The Crowded Hour: Theodore Roosevelt, the Rough Riders, and the Dawn of the American Century
Why “the American Century is neither entirely heroic nor entirely tragic — it is both.”
As I began to read this book, I was again reminded of first line in Charles Dickens’ novel, A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” The subtitle of Clay Risen’s book correctly suggests that he has a comparable opinion of the early 20th century, the so-called “American Century.” The focal point of Risen’s narrative is the Spanish-American War. More accurately, “if less often and more awkwardly, known as the the Spanish-American-Cuban-Filipino War.”
To what does the title of this book refer? According to Risen, “Roosevelt called his legendary charge during the Battle of San Juan Hill, on July 1, 1898, his ‘crowded hour’ — the brief span of time in which so much of his life came together and from which, afterward, so much followed. Similarly, the Spanish-American War was America’s own ‘crowded hour’ — a relatively brief conflict that set in motion the wheels of myth-making, idealism, and national self-interest that would guide the country through the twentieth century.”
Some have described it as “an epiphany,” others as a “shock of recognition” or a “tipping point.” In this context, the concept of Manifest Destiny comes to mind. A phrase coined in 1845 and attributed to journalist John O’Sullivan suggests that the United States is destined — by God, its advocates believed — to expand its dominion and spread democracy and capitalism across the entire North American continent. The philosophy drove 19th-century U.S. territorial expansion and was used to justify the forced removal of Native Americans and other groups from their homes. The rapid expansion of the United States intensified the issue of slavery as new states were added to the Union, leading to the outbreak of the Civil War.
That is the frame of reference within which to understand and appreciate the meaning and significance of “winning” the the Spanish-American War. As Risen also explains the concept also suggests President McKinley’s as well as Roosevelt’s perspectives on the expanding horizon of global expansion for the United States.
In or near the downtown area of most major cities, there is a farmer’s market at which a few of the merchants offer slices of fresh fruit as samples of their wares. In that spirit, I now provide brief excerpts that also suggest the thrust and flavor of Risen’s narrative:
“Theodore Roosevelt believed “it was America’s responsibility, to its own interests as well as the world’s, to use its growing power to shape foreign affairs. In his own autobiography, Roosevelt called the chapter on the Spanish-American War ‘The War of America the Unready.'” (Page 15)
Whereas McKInley was an advocate of global expansion through economic and diplomatic initiatives, “Roosevelt had other plans. He had long believed that America’s economic and diplomatic power meant nothing if it did not also improve its military power — and McKinley had put him in a position to do something about that. For several years already, the Navy had been recovering from its post-Civil War senescence.” (22)
At their San Antonio training camp, the Rough Riders “had arrived with little more than the shoes they wore, assuming, fairly, that uniforms, bedding, and other supplies would be provided. The men camped in the fairground’s vast exhibition hall because they didn’t have tents; many didn’t even have blankets. For the first several days, they drilled with broomsticks in place of rifles.” (93) At this point, the men were as poorly prepared for combat as their nation was prepared for war.
After the war had been won, “There was one final question, which arose immediately and dogged Roosevelt for the rest of his life. Perhaps out of confusion, or just in search of good copy, the press back home conflated the sequence and arrangement of events during the assault, and within a few days it was an accepted consensus, among large swaths of the of the public, that Theodore Roosevelt had led the charge uip San Juan Hill, and not just Kettle Hill. The fact that Roosevelt never made this claim mattered little…[Had anyone] examined the record, and then looked up the facts of the charge up Kettle Hill, he would have seen that Roosevelt had nothing to lie about. The assault he did lead was more than enough glory for one man.” (216)
“By  the Rough Riders had long since ceased to be purely historical figures. They became myths, as much an American legend as Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett. [Jesse] Langdon was among the last of the regiment that was as famous as much for what it symbolized as for what it did — confident, idealistic, American warriors, ready to take on the world.” (289)
With regard to printing the legend, I’d like to add Ransom Stoddard, the man reported to have shot Liberty Valance.
I commend Clay Risen on the wealth of interesting as well as valuable historical information he provides about a “crowded hour” in 1889 on the St. Juan Heights in Cuba for the United States as well as for Theodore Roosevelt, leader of the First United States Volunteer Cavalry (“Rough Riders”) regiment. He later became governor of New York (1899-1901) and then the 26th President of the United States (1901-1909). This book explains why the Spanish-American War was neither entirely heroic nor entirely tragic — it was both.