The Crowded Hour
Theodore Roosevelt, the Rough Riders, and the Dawn of the American Century
Scribner, New York, 2019, 368 pages
Book Review published on: October 30, 2020
Clay Risen, New York Times editor and renowned aficionado of the finer spirits, provides in his award-winning book The Crowded Hour: Theodore Roosevelt, the Rough Riders, and the Dawn of the American Century a scholarly interpretation of the Spanish American War. His warm storytelling centers on the legendary band of cowboys who made up the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry Regiment and their bespectacled leader who captured the heart of the Nation and influenced the beginning of the “American century.”
At the end of the Civil War, the Army numbered more than a million men, but by 1898, just thirty thousand filled the ranks. The country had passed through the Reconstruction Era but was still healing from its divides. The West was won, its cowboys fading into a romantic memory. The Gilded Age, a time of rapid economic expansion, was coming to an end. Suddenly, America, with newfound riches, stood at the brink of global prominence. The Crowded Hour authoritatively explores this pivotal moment from the perspectives of all levels of the government, the military, society, and the Spanish.
Early on, the author establishes two facts. First, a global power requires commensurate military power to protect by persuasion, coercion, and, if necessary, defense. Second, and more important, for what purpose does power serve? America could not just settle for defending its borders or joining along with realpolitik’s popular during time. America was more. Founded on an idea set forth in its founding documents with liberty and justice at its core, America possessed a universal set of values. The question of just how those values guided America’s actions in its emerging role as a world power (or more cynically, how those values effectually underwrote American imperialism as a means to an end). Even though Risen suggests that Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders hold the answer to both; he harshly contends that a century of oft-misguided American interventions best describes their legacy. William J. Shepard summarizes Risen’s assertion by saying, “The immortal charge of the Rough Riders up the San Juan Heights-Roosevelt's ‘Crowded Hour,’ as he called it-launched America on a ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ path to power … through a string of military interventions in troubled countries that continue to present.”1
Yet, Risen tells a much wider story. He describes the plight of the Cuban revolutionaries caught up in the death throes of the Spanish Empire. He dives into Roosevelt’s political maneuvers that pushed hesitant and aging Civil War-era leaders to embark on an entirely new foreign policy of extending American interests abroad. He tells of the inspired men from all walks of life who answered the call to service in a moment of sweeping nationalism. Risen chronicles the regiment’s journey through formation and disbandment, and how its soldiers became media darlings at the hands of the yellow press. Unusual focus on the tactical level of war, which is largely absent in other accounts of the Spanish American War, may be the book's greatest strength. Vivid descriptions, like soldiers transported to the war on cattle ships, illustrate just how unprepared the country’s military was for any mission, let alone to fight a war on foreign soil. Additionally, The Crowded Hour can serve as a springboard for further research with its plentiful notes, an extensive bibliography, abundant photographs, and purposeful maps.
Among Risen’s many accomplishments in his excellent history, by wading into the mud, malaria-infested jungles and up the rocky knolls of San Juan Heights, he lays bare that the war with Spain was anything but a “splendid little war.”2
- William J. Shepherd, “Book Review: The Crowded Hour,” Review of The Crowded Hour: Theodore Roosevelt, The Rough Riders, and the Dawn of The American Century, by Clay Risen, HistoryNet, May 2020, accessed 29 October 2020, https://www.historynet.com/book-review-the-crowded-hour.htm.
- J. A. Gable, “Credit ‘Splendid Little War’ to John Hay,” New York Times (website), 9 July 1991, accessed 17 September 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/1991/07/09/opinion/l-credit-splendid-little-war-to-john-hay-595391.html.
Book Review written by: Ronald T. Staver, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas