Buffalo Soldiers at San Juan Hill


Frank N. Schubert


The following article derives from a paper the author delivered at the 1998 Conference of Army Historians in Bethesda, Maryland.

Finding the middle, where the truth sometimes rests, requires you to know the edges. When it comes to responsibility for the victory of the United States Army on San Juan Heights, Cuba, on 1 July 1898, the edges are easy to find. On one side, there is the Teddy-centric view, first and most clearly expressed in the writings of Lt. Col. Theodore Roosevelt of the 1st Volunteer Cavalry Regiment—the legendary Rough Riders. Roosevelt’s memoir of Cuba so emphasized his own role that Mr. Dooley, the barroom pundit created by humorist Peter Finley Dunne, said the book should have been called "Alone in Cuba."

Roosevelt augmented his campaign of self-promotion by carrying along his personal publicist. Richard Harding Davis’ dispatches from the front, picked up by many newspapers and magazines, spread the word of TR’s heroics. They also followed a time-honored tradition. George Custer had taken a reporter on the 1874 expedition that discovered gold in the Black Hills, and Nelson Miles had had one along to record his exploits against the tribes of the southern plains.1 Now Davis, of the New York Herald, did the same—essentially providing TR with PR.2

The view that Teddy Roosevelt dominated the battle at San Juan Heights still has adherents. I saw first-hand evidence last February, when I made a presentation for African-American History Month at Oyster Bay, New York, the great man’s home. The draft press release announced that I would be talking about Medal of Honor heroes among Buffalo Soldiers, the black regulars who had served on the frontier and who also fought in Cuba. The notice went on to assert that these soldiers had "assisted" TR in achieving victory at San Juan Hill. Clearly the text implied that the more than 2,000 black troopers dodging bullets and pushing their way resolutely forward in the Cuban sun were supporting players. TR still got top billing.

Lately, a competing view has emerged to challenge Teddy-centric claims. This new assertion puts the Buffalo Soldiers at the center of the Cuban fighting, relegating Roosevelt to a supporting role. Most recently this view was stated by Edward Van Zile Scott in his 1996 book, The Unwept. According to Scott, "in the Spanish-American War of 1898, veteran black troops . . . were more responsible than any other group for the United States’ victory."3

The new interpretation replaces one extreme position, represented by the emphasis on TR, with another, focusing on the contributions of African-American soldiers. These competing viewpoints represent the edges but don’t help us understand what happened on the battlefield.

For that, we have to look at the order of battle, read the reports of the commanders, and follow the movements of all units on maps of the campaign. The record shows that about 15,000 American troops of Maj. Gen. William R. Shafter’s Fifth Army Corps participated in the battles on the high ground near Santiago, Cuba, on 1 July 1898. About 13,000 of them were white; 2,000 or so were black. Of the twenty-six regiments in this force, three were volunteer organizations; the vast majority were regulars. More than 200 soldiers were killed in action, and nearly 30 of those who fell were from the four black Regular Army regiments, the 9th and 10th Cavalry and the 24th and 25th Infantry.4

There were two major battles that day, one at El Caney and one on San Juan Heights. Both objectives were east of the city, with El Caney the more northerly of the two. Brig. Gen. Henry W. Lawton commanded his own 2d Division and the Independent Brigade, a force of about 6,500, which took El Caney. Lawton’s troops included more than 500 men of the black 25th Infantry. This regiment was in the thick of the four-hour fight, and one of its members, Pvt. Thomas Butler of Baltimore, was among the first to enter the blockhouse on the hill.5

The other key objective, San Juan Heights, was closer to the city, about one mile directly east of it. San Juan has historically received more attention than El Caney, and for good reason. It was the main objective, after all, and was attacked by 8,000 troops of Brig. Gen. Jacob F. Kent’s 1st Division and the dismounted Cavalry Division, commanded on this day by Brig. Gen. Samuel S. Sumner. San Juan Heights had two high spots along its north-south axis, one called San Juan Hill and the other later named Kettle Hill by the troops. Both were part of the same objective.

