It's the ultimate grudge match of late 19th-century Latin America as Theodore Roosevelt, the Rough Rider who stormed San Juan Hill, takes on Rafael Uribe Uribe, the liberal caudillo who charged across La Laja Bridge! The American President who took Panama from Colombia takes on the Colombian rebel who helped sow the seeds of Panamanian dissent as two hot-headed but charismatic forces of nature clash face-to-face!
- 1 Theodore Roosevelt
- 2 Rafael Uribe Uribe
- 3 X-Factors
- 4 Battle
- 5 Expert's Opinion
Theodore Roosevelt (1858 – 1919) was the 26th President of the United States and a prominent commander of the “Rough Riders,” 1st United States Volunteer Cavalry. A sickly child, stricken with asthma, Roosevelt nonetheless had an active and curious spirit, taking up boxing and pursuing interests in taxidermy. He joined Harvard and studied natural sciences, but also studied the US Navy in the War of 1812. In the 1880s, Roosevelt bought land in the Dakota Territory and hunted bison, fascinated with the cowboy lifestyle.
Roosevelt had long been a figure on the political scene, but rose to national prominence in 1897 when William McKinley appointed him Assistant Secretary of the Navy. Roosevelt had a particular interest in expelling the Spanish from Cuba, and with the explosion of the USS Maine in February 1898, he ordered several naval vessels to mobilize without authorization from the president or the Secretary of the Navy. By April, Roosevelt resigned his post—not as a consequence of his bold actions, but because he strongly desired to participate in battle. He formed the 1st United States Volunteer Cavalry Regiment with Leonard Wood—the press nicknamed them the “Rough Riders.”
By June, Roosevelt was in Cuba and had his first battle at Las Guásimas. The Rough Riders skirmished with Spanish forces but had their advance checked, due in part to the mismanagement of Major General Joseph Wheeler. The fighting was inconclusive, with slightly more Americans dead than Spanish, though the Spanish ultimately withdrew to Santiago. At the Battle of San Juan Hill, Roosevelt personally oversaw the attack on Kettle Hill, supported by Gatling gun fire. Rallying his troops, he braved withering fire from the Spanish soldiers, firmly entrenched and ready to resist even at extremely close quarters. The charge eventually pushed the Spanish from their positions, though the Americans incurred heavy losses in attaining victory.
Roosevelt would draft a withdrawal request in the face of mounting casualties incurred as a result of yellow fever. By August, the Americans had started to pull out, but negotiated a treaty with Spain as the victors. Roosevelt returned a war hero, and was elected governor of New York and vice president under McKinley.
As president, Roosevelt’s foreign policy was imperialistic and expansionist, with special interest in expanding US interests in the Caribbean and in Latin America. He was driven to oversee the construction of the Panama Canal, and sent US Marines to Panama after the Colombian government solicited American support as the Thousand Days’ War spilled out of control and into the isthmus. Under Roosevelt’s administration, the Marines effectively stymied the rebellion’s ability to operate, since they were unwilling to directly engage the American navy. So positioned in the region, Roosevelt capitalized on Colombia’s immediate postwar weakness to encourage Panamanian secession, consequently negotiating a favorable treaty for the construction of the canal in 1903.
Roosevelt remained politically active after his presidency, splitting the Republican vote in the election of 1912 with his candidacy under the Progressive “Bull Moose” Party, and vocally opposing Woodrow Wilson’s foreign policy during and after World War I. He died in 1919.
