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The Crowded Hour: Theodore Roosevelt, the Rough Riders, and the Dawn of the American Century

Review

The Crowded Hour: Theodore Roosevelt, the Rough Riders, and the Dawn of the American Century

As the 20th century peered over the horizon, America was a nation at a historic crossroad. Decades after its own Civil War and Reconstruction, the United States was expanding across its own continent while contemporaneously becoming a far greater player on the world stage. Still a young nation, it had been relatively free of foreign influence largely due to the vast oceans bordering its shores.

But now, in 1898, America’s economic growth and the ever-shrinking world resulting from technological progress were bringing that isolation to an end. Every nation believes that it stands for something, but Americans were convinced they were different. Millions had fought and hundreds of thousands had died in a civil war over liberty and equality. Now the country faced the beginnings of a struggle that asked how it might become a world power while speaking to those values.

Clay Risen’s THE CROWDED HOUR combines the best elements of biography and history to present a significant account of the Spanish-American War, as well as an entertaining profile of the war’s most celebrated hero, Teddy Roosevelt. The future President would form the Rough Riders, a regiment in existence for a mere six months but still one of the best-known military units in American history. The nearly 1,000 volunteer soldiers came from all walks of life, every region of the nation, and seemed motivated simply by a desire to do what they thought was right. Suddenly, the American soldier was not a nameless, faceless misfit. He was a patriot and a man of intelligence fighting for the great American principles of liberty, equality and humanity.

"THE CROWDED HOUR combines the best elements of biography and history to present a significant account of the Spanish-American War, as well as an entertaining profile of the war’s most celebrated hero, Teddy Roosevelt."

The story of the Rough Riders begins with Theodore Roosevelt Jr. He was born into wealth and represented a new philosophy in American politics: that America’s responsibility to its own interests as well as the world’s required the nation to use its growing power to shape foreign affairs. Throughout his life, Roosevelt would be a strong proponent of energy and intelligence, maintaining his body with exercise and his brain with intellectual vigor. At Harvard, he authored a book on the navy in the War of 1812, which still remains in publication. He became active in New York politics, but retained a world view and joined President McKinley’s administration as an Assistant Secretary of the Navy.

As war with Spain approached over the fight for Cuban independence, it was Roosevelt and Leonard Wood, the White House physician and a Congressional Medal of Honor winner, who were appointed to command the First United States Volunteer Cavalry. When the Spanish-American War commenced, the regular American army consisted of only 28,000 soldiers. A rapid mobilization was required, and volunteers were abundant.

However, many of those volunteers, while high on patriotic fervor, were not quite ready for military service. By June 1898, 127,798 men had applied for enlistment, but only 29,521 were accepted. That meant that 77 percent were deemed unfit to serve. The pace of enlistment and mobilization was chaotic. The United States military at the turn of the century was not a national army, and still relied on militias and territorial defense forces. Creating an army was only part of the problem. McKinley had gone to war without a clear military strategy. Indeed, the only branch of the military that seemed to have a strategy in place was the U.S. Navy.

The media loved the Rough Riders, “drawn from all walks of life and all parts of the country,” and Roosevelt was more than satisfied to have the spotlight focus on him and his regiment. But Roosevelt, a man who stressed preparation for the Navy, must have been extremely frustrated by the lack of any coherent plan to engage on Cuban soil. The Rough Riders prevailed with their gallant charge up San Juan Hill, and Roosevelt’s place in history was firmly established.

THE CROWDED HOUR is a stirring narrative of both Theodore Roosevelt and the Spanish-American War. As a historical account, it is a reminder of how far our nation has come as a world power, but how we struggle today with the obligations that come with that power.

Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on June 28, 2019

The Crowded Hour: Theodore Roosevelt, the Rough Riders, and the Dawn of the American Century
by Clay Risen

  • Publication Date: June 4, 2019
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • ISBN-10: 1501143999
  • ISBN-13: 9781501143991