On Aug. 15, 1898, the Miami, coming all the way from Cuba, landed in Montauk. On board were the heroes of the Spanish-American War — Theodore Roosevelt and the 1st United States Volunteer Cavalry, known as the Rough Riders.
A recently digitized collection of some 30 photographs made available by the Library of Congress provides a glimpse of the war veterans at Montauk. In them, Roosevelt stands out from the crowd, set apart by his apparent good health, an expertly tailored uniform, and a steady, magnetic gaze, that shines from behind his trademark round spectacles.
The Rough Riders, led by Roosevelt, had been instrumental in the siege of Santiago and in the outcome of the war. They were not, however, initially met with fame and glory when they returned home, rather, they were quarantined at Camp Wikoff in Montauk. The culprit was yellow fever, and over the days following the arrival of the Rough Riders, some 20,000 other troops would land in Montauk to be quarantined.
Roosevelt's men were in sorry shape but he was the picture of health, ever the patriotic cowboy soldier, even after the war's end. He was quoted in the August 16, 1898 edition of The New York Sun as saying, "Well, I am disgracefully healthy. Really, I am ashamed of myself, feeling so well and strong, with all these poor fellows suffering and so weak they can hardly stand." While at first this might be construed as thinly veiled arrogance, a ploy to underscore his prowess compared to lesser men, it became apparent that Roosevelt cared for his men, and they for him. His men, despite the yellow fever, malnutrition, and a whole host of other ailments, cheered for him as he disembarked the Miami and some embraced him as he took his first steps on land.
Roosevelt, despite being healthy enough to go home, stayed with his men for three full months in Montauk. His desire to stay with his men and his stint in Montauk was not without its benefits. Camp Wikoff, named for a soldier killed in the San Juan Heights assault, was not merely a place where the future president resided for a short while, but was perhaps the catalyst for his successful political career. Everett T. Rattray, author of "The South Fork: the Land and the people of Eastern Long Island," wrote that "Roosevelt . . . made the plans and contacts at Montauk that led him to the presidency."