M1895 Colt-Browning Machine Gun
- Cartridge: 7x57mm Mauser
- Action: Gas-operated, lever actuated, closed bolt firing cycle
- Muzzle Velocity: 2,800 feet per second (853 meters per second)
- Effective Range: Sights graduated from 300-2,000 yards
- Rate of Fire: 400-450 rounds per minute
- Feed System: 240-round fabric belt
- Weight: 35.3 lbs (16 kg)
- Tripod-mounted, 3-man crew optimal, operable by single soldier
Krag–Jørgensen M1896 Carbine
- Cartridge: .30-40 Krag
- Action: Bolt-action
- Muzzle Velocity: 2,000 feet per second (610 meters per second)
- Effective Range: 900 m
- Feed System: 5-round rotary magazine
- Weight: 8.43 lbs. (3.82 kg)
- Barrel Length: 30 in. (762 mm) (rifle variant; carbine variant unspecified, but likely slightly shorter)
Colt Single-Action Army .45 Caliber Artillery Model
- Cartridge: .45 Colt
- Action: Single-action
- Muzzle Velocity: 960 feet per second (292 meters per second)
- Effective Range: 50 yards
- Feed System: 6-round cylinder
- Weight: 2.3 lbs. (~1 kg)
- Barrel Length: 5.5 in. (140 mm)
Rafael Uribe Uribe
Rafael Uribe Uribe (1859 - 1914) was a prominent senator, lawyer, and general in the Colombian Liberal Party during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. After 1863, a new national constitution established the United States of Colombia, a federal republic dominated by the Liberal Party. A young Uribe grew up in a starkly polarized political environment, first participating in the Colombian Civil War of 1876, defending the liberal government from the conservative rebels. As an adult, he again fought for the liberals in the civil war of 1885. Here, the Conservative Party reclaimed power and established a political program known as the "Regeneration" (la Regeneración), against which Uribe would fight for the remainder of his military career.
He fought again in a brief Liberal rebellion in 1895, but it was during the Thousand Days' War (1899-1902) that Uribe took decisive action as a commander of the Guerreristas, or War Liberals (as compared to the Peace Liberal faction that opposed open revolt). Leading a desperately underfunded and undersupplied band of rebels, he won a string of victories between December 1899 and May 1900. The most important of these was the Battle of Peralonso, in December 1899, where he personally led a group of eleven men across La Laja Bridge (being the only one wounded himself in the process) and routed a disorganized and confused government army, rescuing the liberal rebellion from the brink of collapse. In February 1900, he followed up with a victory at the Battle of Gramalote and bluffed his way into the conservative army headquarters in Terán and personally took the leadership as his captives.
Uribe's good fortune was not to continue. Linking up with other prominent rebel leaders, Uribe was sucked into the two-week-long Battle of Palonegro in May 1900, facing the pious conservative General Próspero Pinzón. The battle devolved into a test of endurance for both armies, one that was only resolved when reinforcements and, crucially, munitions arrived for the governmental forces.
Though the Thousand Days' War would drag on for another two years, Uribe would spend much of this time overseas, seeking financial support for the rebellion in Ecuador, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and New York. The liberal president of Venezuela, Cipriano Castro, eventually agreed to support Uribe. At the Battle of San Cristóbal in May 1901, Uribe found himself commanding a Venezuelan army against a Colombian force led by the Venezuelan conservative Carlos Rangel Garbiras. This would be the last of Uribe's important victories. He alternated between calling for peace and continuing the fight, finding himself increasingly irrelevant as the war devolved into a fragmented mess of guerrilla bands shifting aimlessly across the country.
Uribe formally laid down arms and signed the Treaty of Neerlandia in October 1902, and the rest of the rebellion followed suit after American intervention in Panama in November. Though he never defeated the Regeneration in battle, Uribe lived to see its formal dissolution and served as a senator under the Quinquenio government of Rafael Reyes. He was murdered in 1914 by two peasants wielding hatchets, and though conspiracies abound as to the nature of his assassination, Rafael Uribe Uribe's death remains a mystery.
Maxim Machine Gun
- Cartridge: 7x57mm Mauser
- Action: Recoil-operated
- Muzzle Velocity: 2,440 feet per second (744 meters per second)
- Effective Range: ~2,000 yards
- Rate of Fire: 550-600 rounds per minute
- Feed System: 250-round canvas belt
- Weight: 60 lbs (27.2 kg)
- Variant unknown, likely crew-operated (4-man crew optimal, though technically operable by one soldier)
- Cartridge: .44-40 Winchester
- Action: Lever-action
- Muzzle Velocity: 1,541 feet per second (470 meters per second)
- Effective Range: 200 m
- Feed System: 15-round tube magazine
- Weight: 9.5 lbs. (4.3 kg)
- Barrel Length: 24 in. (609 mm)
Modèle 1892 Revolver / "Gras revolver"
- Cartridge: .45 caliber
- Action: Double-action or single-action
- Muzzle Velocity: 730 feet per second (225 meters per second)
- Effective Range: ~50 yards
- Feed System: 6-round cylinder
- Weight: 1.88 lbs. (0.85 kg) unloaded
- Length: Unlisted
- DISCLAIMER: My sources note that the Colombians used a "Gras .45 caliber revolver," ca. 1885, but I cannot find any "Gras revolver" through Internet searches. I came across a Gras rifle, which is of French origin... so I filled in the gaps with the 1892 revolver. There were French military missions sent to Colombia before the Thousand Days' War, and other French weapons made their way onto the battlefields later, so hopefully this is an acceptable exercise in "reading between the lines!"
