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It remains one of the most mythologized images of the Spanish-American war: Theodore Roosevelt charging on horseback, leading his Rough Rider volunteers up Cuba’s San Juan Hill through the smoke and chaos of battle to claim a decisive victory. Carefully crafted by Roosevelt himself, it’s an image that raised his public profile—and helped catapult him toward the White House.
But it’s not exactly accurate.
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A combination of savvy public relations and racial bias overemphasized the 40-year-old Roosevelt’s combat role, while downplaying the bravery and contributions of the Black troops, known as Buffalo soldiers, who served alongside white soldiers on that same battlefield. In his book about the war, Roosevelt called them “shirkers.” But for many historians, they stand among the hardest fighting heroes of the three-week war.
In their push to capture the strategically important city of Santiago de Cuba, some 8,000 Americans battled for the two nearby hills of San Juan Heights, including Roosevelt’s volunteer regiment and some 1,250 Black soldiers. Unlike in most U.S. wars, the fighting was an integrated effort. “Regulars and volunteers, blacks and whites, fought side by side, endured the blistering heat and driving rain, and shared food and drink as well as peril and discomfort,” wrote U.S. Defense Department historian Frank Schubert in 1998. “They forged a victory that did not belong primarily to TR, nor did it belong mainly to the Buffalo soldiers. It belonged to all of them.”
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The future president and the Black soldiers took extremely divergent paths to that scorching hot battlefield on Cuba’s southeast coast that summer of 1898.
From his post as assistant secretary of the Navy, Roosevelt, a blue-blood former New York police commissioner, purchased guns, ammunition and other equipment to ready the Navy’s vessels for a foreign conflict. According to biographer Henry Pringle, these moves reflected Roosevelt’s general “lust for war.” In 1897, Roosevelt, who supported American expansionism, wrote to a friend, “I should welcome almost any war, for I think this country needs one.”
Roosevelt got his wish in February 1898 after the USS Maine battleship exploded in Havana Harbor and sank, killing more than 260 officers and sailors. While its cause was never definitively determined, the incident hiked American tensions with Spain over its brutal treatment of Cubans resisting their colonial rule. Roosevelt called the Maine explosion a “dirty act of treachery” the Spanish needed to answer for. So when Congress declared war that April, he resigned his position and wasted no time forming the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry Regiment. Known as the “Rough Riders,” it featured a diverse mix of athletes, miners, cowboys, upper-class gentlemen, Native Americans, prospectors and others.
Impressed by Black soldiers’ service in the Union Army during the Civil War, Congress created six all-Black cavalry and infantry regiments in 1866, one year after the conflict ended. Later consolidated into four regiments—the 9th and 10th Cavalry and the 24th and 25th Infantry—Black troops served mostly on the western frontier, helping build infrastructure, protect white settlers and fight Native Americans. Their nickname, Buffalo soldiers, may have come from Plains Indians, who likened their curly dark hair to buffalo fur—and their fierceness in fighting to the mighty creature they revered.
While soldiering on behalf of a government that had abolished slavery only a few years earlier, Black troops endured discrimination in the Army, repressive Jim Crow segregation and violent attacks from civilians, many of whom opposed the idea of Black men with guns.
Military officials, assuming Black troops had higher tolerance for tropical climates and immunity to tropical diseases, saw them as ideal soldiers to deploy to Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines to help rout the Spanish. Of the 17,000 U.S. troops sent to Cuba, 3,000 were Black.
READ MORE: Who Were the Buffalo Soldiers?
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U.S. troops landed in the southeastern tip of Cuba on June 22, 1898, with the goal of capturing the port city of Santiago de Cuba, where the Spanish were anchored. Two days later, when engaging the enemy at Las Guásimas, the Rough Riders struck first. But they, along with other troops, were pinned down in an intense skirmish until the Buffalo soldiers’ 10th Cavalry regiment arrived and forced a Spanish retreat.
A week later, on July 1, the Americans set out to take Kettle Hill and San Juan Hill, both high points in San Juan Heights about a mile outside Santiago. Roosevelt’s volunteers, along with regular enlisted troops, both Black and white, were assigned to take the blockhouse atop Kettle Hill, while other regiments focused on San Juan Hill.
Rough Riders and Buffalo soldiers from the 9th Calvary were the first to reach the Kettle Hill summit—taking heavy Spanish fire during their ascent and engaging in hand-to-hand combat in the trenches. Roosevelt was slowed when his horse snagged on barbed wire just below the crest of the hill, forcing him to proceed on foot the remainder of the day. After taking the blockhouse, American units then ran down from Kettle Hill and through an exposed valley to join the pitched battle at San Juan Hill. In the descent, Roosevelt tried to rally men behind him, but according to Schubert, only five heard him in the noise and confusion. Regrouping slowed him further.
Meanwhile, other Black and white troops took control of the second hill. Sergeant George Berry of the 10th Cavalry, a Buffalo soldier, carried the colors of both his regiment and that of the 3rd regiment he got from a wounded white soldier—and planted them at the top of San Juan Hill. Overall, writes military historian Roger D. Cunningham, the Black troops “made significant contributions to the speedy victory, earning five Medals of Honor and 29 Certificates of Merit for their gallantry under fire.” One Buffalo solider named Edward Lee Baker received the Medal of Honor for his gallantry on July 1, 1898. The medal’s citation reads, “Left cover and, under fire, rescued a wounded comrade from drowning.” Some 26 Buffalo soldiers died in the fighting.
“Roosevelt did not get up to the top of San Juan Hill until the fighting was over,” said Jerry Tuccille, author of The Roughest Riders: The Untold Story of the Black Soldiers in the Spanish-American War. “But of course, waiting up there were six hand-picked reporters (by him). They gave him the big reception… The media loved him because he was a colorful character and an adventurer. He was great copy.”
Reporters on the scene helped burnish his legend. The well-known fiction writer and award-winning correspondent Richard Harding Davis, whom Roosevelt had befriended before the war, wrote how, during the ascent of Kettle Hill, the ambitious lieutenant colonel, on horseback, lunged from behind the regular troops to speed their advance, and how he galloped repeatedly between rifle pits to inspire Black soldiers and Rough Riders alike.
“No one who saw Roosevelt take that ride expected he would finish it alive,” Davis breathlessly reported. “…It looked like foolhardiness, but as a matter of fact, set the pace with his horse and inspired his men.” Watching Roosevelt, he added, “made you feel that you would like to cheer.” Roosevelt later commissioned a painting by renowned artist Frederick Remington of his charge up the hill—a memorable but somewhat fictionalized image of the cowboy soldier.
In the immediate aftermath of the war, Roosevelt praised the role of the Buffalo soldiers: “No one can tell whether it was the Rough Riders or the [Black] men of the 9th [Cavalry] who came forward with the greater courage to offer their lives in the service of their country.” But in his book titled The Rough Riders, published a year later with an eventual presidential run in mind, Roosevelt revised his narrative, writing: “Negro troops were shirkers in their duties and would only go as far as they were led by white officers.”
The following year, 1900, Roosevelt was elected vice president of the United States. He became president in September 1901, after President William McKinley’s assassination.
On their return home, Buffalo soldiers were briefly feted as war heroes. But they soon found that their uniforms didn’t shield them from the indignity of segregation or from racial violence and terrorism.
For many Black Americans, though, Buffalo soldiers stood as symbols of hope—America’s “race heroes” of the time. Their service and valor were celebrated in Black media, drama, poetry and art.
“Negroes had little, at the turn of the century, to help sustain our faith in ourselves except the pride that we took in the 9th and 10th Cavalry, the 24th and 25th Infantry,” wrote Rayford Logan, a seminal African American historian. “Many Negro homes had prints of the famous charge of the colored troops up San Juan Hill. They were our Ralph Bunche, Marian Anderson, Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson.”