In addition to being more important than El Caney as an objective, San Juan was also Theodore Roosevelt’s stage. Roosevelt, of whom it was said that he never attended a wedding without wishing he was the bride or a funeral without wishing he was the corpse, was the unquestioned star of San Juan and by extension of the entire Cuban campaign. The commander of his regiment, Col. Leonard Wood, had been conveniently promoted out of the way, so Lieutenant Colonel Roosevelt had the Rough Riders all to himself.

But he did not have the battle for San Juan Heights all to himself. There were after all 8,000 men in the operation, a total of thirteen Regular Army regiments and two regiments of volunteers, including TR’s Rough Riders. The force included about 1,250 black troopers of the 9th and 10th Cavalry in Sumner’s Cavalry Division and the 24th Infantry in Kent’s 1st Division.

Critics have complained that Roosevelt erroneously and undeservedly claimed credit for the victory at San Juan Hill, when he actually was involved in the assault on Kettle Hill. In fact, he did play a prominent role in the fight for Kettle Hill. His volunteers, part of Sumner’s dismounted cavalry force, reached the top of Kettle Hill alongside black and white regulars. The actions of Color Sgt. George Berry of the 10th Cavalry, who carried the colors of the white 3d Cavalry up that hill along with his own regiment’s standard, reflected the shared nature of the operation, with black and white regulars and Rough Riders fighting side by side and with one group sometimes indistinguishable from the others.

Once Roosevelt reached the top of Kettle Hill, he watched Kent’s troops begin to overrun their objective on San Juan Hill. Still eager for a fight, he urged the men around him to follow him into the fray on San Juan. That’s when he found out what happens when you sound a charge and nobody comes. Only a handful of soldiers heard the great man, and he found himself at the head of an assault that consisted of five soldiers. Roosevelt retreated, regrouped, and assembled a more respectable force that reached the Spanish trenches in time to participate in the last of the fight. "There was," he said, "very great confusion at this time, the different regiments being completely intermingled—white regulars, colored regulars, and Rough Riders."6

Roosevelt’s observation accurately characterized the mix of troops in the battle for the heights. Overall, the great majority of these soldiers were regulars; the rest were volunteers. "Their battles," Timothy Egan wrote in an article entitled "The American Century’s Opening Shot," in the New York Times of Saturday, 6 June 1998, "were sharp, vicious crawls through jungle terrain in killing heat."7 Regulars and volunteers, blacks and whites, fought side by side, endured the blistering heat and driving rain, and shared food and drink as well as peril and discomfort. They forged a victory that did not belong primarily to TR, nor did it belong mainly to the Buffalo Soldiers. It belonged to all of them.

Despite the fact that these groups shared the victory and despite the attention that gravitated toward TR, the post-battle spotlight shone brightly on the Buffalo Soldiers. Since the Reorganization Act of 1866, their regiments had mainly served in the remotest corners of the West. They had fought against the Comanches and Kiowa in the 1860s and 1870s and the Apaches between 1877 and 1886, and they had seen service in the Pine Ridge campaign of 1890–1891. Most of this duty had been performed in obscurity.8

But Cuba was different. All eyes that were not on TR seemed to focus on the Buffalo Soldiers. For the first time they stood front and center on the national stage. A number of mainstream (that is, white) periodicals recounted their exploits, as nurses in the yellow fever hospital at Siboney as well as on the battlefield, and reviewed their history, mostly favorably.9 Books by black authors recounted the regiments’ service in Cuba and in previous wars and reminded those who cared to pay attention that the war with Spain did not represent the first instance in which black soldiers answered the nation’s call to arms.10 In an age of increasing racism that was hardening into institutionalized segregation throughout the South and affecting the lives of black Americans everywhere, the Buffalo Soldiers were race heroes. Black newspapers and magazines tracked their movements and reported their activities. Poetry, dramas, and songs all celebrated their service and valor.11 As Rayford Logan, dean of a generation of black historians—and my undergraduate adviser—later wrote, "Negroes had little, at the turn of the century, to help sustain our faith in ourselves except the pride that we took in the 9th and 10th Cavalry, the 24th and 25th Infantry. Many Negro homes had prints of the famous charge of the colored troops up San Juan Hill. They were our Ralph Bunche, Marian Anderson, Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson."12

