We have largely forgotten the Spanish-American War. Perhaps the only thing most remember from the war was the propulsion of Theodore Roosevelt to national prominence—and, eventually the White House—as a result of the exploits of the troops under his command, the Rough Riders. Roosevelt had helped to put the unit together, billing it as being made up of mostly western cowboy-type cavalry men. In reality, it was a fairly diverse volunteer unit of troops and included several Ivy League and upper class friends of Roosevelt’s as officers. Ironically, even though they were cavalry, they fought the war in Cuba on foot because their horses never arrived.
The Rough Riders and Roosevelt won their notoriety in a famous charge up San Juan Hill in Cuba. Roosevelt made sure that plenty of reporters were on the ground in Cuba with his troops so that his heroics there could be documented. Today, we would say that the reporters were embedded with the troops, and, indeed, several reporters even took up arms in the conflict. These reporters described the battle in glowing terms, giving credit to Roosevelt for his leadership and coolness under fire. Such was the popularity of this type of reporting that President William McKinley, running for reelection in 1900, chose the young Roosevelt as his running mate.
In many ways, the Spanish-American conflict was a war created by and for tabloid journalism. When tensions were rising between Spain and the United States, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst sent artist Frederic Remington to Cuba to report on the situation. Supposedly, Remington sent a telegram back to Hearst stating that there was no real conflict to report on. Hearst, possibly apocryphally, said something to the effect that the artist should provide pictures and Hearst would provide the war. The idea was that Hearst would whip up sympathy for the American cause and hatred towards Spain that would result in a war fever. He was not far from wrong. Newspapers were the major source of news for the United States in the era before electronic media. However, sensationalism ruled, and the public ate up the lurid details of Spanish atrocities against the United States—even if the “atrocities “ had been fabricated by newspaper men like Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer.
Thus, Teddy Roosevelt’s rise to fame was a part of this pro-war propaganda. However, not all Roosevelt did in Cuba received good press. You see, the Rough Riders had been in another engagement in the days before the famous charge up San Juan Hill. And, unlike San Juan Hill, a previous battle, called
Las Guasimas, was the opposite of glorious. Accounts are muddled, but it appears that the Rough Riders and Roosevelt blundered into a Spanish ambush. Oh, the Spanish were retreating anyway, but the fact that Roosevelt and his troops gained control of the battlefield caused TR to claim a victory despite the fact that the Spanish outfoxed and outfought the Americans. Several American troops were killed including one of Roosevelts officers.
One reporter’s story back home headlined the battle of Las Guasimas this way: Roosevelt’s Rough Riders’ Loss Due to a Gallant Blunder. The reporter criticized the American troops and leadership for ignoring the warning signs of the ambush and for not listening to their Cuban scouts who had warned them of trouble ahead. The reporter credited this to an American overconfidence when prudence and caution would have saved American lives. It made Roosevelt and the other leaders look foolish.
Roosevelt was furious when he heard about this report. He knew how important reporting such as this would be seen, especially to someone like him who had political ambition. He later spoke of what he called cheap novelists posing as reporters who wanted to strike out against anyone they considered to be their superiors. In his book about the war, written a year later, Roosevelt tried to set the record straight regarding the ambush at Las Guasimas. In fact, Roosevelt portrayed himself as being such a hero, one critic of his memoir said that the book should have been titled Alone in Cuba. Luckily for Roosevelt, the positive press that surrounded the charge up San Juan Hill quickly obliterated any negative reporting that may have happened after Las Guasimas. Some historians have argued that Roosevelt led the impetuous charge up San Juan Hill in an effort, in part, to change any possible negative public perception that the ambush had caused.
And who was this reporter who struck such a nerve with the future president? He was, in fact, a novelist. Roosevelt got that part right.
The novelist was Stephen Crane, the author of The Red Badge of Courage.