Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Teddy’s Quest for the Medal of Honor

Mitchell Yockelson discusses Theodore Roosevelt’s quest for the Medal of Honor for his actions in Cuba in an article in Prologue. Theodore Roosevelt considered his involvement in the Spanish-American War to be one of his crowning achievements. He desperately wanted a war to prove himself in. Once back, he was soon after the military decoration to crown his achievement: the Medal of Honor. Yockelson evaluates Roosevelt’s efforts in the Spanish-American War and whether TR deserved the Medal he was so desperate to earn.

In his quest for the medal, Roosevelt wrote to everyone he knew to try to get himself awarded the coveted medal:
A multitude of War Department documents and Roosevelt's own published letters clearly state his argument that "I am entitled to the Medal of Honor and I want it.”…Four months after submission of his name for the Medal of Honor, Roosevelt became more obsessed with the issue. He painfully told Lodge on December 6 that "if I didn't earn it, then no commissioned officer can ever earn it. . . . I don't ask this as a favor--I ask it as a right. . . . I feel rather ugly on this medal of honor business; and the President and War Dept. may as well understand it. If they want fighting, they shall have it."

For all of TR’s efforts, though, he was not awarded the medal:
Twenty-eight participants of the Santiago Campaign were approved to receive the Medal of Honor for gallantry in action, but Roosevelt's name was not among them. Instead, his name appeared with other volunteer officers on a separate list for recommendation as brevet colonel and brevet brigadier general.

Did Roosevelt deserve this Medal? First, Yockelson looks at the requirements:
To determine eligibility for the Medal of Honor, the Brevet Board had to follow paragraph 177 of the United States Army regulations. It states that "in order that the Congressional Medal of Honor may be deserved[,] service must have been performed in action as such conspicuous character to clearly distinguish the man for gallantry and intrepidity above his comrades--service that involved extreme jeopardy of life or the performance of extraordinary hazardous duty. Recommendations for the decoration will be judged by this standard of extraordinary merit, and incontestible proof of performance of the service will be exacted."(35) Since its creation during the Civil War, the Medal of Honor had been haphazardly awarded because there were no clear rules or policies for documenting and authenticating the acts of gallantry befitting the decoration. The Brevet Board served to temporarily correct this dilemma.

Yockelson also rehashes the details of TR’s time in Cuba – you can go read it yourself (I’m all for making you do a little work). So why did the Brevet Board deny TR his Medal? Was it politics? Or for real reasons?:
Exactly why the Brevet Board denied Roosevelt the award is not officially documented. There are no extant War Department records nor similar correspondence among the personal papers of Russell Alger that hint at why Roosevelt was rejected. Certainly no evidence exists to support the contention that Alger held a grudge over the Round Robin affair or Roosevelt's testimony to the congressional committee. On the contrary, letters from the War Department to Roosevelt indicate that they were more than willing to assist him in getting the Medal of Honor. One can only assume that the Brevet Board came to the conclusion that, though Roosevelt's conduct in Cuba was quite admirable, it was not worthy of a Medal of Honor.

Yockelson’s conclusion – the Brevet Board made the correct choice:
Regardless of why Roosevelt was not awarded the Medal of Honor, it was the correct decision. In one way or another, most of the officers participating in the fighting on July 1, 1898, performed very well. Military historian Graham Cosmas states that "in most regiments, the officer casualty rate was about double that for enlisted men--an indication of the extent and price of leadership from the front."(43) To single out Roosevelt as a hero among the other line officers would have been a great injustice, and the merit of the award would have been cheapened. The denial of the Medal of Honor does not diminish the fact that Roosevelt gave his best effort in attempting to bring order to the chaos along the San Juan Heights. He risked his life by riding his horse during the charge while the Spanish bullets rained down upon him. There is no doubt that he was an inspiration to the men of the Rough Riders and the troops of the cavalry division.

Even without the Medal of Honor, Theodore Roosevelt made his mark on American history, but he had desperately wanted it in 1898. Publicly at least, TR recovered from the disappointment of being denied the Medal and moved past it:
Roosevelt took the Brevet Board's decision with great disappointment, as might be expected. But time also helped heal any ill feelings he may have harbored, at least publicly. Since he was no longer serving in the United States Army, the brevet ranks of colonel and brigadier general had only political value to Roosevelt.(44) His career as a politician was right on track, and there was no reason to stew about the Medal of Honor any further. In 1907 he rejected an offer to join the Medal of Honor Club for the reason that "I was recommended for it [Medal of Honor] by my superior officers in the Santiago campaign, but I was not awarded it; and frankly, looking back on it now, I feel that the board which declined to award it took exactly the right position."

1 comment:

Ed Darrell said...

TR was awarded the Medal of Honor -- on January 16, 2001, more than a century after his service in Cuba. Here's one site: