TR's Wild Side: As a Rough Rider in the Spanish-American War, Theodore Roosevelt's Attention to Nature and Love of Animals Were Much in Evidence, Characteristics That Would Later Help Form His Strong Conservationist Platform as President

By Brinkley, Douglas | American Heritage, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

TR's Wild Side: As a Rough Rider in the Spanish-American War, Theodore Roosevelt's Attention to Nature and Love of Animals Were Much in Evidence, Characteristics That Would Later Help Form His Strong Conservationist Platform as President


Brinkley, Douglas, American Heritage


ON JUNE 3, 1898, 39 days into the Spanish-American War, Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders arrived in Florida by train, assigned to the U.S. transport Yucatan. But the departure date from Tampa Bay for Cuba kept changing. Just a month earlier, the 39-year-old Teddy had quit his job as assistant secretary of the Navy, taken command of the 1,250-man 1st Volunteer Cavalry Regiment along with Leonard Wood, and began a mobilization to dislodge the Spanish from Cuba.

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Roosevelt worried that if the ship didn't leave soon, his men's livers weren't going to withstand all the booze they were consuming. The first day was incredibly humid, with a hot, glassy atmosphere and scant wind. Anxious for war, Teddy was unperturbed by the omnipresent swarms of chiggers and sandflies. To kill time he studied Florida's botany, learning to distinguish lignum-vitae (holywood) trees from blue beech and ironwood at a glance.

The very word wild had a smelling-salt-like effect on Theodore Roosevelt. As a Harvard undergraduate he had studied nature from a scientific perspective, full of rigor and objectivity. To Roosevelt wilderness hunting and bird-watching were the ideal bootcamps for a military career. By studying how grizzly bears tracked their prey, he developed warrior skills. First-rate soldiers were best made in America, he believed, by learning to live in the wild. If a soldier understood how to read a meadowlark call or crow squawk, then his chances of battlefield survival were enhanced. An alertness to all things wild was, in Roosevelt's eyes, a prerequisite for excelling in modern society. Success would fall upon the individual who could outfox a blizzard or survive a heat wave.

Roosevelt possessed in spades the qualities that Harvard naturalist Edward O. Wilson has called "biophilia": the desire to affiliate with other forms of life, the same impulse that lifts the heart at a sudden vision of a glorious valley, a red-rock canyon, or a loon scooting across a mud bog at dusk. Wilson suggests that, at heart, humans want to be touched by nature in their daily lives. His hypothesis offers a key to understanding why Roosevelt as president would add over 234 million acres to the public domain between 1901 and 1909. He responded both scientifically and emotively to wilderness. The shopworn academic debate over whether Roosevelt was a preservationist or a conservationist is really moot. He was both, and a passionate hunter to boot, too many-sided and paradoxical to be pigeonholed. Even within the crucible of the Spanish-American War, Roosevelt managed to acquire exotic pets and to write about the Cuban environment, actions that provide valuable insight into Roosevelt's developing conservationist attitudes.

While waiting to ship out, he studied the waterfowl along the wharf front and marshy inlets: ibis, herons, and double-crested cormorants, among scores of others. Beneath his cavalry boots on the Tampa beaches were sunrise tellin, wide-mouthed purpura, ground coral, bay mud, and tiny pebbles mixed with barnacles and periwinkles. Writing to his friend Henry Cabot Lodge, he turned quasi geobiologist, evoking Florida's semitropical sun, palm trees, shark-infested shallows, and sandy beaches much like those on the French Riviera. The Gulf of Mexico, the ninth-largest body of water in the world, interested Roosevelt to no end.

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Spending those days in Tampa Bay, various conservation historians believe, later influenced Roosevelt's creation of federal bird sanctuaries along Florida's coasts. What Roosevelt learned from being stationed on the Gulf Coast was that the market hunters were having a bad effect on Florida's ecosystem, including the Everglades, Indian River, Lake Okeechobee, and the Ten Thousand Islands. The previous year, his friend the New York-based ornithologist Frank M. Chapman As a Rough Rider in the Spanish-American War of 1898, Theodore Roosevelt, opposite, exercized a muscular conservationist ethic that would bloom full flowered two years later when he became America's first "green" president.

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