Teddy Roosevelt and His Rough Riders: An Illustration of Diversity’s Glory


There is a peculiar kind of glory that comes to a man
who unifies and empowers genuine diversity for a common good.

In history, we celebrate stories of heroic leaders who take disconnected misfits and make them a strong army. If you are familiar with the Bible, you might think of David and his mighty men—a diverse group of malcontents who became champions under David’s command. If you are more familiar with popular movies, you might think of Remember the Titans, where Coach Herman Boone led a newly-integrated T.C. William high school to a state football championship.

Indeed, we love to hear stories of leaders who take natural-born opponents and unite them together for the same cause. And even more, in our ultra-divided world, we need to hear these stories. And thankfully, there are many such stories that can be told.

Recently, I came across such a story in Jon Knokey’s book, Theodore Roosevelt and the Making of American LeadershipIn this fascinating book, Knokey tells the colorful tale of what happened when 1000 radically-different men from all over America were formed into a single fighting unit under the leadership genius of Colonel Roosevelt.

Here’s what he says. It’s long but entertaining and worth the read as it gives a fresh illustration of what we find in Ephesians 2—something I sought to bring out in yesterday’s sermon on Christ and his Church.

By May 11th, just sixteen days after war had officially been declared, almost all of the one thousand troopers had arrived in San Antonio. The scene was historic. At no moment in U.S. history had so many diverse sets of individuals come together in the name of anything. It was chaos, exactly the hippodrome affair that Theodore feared. “It was the society page, financial column and Wild West Show all wrapped up in one,” a reporter quipped. The diversity was accentuated by the different habiliments of fashion. Some wore dude rags, standing collars, patent leather shoes, and hard-boiled hats. The millionaires and Fifth Avenue dandies were dressed in suits accompanied by “wagon loads each of solid leather trunks and hat boxes.” The cowboys adorned chaps, high-heeled boots, and spurs. A few of the athletes, dressed casually in khakis and polo shirts, swung golf clubs or threw around a football. The miners and down-and-out’s wore soiled and tattered blue denim overall jumpers. The musicians had their drums, guitars, fifes, cornets, and violins. The gamblers had dice, cards, faro, and crap lay-outs. Florence, the Arizona mountain lion, now the mascot of the entire Camp Wood, was on the prowl lurking through the luggage for loose food. One rough rider recalled that through all the commotion, he even remembered seeing a few Bibles.

The clash of cultures, personalities, antecedents, and wealth symbolized the greatest asset for a country on the rim of a new frontier: diversity. The ivy leaguers with rosy cheeks stood beside cowboys, whose gristly faces had been leathered by the sun and the wind and the snow. The yachtsmen shook hands with the Cherokees. A Cree stared at a Scottish laird trying to figure out what planet the man had come from. Charles Younger, son of Bob Younger of Jesse James’s gang, watched the Texas rangers with steely eyes. William Tiffany, the fair-faced, wealthy societal chap noticed that the Marshal of Dodge City was missing an ear, “bitten off in a bar fight,” it was later explained. The nation’s tennis champion stood gracefully next to the hardened teamster from the steel mill. The world’s greatest polo player was perplexed on just how to go about mingling with the fugitive mountain-man who was running from the law and asked everyone just to call him “Mr. Smith,” because, as Mr. Smith later explained: “I had a little trouble with a gentleman, and—er—well, in fact, I had to kill him.”

Under the scorching Texas sun stood millionaires who never held a job, as well as lawyers, stockmen, doctors, farmers, college professors, miners, adventurers, preachers, prospectors, socialists, journalists, clerks, artists, writers, grocers, linemen, jockeys, insurance agents, a cigar maker, four low-life congressmen, two mechanics, four watchmakers, eight marshals of the law, a publicist, several Jews, some Gentiles, many professed Christians, several Native Americans, a hundred and sixty cowboys, forty-four ranchers, several West Point graduates, ten football players, a few professed thinkers, eight plumbers, four electricians, one weatherman, two singers, one songwriter, five salesmen, thirty-one railroad men, an agent of the Internal Revenue Service, an architect, and two actors. They had come from forty-two states and four unnamed territories.

One man, who was being held for murder, was paroled by a federal judge so that he could enlist with the regiment. He joined the Rough Riders, fought in Cuba, returned to America and was acquitted, not for lack of evidence but because he came home a war hero.

The muster was created on May 17th, and was equally as diverse. The Easterners had wealthy names like Reginald, Winthrop, Townsend, Percival. From the West there was “Hell-Roarer,” an unusually shy and quiet man; “Metropolitan Bill,” who got the nickname because he boasted his worldly adventures by telling people he had an aunt who at one time had lived in New York; “Rocky Mountain Bill,” distinguishable by a huge scar above his right eye made by the claw of a bear—not to be confused with “Smoky Mountain Bill,” another man; “Dead Shot Jim,” who as he claimed, could shoot a jackrabbit in the eye at a thousand yards from the back of a galloping stallion; “Prayerful James,” who only knew profanity; “Sheeney Solomon,” a huge redheaded Irishman; “Lariat Ned,” who claimed he could lasso a squirrel; “Pork-Chop,” a Jew; “Rattlesnake Pete,” who had lived with the Moquis tribe and was a snake-whisperer; “Smoky Moore,” who tamed vicious horses, known in the frontier as “smoky horses”; “Happy Jack,” the only name he would give it was still uncertain whether he had actually been paroled from McAlester penitentiary; and “Hells Bells,” Happy Jack’s bunkmate, a Baptist minister.

The mixture of backgrounds perplexed them all for the first few days. “The bizarre make-up of the regiment gave me some queer experiences,” Rough Rider Tom Hall wrote. “It is not often that the adjutant of a regiment of soldiers has a millionaire for an orderly one day, a cotillion leader the next, an Arctic explorer the next, an African traveler the next and, so on through the roster. . . . [F] or a short time we even had an opium fiend. We soon got rid of him.”

Even the mascots were diverse. There was, of course, Florence, but there was also a majestic war eagle brought by the New Mexico troopers, as well as a stray dog that had been found in San Antonio and named Cuba. Not to be outdone, the Native contingent provided by far the scariest mascot, an invisible rattlesnake.

The Natives took such great care of their mascot that the Easterners were too scared to even joke about it. Amidst the chaotic sea of characters and happenings, a reporter for the New York World, recognized a single commonality:

In many ways the regiment is an elaborate photograph of the character of its founder, Theodore Roosevelt. At odd times he is a ranchman, hunter, politician, reformer, society man, athlete, litterateur, and statesman. Only in his complex brain, with its intense versatility, could the idea of forming such a regiment have been born. But its wide knowledge of the ramifications of the social scale told him that the men he wanted were working upon every round of the ladder from the bottom to the top. He knew that the Fifth Avenue clubman had the genuine fighting stuff, as well as the plainsman who carried a dozen notches on his gun. It only needed opportunity to bring it all out.

— John Knokey, Theodore Roosevelt and the Making of American Leadership (Loc. 4773–4825)

Following this introduction, Knokey chronicles the grueling 18+ hour-days in camp with Roosevelt. Knokey tells how the Colonel galvanized the troops through shared suffering and unswerving egalitarian service. He made the millionaires clean out the latrines, for instance; and required men of differing backgrounds to bunk together. Moreover, he gained his men’s greatest respect by suffering with them and laboring to break the most difficult horses in the camp. In all, Roosevelt modeled a Christ-like servant leadership that forged these diverse troops into a single unit in less than a month.

Finally, here’s how Knokey concludes his section,

Only fifteen days prior, the regiment was an assorted set of individuals from every walk of life, a mob of characters clinging to their own factions, speaking and acting in partisan terms. Now, as the train charged east, they were wholly united, the latest incarnation of the American frontiersman. They were still wild and unruly, rowdy and boisterous—prone to extraordinary insubordination. But now they trusted one another and wanted to fight together. They were not a mob; they were frontiersmen.(Loc. 5315)

A Lesson for the Church from Roosevelt’s Rough Riders

I love this story and the way in which Roosevelt led his troops—not by barking orders but by getting dirt under his finger nails and pulling his men together by pulling them to himself. Indeed, it is a tremendous model of leadership. And one that bears more than a few resemblances to our Lord.

And this affinity for Christ’s leadership is the main reason I share Roosevelt’s story. Thetime Roosevelt spent with his Rough Riders, as they would come to be known, is a sepia-toned illustration of what Ephesians 2 says about the church.


In that passage Paul explains how Christ’s cross tore down the hostility between two enemies—the Jews and the Gentiles—and how his bloody cross created one new man that was and is being fitted together by the Spirit into one singular dwelling place for God.

Comparatively, we find in Christ a greater leader, a greater sacrifice, and a greater assemblage of diverse persons than anything achieved by Roosevelt. But the lesson of Ephesians 2 is magnified by comparison to Roosevelt. That is, just as the strength of Roosevelt’s personality subdued the men under his command and earned him a glorious, even legendary status, so Christ has gained an ever-increasing glory as his cross continues to join together an incalculably diverse people of God. In the church, Christ has brought together Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, Black and White, Asian and Latino, old and young, strong and weak. And in this, Christ’s work deserves honor that exceeds that Roosevelt—after all, for all Roosevelt did to unify diversity, its worth mentioning, he lived in a time when Jim Crow laws were gaining steam and setting up conditions in the South that were often worse than slavery.

Today, the trouble is that too many American churches still do not display this kind of multi-cultural, multi-racial, multi-socioeconomic diversity.  And worse many more do not even aspire to this kind of diversity. But that’s why stories like Roosevelt and his Rough Rider’s need to be told—so that our moral imaginations begin to conceive the possibility of a diverse church and our spiritual appetites begin to crave a church that doesn’t just look like ourselves.

In truth, the church of Ephesians 2 must be built by the Spirit of Christ alone. It is not a construction project that the Spirit of Babel can make. But with Christ as the cornerstone firmly in place, there is a part that Christians filled with the Spirit play in building up the body of Christ. And thus, only when we begin to think about church as Christ’s multi-racial bride will we even begin to inch in that direction.

For me, the story Roosevelt and his Rough Riders has been a helpful visual aid to see the glory that will come to Christ when we pray and labor for diversity in his gospel-formed church. And perhaps for you as well, it may provide a spiritual longing to see Christ glorified in diverse churches centered on Jesus Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

[Photo credit: Business Insider]

4 thoughts on “Teddy Roosevelt and His Rough Riders: An Illustration of Diversity’s Glory

  1. Pingback: God’s War Memorial (pt 2): How a Diverse Christian Community Displays Christ’s Glory (Ephesians 2:11–22) | Via Emmaus

  2. I appreciate your work here. This is worth meditating on more thoroughly. I shared the blog post on FB for others to hopefully read and consider.

    I also plan on purchasing the T.R. book, it looks fascinating…

  3. Pingback: Cultivating a Moral Imagination on Christian Leadership: Seven Lessons from the Life of Theodore Roosevelt | Via Emmaus

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