Theodore Roosevelt was a boxer, cowboy, hunter, and survivalist before he joined the Rough Riders He also had experience in the New York National Guard. The regiment trained in San Antonio, Texas, before the war. His combat experience came during the Spanish-American War, where he participated in several battles, most prominently Las Guásimas and San Juan Hill/Kettle Hill. Rafael Uribe Uribe received initial training in the Colegio del Estado as a young boy, and participated in the civil wars of 1876, 1885, and 1895 before taking command in the Thousand Days' War. He fought in a multitude of battles, most prominently at Peralonso, Gramalote, Terán, Palonegro, and San Cristóbal.
Both Roosevelt and Uribe are most famous for their impulsive, hot-headed, and aggressive behavior in battle. Roosevelt's charge at San Juan Hill pushed back the Spanish but resulted in a disproportionate number of American casualties. Uribe's charge across La Laja Bridge was characteristic of his desperate maneuvers against a logistically-superior enemy. Both men were themselves casualties at various points during their campaigns. The Rough Riders, for their part, were part of the US military, though as a volunteer group they came from a diverse range of backgrounds, many of them seeking adventure. Uribe's Guerreristas (War Liberals) were a similar motley mix of impassioned liberal caudillos, disaffected peasants, and opportunistic bandits.
Though you might fault them for their impulsiveness, Roosevelt and Uribe were both instrumental in inspiring their men. Roosevelt's leadership spurred the Rough Riders onward at San Juan Hill, and Uribe worked tirelessly to maintain a liberal rebel coalition. They were both present on the battlefield, unlike other commanders of their day. Uribe could, at times, be particularly grating when it came to cooperating with other liberal generals (such as Gabriel Vargas Santos or Benjamín Herrera), but to his men he was a beloved presence. As Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Roosevelt similarly went over the heads of his superiors in the initial stages of the Spanish-American War, ordering US vessels to mobilize without authorization.
The speed with which the US armed forces mobilized for the Spanish-American War meant that they were, at times, stretched for supplies. This was true for the volunteer Rough Riders, though much of their equipment (such as their machine guns) were self-funded. The liberal rebellion in Colombia had a much worse situation by comparison. The government was logistically strained, so the rebels were chronically undersupplied. Uribe frequently departed the theaters of combat to solicit foreign support--he was, on occasion, successful, as was the case with Venezuelan and Nicaraguan support, though this was neither consistent nor long-term.
Both men were strategically capable. Roosevelt was especially attentive to the US Navy and sought to expand its capacities, both with attention to its modernization and with its deployment overseas to project American imperial power. Uribe recognized the importance of contesting the Magdalena River as vital to cutting off the government's main fluvial artery to the outside world, and labored to establish a coalition of the disparate rebel bands in an attempt to challenge the government. Tactically, both men suffered. Roosevelt's charge at San Juan Hill saw 200 Americans killed and a thousand more wounded. Uribe similarly displayed a penchant for charging headlong into enemy fire, though he was more fortunate at Peralonso and successfully routed the conservative army in so doing. In other circumstances, though, like during his failed siege of Bucaramanga in November 1899, where his machete-wielding rebels charged rifle-toting government troops, the results were predictably catastrophic.
