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Roosevelt brought to the duties of his office a great interest in the work, as well as a tremendous energy and talent for closely studying and mastering his task, which had characterized him in other fields. He also brought to these restful members of the navy department some of his startling methods, and again proved himself the “storm center,” a name which had already been given to him, and to which he was better entitled than any other man in public life. In the fall of 1897 he was detailed to inspect the fleet in Hampton Roads, and he kept the commanders and their jackies in a ferment for a week. Whenever he thought of a drill he would like to see, he ordered it. The crews were called to quarters at night, and all sorts of emergency orders were given, at various hours. When the assistant secretary came back to Washington to report, he had at least mastered some of the important details of the situation, and the “Flying Squadron” was insured against any sort of surprise. So far as human foresight and official provision could manage, the navy was ready. The “Flying Squadron” haunted the shores of Cuba, gathering prizes, closing the gates of harbors to reinforcements, or “bottling them up,” and waiting in grim silence for the hour of their sure destruction. The powerful Oregon was summoned in haste from the Pacific, and while Spain was thus checked in the one effectual manner, that army which had not existed when war was declared had been recruited, armed, drilled and equipped, and had landed in Cuba. One of the most reliable histories of the war with Spain contains this passage: “The first fight by soldiers in General Shafter’s army of invasion occurred June 24, five miles from Santiago de Cuba—so far had the Americans penetrated. Two troops of the First Cavalry, two troops of the Tenth Cavalry, and four troops of Roosevelt’s ‘Rough Riders’—less than a thousand men in all—dismounted and attacked two thousand Spanish soldiers in the thickets. They beat back the enemy to the very outworks of the city, but they left seventeen dead in that fierce struggle, that passage in a war for humanity.” All who are familiar with the records of those years know the names of the men most active in fanning the flame of war. It is safe to say that the name of Theodore Roosevelt was never mentioned as adding fuel to that flame. But while Senator Mason thundered at the doors of the White House, demanding a declaration of war— whether or no; while congressmen from every section of the country, and from the councils of every party, were writing down their countrymen as cowards for not hastening to a conflict that was more expected than prepared for—Mr. Roosevelt was working night and day in an effort to fit the navy for fighting. And the moment war was declared and his work there was ended, he resigned his comfortable office and hurried to the field. He could have remained as executive head of the navy department, assisting greatly in the prosecution of the war. But he preferred to leave the ease of office to others, and take himself a share in the struggle. It was to him the nation is indebted for the formation of that force known as the “Rough Riders.” It was due to his initiative, his energy, his continual efforts that they were prepared so swiftly, and waited so early at the point of embarkation. It was due to his ability as a commander that they behaved so well under fire, and wholly due to his habit of sharing every danger and every hardship with them that the men of his command—and all other commands in the land forces before Santiago—routed an intrenched foe, and defeated a regular army. It is not necessary to speak of him in battle, yet he bore himself well there. He gave no evidence of fear. He was careful in the handling of his men, and exposed them to no unnecessary peril. But he led them when they went into danger. He did not follow. And when battles were over he gave to his men all the tender care that loving duty could inspire, and shared with them, on every occasion, the glory that their deeds and his had earned. A recent writer has said of him: “As assistant secretary of the navy, he was virtually head of the department. He was a Carnot who ‘organized victory.” He foresaw the Spanish war a year before it came, and collected ammunition, insisted on the practice for improving marksmanship on board all the vessels, and MADE THE NAVY READY.” Said the late Senator Cushman K. Davis, chairman of the committee on foreign relations: “If it had not been for Roosevelt, Dewey would not have been able to strike the blow that he dealt at Manila. Roosevelt's sagacity, energy and promptness saved us.” One of the most famous publications said in a recent issue: “When the war of 1898 started Mr. Roosevelt was one of the first to enter it. He attracted to his banner the most typical corps—college graduates, plainsmen, polo-players, and cowboys—of Americans who served in the war. And he gave himself and them a world reputation as fighters.”
Probably never before in the history of a country has so remarkable a thing happened. Here was a man who could prepare a navy for swift and effective assault, send it to victory with the first bugle-call of war, and then organize and lead to triumph ashore a band of fighting men who were capable of following such leadership against any foe in the world. It is not easy to discover a parallel.