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Military re-enactor uncanny stand-in for Roosevelt

May 17, 2013 | 0 comments


For many visitors to the recent Midwest Horse Fair in Madison it was almost like being at the charge up San Juan Hill - or at least being in a very good, living history class.

Rider and military re-enactor Ward Brown became a dead ringer for Theodore Roosevelt who before he became president, had led a group of cavalry soldiers to victory in a key battle of the Spanish-American War.

It was part of the Midwest Horse Fair’s theme to recognize the contributions of horses and their military riders to U.S. history.

Brown fit right in, not only riding and looking like a former military hero, but talking to visitors about the different contributions of the cavalry from the Indian Wars and Civil War, up through a brief period of mounted riders in the Afghanistan War.

Brown, who is from Richmond, IL, said he first "became" Roosevelt for a production of the play "Arsenic and Old Lace" in which one character believes he is the former president. Soon he was also re-enacting Roosevelt on horseback.

"Theodore Roosevelt was a New York City rich guy who wanted to be a cowboy. He bought his uniform at Brooks Brothers." Roosevelt had some experience as a real cowboy, too, on his ranch in South Dakota, Brown said.

The Spanish-American War began with Cuba’s struggle for independence in 1895 and U.S. leaders watched with dismay as Spain brutally put down the rebellion.

Since it was so close to the United States, the conflict was covered heavily by U.S. newspapers and in those days coverage was sensationalized.

The US Maine was sent to hover in Havana harbor and protect U.S. citizens there. When the ship was sunk by Spanish forces, Congress quickly recognized Cuba’s independence and pushed Spain to withdraw. It also authorized the use of force against Spain.

That prompted Spain to declare war on the United States and Congress responded with its own declaration of war.

Roosevelt – who didn’t like to be called Teddy, says Brown – had been an assistant secretary of the Navy, but quit when war broke out to recruit the First Volunteer Cavalry, who were quickly dubbed the "Rough Riders."

Brown said the Rough Riders included cowboys, college men, polo players and others with riding experience.

This group of cavalry landed on the coast east of Santiago and moved toward the Cuban city up the San Juan Heights. That charge up an obscure Cuban hillside proved to be a pivotal moment for the future U.S. president portrayed by Brown.

He was quoted as saying that the short campaign had been a "bully" fight.

Roosevelt’s courageous charge, leading troops while riding his horse Big Texas, earned him a commendation for the Congressional Medal of Honor, but political maneuvering deprived him of that honor.

Brown said that omission was corrected 103 years later when Roosevelt was given the honor posthumously for his display of "exemplary bravery", charging through "withering enemy fire" accompanied by only four or five men.

His leadership and valor turned the tide in that battle. Newspaper reporters were on hand to observe and write about the battle and turned in glowing stories about the cavalry leader.

Reporters covered the charge up San Juan Hill with sentimental fervor. They noted that Roosevelt was the most conspicuous member of the charge – mounted and riding at a gallop.

Brown said most members of his cavalry had to fight on foot because logistics prevented most of the horses from being transported to Cuba.

Even without most of their horses, Roosevelt and his volunteers gained control of the heights over the Santiago harbor. It was considered by historians, including Brown, to be the turning point in the war and ended any hope Spain had of winning the war.

The rapturous press coverage of Roosevelt’s charge and victory at San Juan Heights helped propel him to become the Governor of New York in 1899.

The following year he was selected as the vice presidential candidate for President William McKinley in his bid for a second term. When McKinley was assassinated in 1901, Roosevelt became president.

The 10-week war in 1998 pitted a massive U.S. force against Spanish forces that weren’t ready for a world-class conflict. The U.S. victory ended the colonial hold of Spain in the Americas and took the United States from a regional power to a global player, Brown said.

The treaty ending the Spanish-American was gave the United States its "possessions" of Puerto Rico and Guam. Spain also gave up its sovereignty over the Phillipines for $20 million.

This year marks the 115th anniversary of the war that propelled Theodore Roosevelt from an obscure undersecretary to national prominence – all from the back of a horse.

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