickname given to the assortment of cowboys, NY policemen and college-fellows who signed on, generally for larks and a chance for glory.

Colonel Theodore Roosevelt of the Rough Riders.

For TR, barely 40, it was a bully little war. He challenged fear and won, and would be an example of valor and courage to his children, if not to the rest of the country.

His “victory” at San Juan Hill cemented his personal legend, and was the one adventure in a lifetime of adventure that he treasured most. Within three years, he was President of the United States.

TR: The Navy President

The War with Spain elevated the US to global power. Whether we liked/wanted it or not, we now had “foreign territories”: The Philippines, Guam, Puerto Rico. The strong Navy that he (and Mahan) had relentlessly promoted was now at a point of reality. Old ships, some that had been commissioned decades earlier, were now scrapped in favor of building new, modern vessels with the latest technology.

The Great White Fleet

But the country was once again at peace – and liked it that way. What should President Roosevelt do with his new toy – a modern fleet of ships? In a spectacular flash of political brilliance, TR decided to send them on a two-year worldwide “goodwill” tour. Having these great vessels painted a visible and peaceful white instead of the customary battleship gray, was a public relations stroke of genius.

The Rough Riding soldier was now back in the Navy, as the Commander in Chief of the Great White Fleet.

The Soldier in Retirement

Both George Washington and Ulysses S. Grant (and much later, Dwight Eisenhower) preferred their former title of “General” once they retired from the Presidency. They had all been professional soldiers.

Theodore Roosevelt was never a professional soldier. His few months in Cuba was as a “volunteer”; his title as “Colonel” was more honorary than anything. Nevertheless, when he retired from the Presidency, he chose to be called “Colonel Roosevelt” for the remaining ten years of his life.

Sources:

Brands, H.W. – TR: The Last Romantic – 1997 Basic Books

Dalton,, Kathlen – Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life – 2004, Vintage

McCullough, David – Mornings on Horseback – 1982, Simon & Schuster

Morris, Edmund – Theodore Rex – 2002, Random House

https://www.thoughtco.com/voyage-of-the-great-white-fleet-2360854

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About Feather Schwartz Foster

Feather Schwartz Foster is an author-historian who has made more than 500 appearances discussing presidential history. She teaches adult education at the Christopher Wren Association (affiliated with William and; Mary College), and adult Education programs at Christopher Newport University. She has been a guest on the C-SPAN "First Ladies" program. She has written five books.
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2 Responses to Theodore Roosevelt: Sailor and Soldier

  1. energywriter says:

    Another great story. Thank you for keeping us informed and entertained.

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