Roosevelt was certainly an aggressive man, and no stranger to the necessities of killing in wartime. The sheer scale of violence during Colombia's civil wars, however, defies comprehension, as many of the rebel participants were motivated by the desire to settle personal scores and avenge family insults or injuries. The fact that the Thousand Days' War carried on for two years as a fragmented guerrilla war even after the rebellion had effectively fallen apart at the Battle of Peralonso in May 1900, is indicative of the extent to which violence and brutality marked the conflict.
Two Caudillos and a Canal
1. The Iron Vein of Panama
Theodore Roosevelt looked at the situation unfolding before him. "Step aside, Clifford, and let me push," he commanded. Narrowing his eyes, he rolled up his sleeves and leaned forward, gripping at the mud-caked wheel of the Gatling gun and heaving alongside the other three gunners. The gun was fully stuck—up to its carriage in the mud that was soft enough to swallow up the weapon but had hardened enough since last night's storm to make moving the thing damn near impossible.
Damn near impossible it might have been, but Roosevelt wasn't one to give up when there was still a chance. Leaning forward, straining and baring his teeth in a grimace born of exertion, he and the gunners managed to shift the gun a few inches. It lurched, jumped up a few centimeters as it cleared whatever tiny, mud-clogged obstacle had been holding it in place, and then sank firmly back into the muck. The men let go of the Gatling gun and stood up, wiping their brows and putting hands on hips, appraising the situation. Roosevelt looked down at his feet, calf-deep in the mud, and pulled himself out. Leaning forward, squatting on the ground and gasping for breath, the gunner that Roosevelt had replaced looked up in disappointment as he realized that he'd have to get back up and keep pushing.
"Keep at it, boys," Roosevelt bellowed, clapping Clifford heartily on his back as the winded gunner struggled to his feet. As he turned to stride back to his command tent, Roosevelt privately noted that if the Gatlings continued to be this troublesome to move about in the jungle, he'd rely entirely on the potato diggers. No need to tell the men that, of course—no reason to give them motive to offer anything less than their full effort.
The American field command sprawled across a forward position east-southeast of Panama City. A sea of canvas tents stretched and hammered into the ground, close to the shoreline where the mighty U.S. Navy cast its imperialist shadow over the isthmus, the camp bustled with commotion. It was a secure position. It was protected, not only by the reach of the warships just out of sight, but by the railway that made up the northern border of the camp.
The railroad was the surest sign of American presence in Panama, something that all but predetermined the outcome of the U.S. intervention in what was still Colombian sovereign territory. The fractious South American nation was still gripped in the dying throes of a fruitless civil war, and it provided the United States with the perfect opportunity to both restore peace in the region and exercise its muscle to gain a political and economic advantage in Panama. That canal wasn't going to dig itself, after all. So the iron lines tattooed across the isthmus, which had before shipped goods and materiel for French engineers and American businessmen, now ferried U.S. Marines armed with smokeless powder and heavy artillery. The expanding railway competed only with the growing lines of telegraph wire that unraveled across a jungle that protested but could not stop progress. It had never been a question of if the Americans could restore order. It was only a question of when.
2. The Gentlemen's Agreement
"Sir, there's someone here to see you," piped up an aide-de-camp as Roosevelt entered his command tent, staffed with all the signs of military modernity and the troops to operate them. "He's a Colombian, sir. He's wearing a blue sash on his hat, so are his men. Says he wants to negotiate."
"A Conservative," Roosevelt said, unimpressed. "One of the government types. I don't know what we'd have to discuss. Well... I suppose those contemptible little creatures in Bogotá never did know how to properly follow the rules of civilized politics. Send him in."
The figure who barged in met Roosevelt's contemptuous gaze with a withering glare of his own. Dressed in the particularly Colombian style that at once asserted intellectual and military authority, the man wore a suit jacket and tie, walking in on knee-high riding boots and with a polished saber sheathed at his hip. His moustache billowed out like ink spilled into a pool of water, curling at the tips as they melted into his face.
"Señor Roosevelt, allow me to greet you on behalf of the great Colombian people," he said in English, extending a gloved hand. Roosevelt looked at it suspiciously before he returned the gesture, gripping hard and squeezing. The two men locked eyes and maintained the blistering handshake, willing the other to let go first. Finally, the Colombian compromised, retracting his hand only as he leaned forward and forcefully clapped Roosevelt on the shoulder with his other arm.
"Be welcome, friend," Roosevelt replied. "I trust that your message is one we will all find productive to negotiating an end to your country's suffering."
"My name is Rafael Uribe Uribe," the Colombian said. "I have, in fact, written to you before, though I fear your response must have been misplaced, lost in transit. But yes, you're quite right, I hope that my message will be productive for all of us."
In the distance, the blare of a train's horn pierced the steady din of the military motion happening outside in the camp. The ground rumbled ever so slightly, announcing the iron horse's approach. There was a moment of silence. "Well, little man, get on with it," Roosevelt started to say, but as the train got louder, Uribe lunged forward, producing a revolver from his jacket in one swift motion and embracing Roosevelt tightly, jutting the barrel of his sidearm into the American's ribs. Roosevelt gripped Uribe back, his hands squeezing the Colombian's shoulders in a bear hug. The staffers in the tent leapt up in shock and unsteadily drew their own sidearms, but Roosevelt held up a hand to steady them. The train screamed by now, deafening, shaking the earth under their feet.
"The blue sash is a token of deception, just one reply to the thousands of lies your government has heaped upon Colombia to bury it in a pile of its own ruin," hissed Uribe into Roosevelt's ear. "I am not a representative of the government. I am a representative of the liberal rebellion, and I am fighting for the dignity of a modern Colombia."
"You are an ant perched between my thumb and forefinger," Roosevelt spat back. "You sit there only because I allow it. If you bite me, I will crush you."
"I have come to give you a warning, to pay my dues as a gentleman and a scholar," Uribe threatened. "I walked into your camp once and your men allowed it. If I decide to do it again... it will be the last time we meet."
"And why shouldn't I have my whole camp open fire on you the moment you let me go?" Roosevelt parried.
Uribe suddenly broke the embrace, shoved Roosevelt back, extending his revolver at arm's length. "Because, you would do the same thing if you were in my position," he said. "Because you are a gentleman and a scholar. A despicable one, who has no business in my homeland, but one whom I must respect nonetheless. And because you know what it means to sacrifice comfort and luxury for the campground."
"What the devil do you know about any of that?" Roosevelt growled.
Uribe bristled at the insult. "Clearly you did not read my letter, señor. I am a lawyer and a senator in the Republic of Colombia. I know the same sacrifice. And if you are half the man you believe yourself to be, you will honor that code between gentlemen."
There was a pause, then Uribe slipped his revolver back beneath his suit jacket. Roosevelt's staffers immediately steadied their aim with their revolvers on the Colombian, but Roosevelt again stayed them with a gesture from his hand. The two men stared daggers at each other.
"Get out, before I change my mind."
3. The Machetero's Revenge
Two weeks later
The American onslaught had, predictably, pushed the Colombian guerrillas away from the coast and away from the cities. Equally foreseeable, however, was the quagmire that surfaced as the irregulars melted away into the thick jungle, leaving the American forces frustrated, harassed by hit-and-run tactics and brief, sporadic engagements that seemed to accomplish little more than the fruitless spending of ammunition. It was small consolation for the guerrillas, however, who found themselves consistently on the back foot—their old rifles and moldy cartridges, excavated from secret pits prepared in advance by sympathetic locals, fared poorly against modern American weaponry.
On the surface, there seemed to be very little of the dignity for which Rafael Uribe Uribe fought, as he lifted his hat to mop at the sweat that plastered his dark hair to his forehead. His troops languished in the heat, plagued by the living cloud of mosquitoes that descended upon them in an infernal swarm, and the liberal general did not fare much better. But dark embers smoldered from deep within his gaze as he listened to the distant sounds of sporadic gunfire. The past few weeks had been trying, and the Americans had pursued his scattered force with a relentlessness that the Colombian conservatives lacked. Próspero Pinzón, the devout Catholic who had outmatched the liberals at Palonegro in May 1900, inexplicably allowed the rebels to withdraw and gave them a multi-day head start on their retreat to Ocaña, close to the Venezuelan border in the department of Santander. Now, though, Pinzón was dead, struck down by yellow fever, and Roosevelt was an enemy of a markedly different caliber.
