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Of all the decisions Abraham Lincoln was obliged to make during his administration, few were as personally difficult as his son’s participation in the Army.
Robert Todd Lincoln had just entered Harvard when his father was inaugurated in March, 1861. Within weeks, Fort Sumter was attacked, and the new President called for 75,000 volunteers. At the outset, everyone believed the so-called “war” would be a big brouhaha: a battle fought, some unfortunate casualties, and cooler heads would prevail to settle the problems.
The battle was fought, the casualties staggered the imagination, nobody went back to the table, and nothing was resolved other than more battles and unthinkable casualties. Robert Lincoln diligently attended to his studies, but many of his Harvard classmates were enlisting in the Union Army. The President and First Lady continually counseled that by finishing his education, Robert would become a better officer. They likely believed that the war would be long over by the time Robert graduated.
But the Civil War dragged on and on, and Robert was getting constant ribbing from his fellows: he was a mama’s boy, or a slacker. Or worse, a coward. He was none of those things, and by mid-1864, at twenty-one, he was determined to enlist. His arguments with his parents grew heated – but they were valid.
Only a year into the Lincoln Presidency, their 11-year-old son Willie died of typhoid fever. It was a devastating blow to both parents. Lincoln buried his private sorrow as best he could, overwhelmed by managing the cares of state. Mary Lincoln collapsed in hysterical grief. She had already lost a three-year-old son years earlier. Had he lived, Eddie would have been fourteen.
The First Lady was an emotional person, a fact well known to her husband. But with Willie’s death, her grief had been disturbingly excessive. By 1864, she was just starting resume life, but death and dying was all around her. The casualty lists from the Civil War were numbering in the hundreds of thousands.
It was a shooting war. It was a disease-ridden war. It was a crippling war. It was deadly. The mere idea that Robert wanted to enlist threw her into a frenzied panic. There was no way she could consent. The likelihood that something could happen to her eldest son was not exaggerated. Her arguments were valid.
The Civil War had turned into something nobody had predicted or expected. For all its numerical edge in industry, resources and population, the North was not doing well at all. By mid-1864, it was actually going poorly, and Lincoln believed he would lose the election, and possibly the War itself.
Thus far, he had been cautiously refereeing the arguments between Robert and Mary, becoming increasingly anxious that if anything happened to their son, Mary would never recover. And worse, she could – and would – blame him.
Meanwhile hundreds of prominent Union citizens had sent their sons to War. Mourning bands were common in the halls of Congress. Lincoln had written more letters of condolence than he could remember. There was continual sharp criticism in Congress and in the newspapers that the President’s twenty-one-year-old son was still not in uniform. That criticism was valid, too.
Abraham Lincoln was not insensitive to anyone. Years earlier, when he was Robert’s age, he had signed up with a bunch of his townsmen to fight in the Black Hawk War. It was little more than a skirmish, and he never saw fighting or fired a shot – but it had been a seminal moment in his youth, and an experience he treasured. He certainly understood his son’s desire to participate.
No question about Mary’s fears. He understood them all too well. And that included the possibility that she would blame him for whatever might befall Robert. How could he bear that, too?
And he also understood the reasons for the sniping comments from Congressional leaders whose own sons were in uniform, or in hospitals. Or in the grave.
Everything was valid. He had no answers. And with all else on his Presidential plate, he could barely deal with his own private agony.
The Wisdom of Solomon
It was General William T. Sherman who unknowingly helped provide an answer. By September, 1864, his huge army had captured Atlanta and was sweeping across Georgia toward the coast – where it would march north to join General Ulysses S. Grant, whose equally huge army was besieging the Confederates only a few miles from Richmond. Lincoln won re-election and could finally see, along with his key generals, that the end of the War was in sight. It would continue, of course. There would be more casualties, of course. But there was an end in sight.
In mid-1864, Lincoln had appointed General Grant as General of the entire Army. The two men had grown to understand and appreciate each other. They also liked each other.
Lincoln wrote to Grant as a friend, not as a Commander-in-Chief. He asked as a favor, if a position could be found on his personal staff for Robert, who at a mature twenty-one and Harvard graduate, wanted to “see something of the Army.” He suggested that Robert’s age and education would merit the rank of Captain, and that Lincoln personally, would pay his salary. Grant was pleased to oblige.
Robert could finally join the Army. He was satisfied.
Robert was assigned as an administrative officer on Grant’s staff, out of danger, and far from the front lines. It relieved Mary’s worries. She was satisfied.
The President’s son was finally in uniform. Congress was satisfied. The newspapers were satisfied.
Lincoln had found a balance and had satisfied everyone. Including himself. And it was all valid.
Epstein, Daniel Mark – The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage – Ballantine Books, 2008
Donald, David H. – Lincoln – Simon & Schuster, 1995
Many historians claim William McKinley would have been a far greater president had he not been so distracted by his invalid wife.
Ida McKinley: Candidate’s Wife
Shortly before the 1896 election, William and Ida McKinley celebrated their Silver Anniversary. More than six hundred guests attended a huge party as Ohio Governor McKinley’s closest political friends watched in horror. They realized that if he became President, his lame, epileptic and difficult wife would insist on become First Lady in fact, as well as in essence. McKinley was delighted however. If his frail wife wished to participate, he was happy to give in. He always gave in to her wishes.
His “front porch” campaign was a rousing success. Ida was thrilled to sit on the porch, crocheting and smiling at everyone who came to pay their respects to the husband she idolized. In a way, she became one of his greatest assets. How could anyone help but admire a man so obviously devoted to his semi-invalid wife? He won easily over the young William Jennings Bryan.
Ida McKinley: White House Staff Nightmare
From the start there was gossip among the White House staff that “something wasn’t right with the new First Lady,” but the word “epileptic” was never used. One of McKinley’s first acts was to plan escape routes if Ida had a seizure and had to be carried quickly from the room. He had done this so many times and in so many places, he was an expert.
Ida had also developed an intransigent and demanding personality disorder making it impossible for a substitute to assume the hostess role. While nieces came to visit, sometimes for weeks at a time, Ida would not permit anyone to usurp what she believed was her rightful societal position. Meanwhile her condition, usually treated with heavy sedatives, made it impossible for her to function in that role.
It therefore fell to the President himself to oversee many of the traditional First Lady duties, such as housekeeping decisions, menu planning, seating arrangements, and even where the coat racks would be placed. Ida was incapable of making those choices – and refused to relinquish them to anyone else except her already overworked husband.
The White House staff loved President William McKinley, who had a warm and generous soul. But whatever sympathy they might have had for his wife became intense dislike. It was not due to the phlebitis, which made her lame. It was not even due to her periodic “nervous faints” and the heavy sedation. It was her total self-absorption and lack of concern about anyone else, including the extra burdens she placed on the husband she so dearly loved.
The First McKinley State Dinner
The First Lady was physically and dispositionally incapable of managing state dinners, which frequently numbered more than a hundred guests. Nevertheless, she insisted on attending, and the devoted President would deny his wife nothing.
In the late 1890s, the rigid rules and traditions of diplomatic protocol were practically on a par with war and peace. Guests were seated at a long or U-shaped table, with the President and First Lady seated in the middle – on opposite sides. This provided four places of honor: The President’s left and right, and the same for the First Lady.
At their first state dinner, McKinley was seated all the way around the table from Ida. If he needed to attend to her, he would physically have to run all around the room. His eyes were fixed on Ida. He barely ate. He barely conversed with his guests. He was beside himself with worry.
After that grueling experience, he did the unthinkable. He altered the seating protocol to be seated next to his wife. This threw the State Department into a panic, since they were the ones who had to rework everything – and make vague explanations.
If Ida ever knew what a headache she caused for the staff, it is unrecorded.
Ida McKinley and the Slippers
With hours of idle time on her hands for more than twenty-five semi-invalid years, Ida had developed a hobby of crocheting slippers. She made thousands of pairs during her lifetime. True to her nature and need for a strict routine, her pattern – and even the colors – seldom varied.
Ida gave slippers away to family, to friends, to slight acquaintances and even to perfect strangers. Mostly, she donated them to charity.
As First Lady, Ida McKinley provided at least one real contribution. The White House has always received hundreds of requests from organizations wishing donations. In the McKinley administration, no worthy cause was refused. They would receive a pair of Ida’s hand-crocheted slippers to auction or raffle off. It is estimated that thousands and thousands of dollars were raised.
Ida McKinley: The Last Years
William McKinley was assassinated six months into his second term. When he was shot, his immediate thought was for Ida. “Be careful how you tell her,” he told his aide. “Be very careful.”
To everyone’s amazement, Ida took the news calmly. Two nieces rushed from Ohio to help their aunt. The doctors kept her from the sick room, comforting her with their belief that her husband would recover. Within a week, however, his condition worsened. He insisted she be brought in for a final farewell. She sat by his bed and put her head on his chest. He placed his arm around her tenderly, just as he had done for three decades.
Ida went back to Canton, Ohio and lived six more years. She never had another seizure.
- Anthony, Carl Sferrazza – First Ladies 1789-1961, William Morrow,1990
- Foster, Feather Schwartz – Mary Lincoln’s Flannel Pajamas and Other Stories from the First Ladies’ Closet – Koehler Publishing, 2016
- Hoover, Irwin Hood – 42 Years in the White House – Houghton Mifflin Co. , 1934
- Leech, Margaret – In the Days of McKinley – Harper & Brothers, 1959
- Morgan, H. Wayne – William McKinley and His America – Syracuse University Press, 1964
One hundred years ago, after futilely preaching neutrality for three years, President Woodrow Wilson, exhausted of options, finally entered “the war to end all wars” so the world could be made safe for democracy. Two million young American fellows left their farms, fields, factories and shops, and happily enlisted in the Great War, whistled Over There, and planned to wreak havoc on the dastardly Huns.
General John Pershing was the man of the hour, and a few little known Colonels named Marshall and Patton and Billy Mitchell would gain their land-legs in that war. A young Douglas MacArthur would earn his first star. A pacifist farmer named Alvin York from the backwoods of Tennessee would become a legend. But this book is not about them. It is mostly about those lesser-known hundred-thousand Americans who did not come home from over there.
A few years prior to writing BACK OVER THERE, journalist Richard Rubin authored a popular series in the New York Times exploring those battlefields and related sites. Returning once again to fill in a few blanks and smooth out the rough facts, he has provided an engaging and extremely thoughtful look at a War that perhaps has become all Wars. He walks a balanced line between sentiment and maudlin; the matter-of-factness of his European friends blends nicely with the innate morality and exuberance of Americana.
The last of the centenarian survivors of that horror, now known as World War I, are now dead. In many cases, their grandchildren are elderly. A few years ago, Rubin, having had the distinct pleasure/honor of meeting some of those aged ex-soldiers, now has parlayed those experiences into a remarkable travelogue-of-sorts through more than 500 miles of the battlefields, trenches and pillboxes, cemeteries, memorials and little known towns on the Western Front in France, which along with the better known places like The Argonne and Chateau-Thierry, made up four years of one of the bloodiest (and under-remembered) episodes in history.
BACK OVER THERE in some ways, is a surprising love story. The country folk of Northern France, where most of the horrific battles, standoffs, death, sickness and despair occurred between 1914-18, are still deeply in love with their history. History is a part of them. People have remained on the farms and in the villages where their ancestors lived and worked a century (or more) ago. They recall the old stories as if they happened last week. They still love their memory of the idealistic American doughboys who finally came to their aid, and reverently believe the Yanks saved them from total destruction. Even the events of the Second Great War (1939-45) have not dimmed or diminished that love. And the love, at least by author Richard Rubin, is definitely returned in abundance.
His personal experiences of months of dedicated research are coupled with a strong and happy way with words. What could be a litany of dull facts and figures where one battlefield looks just like another, and a trench is a trench, has become a fascinating look at a semi-lost world barely a couple of hundred miles from Paris. It is a world where much of time has stood still. Rubin easily traverses the boundaries of decades, discussing parking places or modern sanitary facilities as easily as he ferrets out the places where a generation of Americans gave their lives and their health and their futures in the hopes of ending war forever.
