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Peace is bustin' out all over as we begin Chapter 6 (“The Return Home”), and the cavalry had moved to the foothills west of El Caney with the artillery, but if the war had a heavy cost, the peace was raring to beat the living daylights out of the remaining men. “It was a most beautiful spot beside a stream of clear water, but it was not healthy. In fact no ground in the neighborhood was healthy.” The chief issue was a constant recurrence of malarial fever, and while it never knocked more than 20% of the men flat at any one time, there were never more than 50% of all the men who were actually well enough to do anything. To compound the misery, they made the move to the foothills (“through some blunder”) during the hottest part of the day, so the five-mile march tipped put half of the guys down before they reached the new campsite.

The malaria would come and go, then come back again to ask if you were talking about it, which means the men would recover just enough to feel like being up and around, only to taste the backhand of the illness again. “Every officer other than myself except one was down with sickness at one time or another. […] All the clothes were in rags; even the officers had neither socks nor underwear. The lithe college athletes had lost their spring; the tall, gaunt hunters and cow-punchers lounged listlessly in their dog-tents, which were steaming morasses during the torrential rains, and then ovens when the sun blazed down; but there were no complaints.” Even Bardshar, Roosevelt's orderly, had lost eighty pounds from illness.

Of course, the conditions at the larger field hospitals were still pathetic enough to cause all kinds of nightmares, so they were laboring mightily to prevent anybody from getting sent down.

There were but twelve ambulances with the army, and these were quite inadequate for their work; but the conditions in the large field hospitals were so bad, that as long as possible we kept all of our sick men in the regimental hospital at the front. Dr. Church did splendid work, although he himself was suffering much more than half the time from fever. Several of the men from the ranks did equally well, especially a young doctor from New York, Harry Thorpe, who had enlisted as a trooper, but who was now made acting assistant-surgeon. It was with the greatest difficulty that Church and Thorpe were able to get proper medicine for the sick, and it was almost the last day of our stay before we were able to get cots for them. Up to that time they lay on the ground. No food was issued suitable for them, or for the half-sick men who were not on the doctor's list; the two classes by this time included the bulk of the command. Occasionally we got hold of a wagon or of some Cuban carts, and at other times I used my improvised pack-train (the animals of which, however, were continually being taken away from us by our superiors) and went or sent back to the sea-coast at Siboney or into Santiago itself to get rice, flour, cornmeal, oatmeal, condensed milk, potatoes, and canned vegetables. The rice I bought in Santiago; the best of the other stuff I got from the Red Cross through Mr. George Kennan and Miss Clara Barton and Dr. Lesser; but some of it I got from our own transports. Colonel Weston, the Commissary-General, as always, rendered us every service in his power. This additional and varied food was of the utmost service, not merely to the sick but in preventing the well from becoming sick. Throughout the campaign the Division Inspector-General, Lieutenant-Colonel Garlington, and Lieutenants West and Dickman, the acting division quartermaster and commissary, had done everything in their power to keep us supplied with food; but where there were so few mules and wagons even such able and zealous officers could not do the impossible. (pp. 200-2)

As if things weren't squirrelly enough, some of the Cubans in the rear were tagged with yellow fever, a nasty piece of viral work which freaked out some of the doctors and a few of the generals. Fortunately, the yellow fever didn't turn into an epidemic. Unfortunately, there was no telling that to the men in Washington who made the decisions about whether or not to get the hell out of the country, since a few incidents in recent decades had worked a special kind of paranoid magic on their decision making. “I doubt if there were ever more than a dozen genuine cases of yellow fever in the whole cavalry division; but the authorities at Washington, misled by the reports they received from one or two of their military and medical advisers at the front, became panic-struck, and under the influence of their fears hesitated to bring the army home, lest it might import yellow fever into the United States.” The verdict seemed to be to stay in Cuba with their misery and disease.

That wasn't the only thing on which the crazymaking remote-control driving from Washington was wreaking havoc. There was the matter of whether to stay in one place in Cuba, and how to get to the other place, wherever they decided that needed to be. This is one of the longer quote block, but stick with me here...

They unfortunately knew nothing of the country nor of the circumstances of the army, and the plans that were from time to time formulated in the Department (and even by an occasional general or surgeon at the front) for the management of the army would have been comic if they had not possessed such tragic possibilities. Thus, at one period it was proposed that we should shift camp every two or three days. Now, our transportation, as I have pointed out before, was utterly inadequate. In theory, under the regulations of the War Department, each regiment should have had at least twenty-five wagons. As a matter of fact our regiment often had none, sometimes one, rarely two, and never three; yet it was better off than any other in the cavalry division. In consequence it was impossible to carry much of anything save what the men had on their backs, and half of the men were too weak to walk three miles with their packs. Whenever we shifted camp the exertion among the half-sick caused our sick-roll to double next morning, and it took at least three days, even when the shift was for but a short distance, before we were able to bring up the officers' luggage, the hospital spare food, the ammunition, etc. Meanwhile the officers slept wherever they could, and those men who had not been able to carry their own bedding, slept as the officers did. In the weak condition of the men the labor of pitching camp was severe and told heavily upon them. In short, the scheme of continually shifting camp was impossible of fulfilment. It would merely have resulted in the early destruction of the army.

Again, it was proposed that we should go up the mountains and make our camps there. The palm and the bamboo grew to the summits of the mountains, and the soil along their sides was deep and soft, while the rains were very heavy, much more so than immediately on the coast—every mile or two inland bringing with it a great increase in the rainfall. We could, with much difficulty, have got our regiments up the mountains, but not half the men could have got up with their belongings; and once there it would have been an impossibility to feed them. It was all that could be done, with the limited number of wagons and mule-trains on hand, to feed the men in the existing camps, for the travel and the rain gradually rendered each road in succession wholly impassable. To have gone up the mountains would have meant early starvation.

The third plan of the Department was even more objectionable than either of the others. There was, some twenty-five miles in the interior, what was called a high interior plateau, and at one period we were informed that we were to be marched thither. As a matter of fact, this so-called high plateau was the sugar-cane country, where, during the summer, the rainfall was prodigious. It was a rich, deep soil, covered with a rank tropic growth, the guinea-grass being higher than the head of a man on horseback. It was a perfect hotbed of malaria, and there was no dry ground whatever in which to camp. To have sent the troops there would have been simple butchery. (pp. 204-7)

The option that was agreed to? The “we'll just stay where we are until you guys get your heads out of your asses, thank you kindly” option. You know, the one that doesn't spell assured doom.

Keeping morale up was starting to become a problem, mainly because there wasn't a whole lot to do that didn't wring the sick ones out like a dishrag. ”Once or twice I took some of my comrades with me, and climbed up one or another of the surrounding mountains, but the result generally was that half of the party were down with some kind of sickness next day.” There was epic heat in the mornings, and the rains that usually drenched the countryside in the evening made walking around a mucky ordeal. Even if they were well enough to make the trip into Santiago—and there were restrictions—there wasn't much going on in “the quaint, dirty old Spanish city.” By this time, Roosevelt's buddy Leonard Wood had been appointed military governor, and was operating out of “the low, bare, rambling building which was called the Governor's Palace.” Roosevelt was thus the head of his entire brigade, which put him in a prime position to take part in the next bit of drama.

There had developed a consensus among the army officers in Cuba that if there wasn't anything for them to actually do in Cuba, they'd like to get the hell out and go to the fighting in Puerto Rico or wherever, instead of sitting around and waiting for the fever to kill them. Whatever happened after Santiago, everyone in Santiago agreed that the army needed to get out or face ruination. With all of this in mind, General Shafter called a conference of all the division and brigade commanders around the last day of July. “The telegrams from the Secretary stating the position of himself and the Surgeon-General were read, and then almost every line and medical officer present expressed his views in turn. They were almost all regulars and had been brought up to life-long habits of obedience without protest.” However, while every man present agreed that it would be an unforgivable waste to stay put, the officers who were regular army were a bit twitchy about sacrificing their careers to make this point. Since Roosevelt wasn't a career soldier, he presumably had the least to lose from reprisals, so it fell to him to bear the brunt of this gambit. “So I wrote a letter to General Shafter, reading over the rough draft to the various Generals and adopting their corrections. Before I had finished making these corrections it was determined that we should send a circular letter on behalf of all of us to General Shafter, and when I returned from presenting him mine, I found this circular letter already prepared and we all of us signed it.”

In what came to be known as “the 'round robin' incident”, the text of both Roosevelt's letter and the circular letter were dutifully leaked, possibly by Roosevelt himself, to an AP correspondent (as reprinted in Appendix C). “I was present when [the correspondent] was handed both letters; he was present while they were being written.” The goal was to embarrass the government into action, and on that point, it was very successful. “Within three days the army was ordered to be ready to sail for home.” Well, it accomplished that, but there's a possibility that the blowback from the incident was one of the things that cost Roosevelt a much-desired Congressional Medal of Honor, an oversight that was eventually corrected...103 years later. Which only proves yet again that Bill Clinton got to do everything.

Next: Going home! And more boats!


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