Almost one hundred years passed before the nation rediscovered the Buffalo Soldiers. The process started with the 1967 publication of William Leckie’s The Buffalo Soldiers and culminated in 1992, with the dedication by General Colin Powell of the Buffalo Soldier statue at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. For the Buffalo Soldiers, "the American century" is ending the way it had started. In a period of increasing informal segregation, growing dissatisfaction with affirmative action, and the spreading emphasis on a separate African-American minority culture, books, plays, movies, and even phone cards celebrate the service of these troopers. In what appears to be a disconcertingly similar setting of deteriorating race relations, the Buffalo Soldiers have returned to take their place among America’s heroes.


1. Jeffry D. Wert, Custer: the Controversial Life of George Armstrong Custer (New York, 1996), p. 313; Robert Wooster, Nelson A. Miles and the Twilight of the Frontier Army (Lincoln, Neb., 1993), p. 74.

2. Mitchell Yockelson, "‘I Am Entitled to the Medal of Honor and I Want It’: Theodore Roosevelt and His Quest for Glory," Prologue 30 (Spring 1998): 12.

3. Edward Van Zile Scott, The Unwept: Black American Soldiers and the Spanish-American War (Montgomery, Ala., 1996), p. 13.

4. Order-of-battle information comes from Albert A. Nofi, The Spanish-American War, 1898 (Conshohocken, Penna., 1996), p. 331.

5. Frank N. Schubert, Black Valor: Buffalo Soldiers and the Medal of Honor, 1870–1898 (Wilmington, Del., 1997), p. 109.

6. Theodore Roosevelt, The Rough Riders (New York, 1899, 1920), p. 139.

7. New York Times, 6 Jun 98, pp. A17, A19.

8. For the campaign history of the four regiments, see Arlen L. Fowler, The Black Infantry in the West (Wesport, Conn., 1971); William H. Leckie, The Buffalo Soldiers: A Narrative of the Negro Cavalry in the West (Norman, Okla., 1967).

9. See Stephen Bonsal, "The Negro Soldier in War and Peace," North American Review 185 (7 June 1907): 321–27; James Cleland Hamilton, "The Negro as a Modern Soldier," The Anglo-American Magazine 2 (August 1899): 113–24; William H. Head, "The Negro as an American Soldier," World Today 12 (March 1907): 322–24; W. Thornton Parker, "The Evolution of the Colored Soldier," North American Review 168 (February 1899): 222–28; Oswald G. Villard, "The Negro in the Regular Army," The Atlantic Monthly 91 (June 1903): 721–29; "The Negro as Soldier and Officer," The Nation 73 (1 August 1901): 85.

10. The best of these are Herschel V. Cashin et al., Under Fire with the 10th Cavalry (London, 1899), and Theophilus G. Steward, The Colored Regulars in the United States Army (Philadelphia, 1904). Also see James M. Guthrie, Camp-Fires of the Afro-American, or, the Colored Man as a Patriot (Philadelphia, 1899); Edward A. Johnson, A History of Negro Soldiers in the Spanish-American War (Raleigh, N.C., 1899); Hiram Thweatt, What the Newspapers Say of the Negro Soldier in the Spanish-American War (Thomasville, Ga., n.d.).

11. See James Robert Payne, "Afro-American Literature of the Spanish-American War," Melus 10 (Fall 1983): 19–32.

12. Rayford W. Logan, The Betrayal of the Negro, from Rutherford B. Hayes to Woodrow Wilson (New York, 1965), p. 335.

Dr. Frank Schubert is chief of joint operational history in the Joint History Office, Office of the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff. His latest book, Black Valor: Buffalo Soldiers and the Medal of Honor, 1870-1898, was published by Scholarly Resources in 1997.