Rubin introduces us to a dozen or so fellow WWI aficionados, mostly French and a couple of Brits, who, like the metal detectors they sneeringly disdain, helped him find delight in small treasures coughed up by yet another spring rain in an ex-trench that had been overrun by nature decades ago. He learned to recognize grassy hills that buried crumbling cement German pillboxes that mowed down thousands of Allied soldiers. He also learned to appreciate the superb engineering and military acumen that built them. He learned to identify a shard of shrapnel – ours and theirs – and which weapon it came from. Ditto the cap of a canteen or a button from a uniform, or an unspent cartridge. He paid homage to our communal ancestors of WWI vintage, buried forever on French soil. He visited graves and monuments that still were periodically decorated with a flower or ribbon. Some had traces of names that had been worn away by time. Some never had names. And perhaps most important of all, he learned a deeper appreciation of history and memory – ours and theirs. And perhaps “theirs” is greater and deeper. As one of his French companions remarked, “when you live here, you can’t escape the history – it’s all around you, in everything you see, all the time.
For those who love the glory of war, this is a book be read. For those who loathe war and dismiss glory, this is a book to be read. And for all those in between, who love war when we win, and loathe war when we lose, it is a book to be read – and to learn from. Americans usually try to escape history by denying it and sometimes undoing it, but it is inescapable and we will be forced to repeat and repeat it until maybe we get it right. And maybe we never will. America lost its innocence during the Great War – just like everyone else.
The War to End All Wars has perhaps become the War to Begin All Wars: vicious, mean, despairing, hopeless, fruitless, seemingly never-ending and in the end, accomplishing little other than leading to new wars in new places with new names and new uniforms and even more destructive weapons. And more places to bury the honored dead.
And we can thank Richard Rubin for reminding us.
Back Over There, by Richard Rubin
St. Martin’s Press
The “log cabin and hard cider” persona associated with William Henry Harrison was not only a myth, it was an out and out fabrication.
William Henry Harrison (1772-1841) was born at Berkeley Plantation, one of Virginia’s oldest estates along the James river, midway between Williamsburg, then the Colonial Capital, and Richmond, soon to be its state replacement. The Harrison family was a long line of highest-of-the-high FFV’s – First Families of Virginia – both in prestige and in wealth. The plantation boasted thousands of acres, and the house itself was nearly a hundred and fifty years old when WHH was born.
Built of solid brick and mortar (still standing, by the way), its rooms were ample and furnished with the best England could provide.
Bottom line: WHH was the son of Benjamin Harrison VI, signer of the Declaration of Independence, adjutant to George Washington and an early Governor of Virginia. He was exposed from birth through young manhood, to the finest everything that could be had in Virginia – and that included socializing with the cream of society and all the famous names.
WHH: Younger Son
Families were large in those days, with property divided and sub-divided to provide inheritance and dowries. WHH was the youngest of seven; the bulk of the estate went to his eldest brother.
Thus Harrison was sent to school in Philadelphia where he studied medicine for a year. It was enough to tend to himself and his eventual family, but he opted for a military career. His commission as Lieutenant in the minuscule United States Army was signed by President George Washington, and he was sent “out West,” which in those days meant the Indiana territory. Soldiers were needed to protect against Indian raids, the always-threat of the British, and to protect the wagonloads of settlers piling into the new frontier.
By 1798, at only twenty-six, he was named Governor of Indiana (still a territory). He built a sumptuous home in Vincennes, which he named “Grouseland.” It is still standing today.
WHH: General, Hero, Politician
With a solid family background, education and high-up political connections, military promotion came readily. By 1811, he was a Major General.
When long-simmering unrest between England and its erstwhile colonies erupted into the full-scale War of 1812, Harrison was uniquely positioned to do battle near the Great Lakes. The British in Canada, allied with various Indian tribes, hoped to find a soft U.S. underbelly, and perhaps reclaim some of its former territory.
The Battle of Tippecanoe in November, 1811, was a skirmish along the banks of the Tippecanoe River in Indiana. The Indians, under the dynamic leadership of Tecumseh, hoped to stem the influx of American settlers. It lasted perhaps an hour, but it was considered a significant American victory, at a time when the American Army on the East Coast was racking up a series of disasters.
Indian skirmish or not, General Harrison became a hero. In 1812, he followed up with another victory over the Indians at the Battle of the Thames. He parlayed those heroics into the Governorship of the much larger Ohio Territory, a position well suited to his background, experience and the fact that by then, he was past forty. He moved to North Bend, Ohio, and built a very nice house.
During the next twenty years, he served a couple of terms in Congress, representing the new State of Ohio.
The Whigs: 1836
Outgoing President Andrew Jackson, a dominant and charismatic leader, had placed his stamp firmly on the Democratic-Republican party, which by then was called the plain Democratic party. But charismatic and dominant people make as many enemies as friends, and by the end of eight Jacksonian years, those enemies numbered in the tens of thousands. The problem was a lack of commonality and cohesion. In 1832, Jackson’s arch enemy Henry Clay ran as a National Democrat. Anti-Jacksonians didn’t even have a name.
A sixty-something William Henry Harrison first ran for the Presidency in 1836 on the newly named Whig ticket. He did not seek the honor; but he did not decline it, either. The Whig “campaign” was somewhat peculiar. Its followers were so divided, except for basically hating Jackson, that four separate regional candidates were on various tickets, believing that the best vote-getter would be their future candidate. Harrison drew the most votes, but Democrat Martin Van Buren, Jackson’s hand-picked successor, won easily.
The Whigs and The Big Lie
The Whig party had begun to coalesce by 1840. The country was suffering from a financial panic (recession), and the urbane, sophisticated and vulnerable Martin Van Buren took the heat.
William Henry Harrison was sixty-eight and had retired. But he was still considered “available” and his name still magic from Tippecanoe. He had been a governor. He had been a congressman. But he was “western”; a perceived frontiersman, accustomed to the rough-and-tumble idea of Americanism.
WHH was fairly apolitical and reluctant (and maybe a little long in the tooth), so when a Democrat sneeringly suggested that if you gave him a log cabin and a jug of hard cider he would be happy, some Whigs in Pennsylvania ran with the phrase, turning an intended deterrent into a positive asset.
Log cabins were the very image of the new, rugged American generation. The image stuck. The phrase stuck. The first real political campaign began. With banners, with neck scarves, with parades and floats purporting to be log cabins and jugs of hard cider. They even wrote songs about it.
Anti-Jacksonians (now anti-Van Burenites) enthusiastically united in favor of this 68-year-old man they believed to be one of them. He won handily.
But in truth, he came from one of the First Families of Virginia and had dined at elegant tables with Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
Cleaves, Freeman – Old Tippecanoe – American Political Biography (reprint) – 2000
It is unfair to compare medical practice of a hundred or more years ago with the enormous technological changes that have occurred. Nevertheless…
Charles Sawyer: Homeopath
Charles E. Sawyer (1860-1924) was an Ohio homeopathic doctor of limited formal training, believing in medicines and diet rather than dedicated diagnostic skills and treatment. Still, by the turn of the twentieth century, he had built a popular sanitarium, enjoyed a strong following, serious medical credentials (for the time) and was a respected member of society. Having known the Harding family for many years, “Doc” Sawyer became family doctor to Warren Harding, and treated him for a variety of common ailments, including gastritis.
Florence Harding became his patient as well. Florence was a seriously sick woman with a chronic and frequently life threatening kidney ailment that caused regular blockage, pain and fever. It would be a serious condition today, but treatable with modern medicines and techniques.
Doc Sawyer was certainly competent to recognize the gravity of her problem, but believed her kidney would “unblock” itself, given time. But while waiting for that time, “Duchess” as Mrs. H. was nicknamed, was a very sick woman, bedridden, and believed near death on several occasions. In 1900, one of her kidneys was removed.
Doc Sawyer Comes to Washington
Warren Harding was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1914, the first year that a new Constitutional Amendment allowed the direct election of Senators. The Hardings came to Washington with high hopes of a new chapter in their not-blissful lives. Their marriage had become somewhat of an armed truce. Five years older than her husband, the Duchess was a domineering woman, and her kidney disease precluded “marital duties.” Harding, an affable and handsome fellow, found entertainment elsewhere.
Senator Warren Harding’s congeniality drew him into the “good old boys” club: men who liked cigars, whiskey, poker – and women. He was a happy man.
Not so Mrs. Harding. She was considered old, dowdy, and generally snubbed with few friends. To add to her unhappiness, she had another bout with her remaining kidney. Her death was once again expected.
Doc Sawyer, now a close family friend, immediately rushed to Washington. He moved in with the Hardings, and slowly nursed Florence back to health. She firmly believed she could not live without Doc Sawyer’s devoted medical care.
Doc Sawyer Gets a Promotion
Nobody would have predicted that Warren G. Harding, mediocre newspaperman-turned-mediocre Senator would become President of the United States. Nobody, except “Madame Marcia,” a Washington fortune-teller whose patrons included half of socio-political Washington including a superstitious Florence Harding. Madame Marcia advised her that Harding would become President, but would not survive his term. Florence believed her. If she was troubled that her husband would die, it is unknown. She had always loved politics, and this was the culmination of all her hopes and dreams – and an opportunity to avenge those who had snubbed her for years.
Harding indeed became President in 1921, and Mrs. Harding insisted that Doc Sawyer be made Surgeon General, thus in constant attendance. Harding offered no arguments. In addition to naming Sawyer to the post, Harding inducted the sixty-year-old into the U.S. Army, commissioning him as a Brigadier General. Doc was overjoyed! He immediately ordered custom-made uniforms, and loved wearing them all over Washington.
It goes without saying that his medical peers were not impressed with Sawyer’s uniforms or his new title. They were even less impressed by his medical credentials. They considered him little more than a charlatan.
But the Duchess could not live without him.
The POTUS Becomes Sick.
As First Lady, Florence Harding indeed had another bout with her failing kidney, and sure enough Doc Sawyer pulled her through again. But it was Warren Harding who required serious medical care.
In some ways, Harding’s lifestyle was catching up with him. So was his “unfitness for the office,” as he admitted. He knew he was not qualified to be President, and the only part of the job that he truly enjoyed, was the meet-and-greet ceremonials, which he had always done extremely well. Now in his late fifties, Harding had put on weight, via a fashionable “high-stomached” paunch. He also had emotional turmoil via his presidential worries, his marital worries, his extra-marital worries, his financial worries, and growing worries about less than honest old pals that he had appointed to high office. He also had a bad heart.
Doc Sawyer, family doctor and close friend, knew about all Harding’s worries, but categorically denied the bad heart.
Despite Harding’s difficulty breathing, chronic chest pains, cold sweats and other common symptoms of heart disease, the Surgeon General insisted the President was merely suffering from indigestion: too much rich food, too little sleep, and too much stress and worry. Rich food, lack of sleep and stress and worry were certainly not helping, but other Washington physicians insisted that the President was showing classic cardiovascular symptoms. Harding believed his old friend. Indigestion.
The Death of Harding, Sawyer and The Duchess
Surgeon General Sawyer accompanied the President and his party on their fateful trip to Alaska in 1923. Harding was clearly not well. When symptoms suggested a heart attack, Sawyer claimed food poisoning from bad crabmeat. Within a week, the President was dead. Rumors abounded, especially when Mrs. Harding forbade an autopsy. But the Washington doctors were correct. It was a heart attack.
New President Calvin Coolidge did not choose to continue Doc Sawyer’s appointment as Surgeon General. The aging homeopath returned to Ohio, and died a few months later.
Florence Harding also returned to Ohio. Shortly after Doc died, she had another bout of nephritis, and died. She was sixty-four. Doc Sawyer wasn’t there to keep her alive any more.
Ferrell, Robt. H. – The Strange Deaths of President Harding – University of Missouri Press, 1996
Russell, Francis – The Shadow of Blooming Grove – McGraw Hill – 1968
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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