Theodore Roosevelt 1898 Typed Letter Signed – “The Colored Troops”

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“I have spoken a great deal about the colored troops.

26th President.  Typed letter signed “T. Roosevelt”, October 27, 1898, to Mrs. Emma Wynkoop Clark. “On Board spec. Train,”, Republican State Committee stationery, original envelope postmarked Utica, N.Y., October 28, 1898, 8.25×9.75, in full:

Don’t tell Owens this, but the orderly I alluded to was another man. I am very much obliged to you. I have spoken a great deal about the colored troops.

Presented double matted with bust image of Roosevelt and framed to 24×17.5.

On the day he wrote this letter, his 40th birthday, the recently returned leader of the Rough Riders was travelling by special campaign train to speak at Rochester, Syracuse, Utica, and Buffalo, and places in between. Less than two weeks later, he was elected Governor of New York.

In April 1898, Roosevelt resigned his position as Assistant Secretary of the Navy. With Colonel Leonard Wood, Lt. Colonel Roosevelt formed the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry regiment (dubbed the Rough Riders), composed of a diverse variety of men from across the nation and from many backgrounds and professions. Soon after landing in Cuba, Wood was put in command of the brigade and Roosevelt was promoted to command of the regiment.

On July 1, at the battle of San Juan Hill, the Rough Riders fought alongside the African American soldiers of the 24th Infantry and the 9th and 10th Cavalry. Overcoming defenders who had superior position, the Americans took Kettle Hill and San Juan Hill. Approximately 200 Americans were killed, among them 30 “Buffalo Soldiers.” Despite the casualties, it was a decisive victory. American forces gained a strategic position from which to attack the main Spanish garrison in the city of Santiago de Cuba, which surrendered two weeks later.

During the battle of San Juan Hill, Roosevelt on horseback was able to get ahead of the men on foot, “excepting my orderly, Henry Bardshar, who had run ahead very fast in order to get better shots at the Spaniards.”  Perhaps Roosevelt had alluded to Bardshar’s performance without mentioning him by name in his early accounts of the battle. Roosevelt had several orderlies, including Henry P. Bardshar (1872-1946) of Prescott, Arizona; William H. Sanders of Salem, Massachusetts, who died of fever; G. Roland Fortescue of New York, New York, wounded in the foot; and Gordon Johnston (1874-1934) of Birmingham, Alabama. Perhaps one of the four Rough Riders named Owens—Clay T. Owens of El Paso, Texas; Edward L. Owens of Vinita, Indian Territory (Oklahoma); John M. Owens of Oologah, Indian Territory; and William A. Owens of Jerome, Arizona—also served as an orderly.

Roosevelt and African Americans

Roosevelt later commented about the Buffalo Soldiers, “no one can tell whether it was the Rough Riders or the men of the 9th who came forward with the greater courage to offer their lives in the service of their country.” On August 14, 1899, Roosevelt wrote in a private letter to African American newspaperman John E. Bruce of Albany, New York, “I wish no better men beside me in battle than these colored troops showed themselves to be. Later on, when I come to write of the campaign, I shall have much to say about them.”

Yet, the prejudices of his day were not entirely absent. Roosevelt also later wrote, “Negro troops were shirkers in their duties and would only go as far as they were led by white officers.”

Responding to the firestorm of controversy over his 1901 invitation to Booker T. Washington to dine with him at the White House, Roosevelt defiantly commented, “I am sorry to say that the idiot or vicious Bourbon element of the South is crazy because I have had Booker T. Washington to dine. I shall have him to dine just as often as I please.”

However, five years later, in the wake of a riot at Brownsville, Texas, Roosevelt unfairly ordered the dishonorable discharge of 167 African American soldiers, depriving them of pensions and the ability to work in federal jobs.

Emma Wynkoop Clark (1838-1926) was born in Maryland. Her husband James J. Clark (1836-after 1915) was a clothier in New York. In March 1900, Emma W. Clark filed for bankruptcy. That year, she lived in Brooklyn with her daughter Fannie W. Clark (1859-1943), who was an artist. Emma’s husband was then a pauper living in the King’s County Almshouse in Brooklyn. After returning to the clothing industry, in 1915, he lived in an old age home in New York City.