Uribe was aggressive, headstrong, stubborn at the worst of times—but he was no fool. He was, after all, the man who had stripped his men of their red sashes, the color of the liberal party, and exchanged them for the conservative blue, before brazenly marching onto the headquarters of enemy general José Domínguez. “Long live the conservative party!” his war band cheered, raising their arms high into the air as they pushed past confused government soldiers, who didn’t recognize this group of comrades. Their hesitation was all Uribe needed—never staying in one place long enough to let any one soldier act on his suspicion, he burst into Domínguez’s command tent and gripped the enemy general in a steely embrace. “I am Rafael Uribe Uribe, and you are my prisoner, general!” he announced.
That, of course, was not to say that Roosevelt was any less bullishly determined in a fight. At Las Guásimas, near Santiago de Cuba, his men had fought a deadly game of cat-and-mouse in the dense thicket with Spanish troops. The troops, were, perhaps, out of their element—the U.S. Army had no maps of Cuba upon declaration of war in 1898, and its stores could only supply 40,000 troops for three months. To make matters worse, while the Spanish unleashed thunderous hell with their smokeless powder rifles, the Americans were equipped with a mix of smokeless Krag-Jørgensens and 1873 model Winchesters—which were not smokeless.
Roosevelt, though, was decidedly in his element. There was only one way to go at Las Guásimas, and that was forward, through the Spanish trench lines and into a bloody meatgrinder, a deadlock where neither side budged. But damn it, someone would eventually have to give, and it was Roosevelt who won the lead staring contest, forcing the Spanish to blink when they ultimately conceded their position and resumed their withdrawal back to Santiago de Cuba. The Spanish would later claim their withdrawal was orderly, that it wasn’t a retreat—but even if it was true, it mattered little to Roosevelt. He had matched his foe muscle-for-muscle and outlasted them.
In many ways, the Panamanian jungle was a lot more similar to the fighting in Cuba than it was to the battles the Colombian liberals had fought in the department of Santander, raked by the cordilleras of the Andes that split Colombia north-to-south, levelling out on vast plateaus that made for good coffee farming and cattle raising. Panama was a challenging environment for both sides though. It was hot, humid, and rife with tropical disease that lurked in the shadows behind every treacherous sip of water or bothersome mosquito bite.
It was on one such day that Hobart Langford of Connecticut waited impatiently in his trench. The mail was coming soon, and with it the long-awaited letters and news from home. It was irregular—had to be shipped over to Cuba first, and then down to the isthmus, only to be unloaded and sent as far as the railroad could take it. After that, it was a matter of mule trains and sympathetic Panamanian guides to bring the precious cargo up to the different American units.
Dorothy was pregnant, and he was certain she’d have delivered by now. But she had languished under a feverish distemper when they were first married, and he always thought of her as his delicate gem. A similar sickness had stricken both of her parents—and neither recovered. It was the not knowing that weighed heavily on Hobart’s mind… that, and the long hours under a sweltering haze that cooked his brain and left him weak, dizzy, perpetually unsure of the last day he had received the most recent letter. It must have been at least fifteen… or was it sixteen… days since it had gotten sucked out of his boot, where he thought he could keep it safe, after an encounter with knee-deep malarial mud. And since then, he couldn’t quite remember the date Dorothy had printed at the top of the letter. Not that he was paying much attention to the date anyway, since she had traced the outline of her hand on the back side of the sheet.
His attention snapped back to the treeline beyond his trench when he heard an incoherent babbling dancing along the rolling waves of heat that crashed and broke against his throbbing temples. He grabbed his Krag and squinted, but didn’t have to look long. A tottering figure emerged, one arm outstretched, holding a bottle in each hand. His vueltiao hat bobbed up and down—his machete dangled loosely at his hip.
Hobart raised the rifle and aimed. The Colombian guerrilla looked absolutely shitfaced. The two bottles clinked slightly as he unsteadily lifted his second arm outward. The clear liquid inside swirled and sloshed. Hobart watched the bottles jealously. He couldn’t remember the last time he had been drunk.
The machetero stopped abruptly when he heard Hobart’s sharp whistle pierce the air. His unsteady momentum kept him going forward, though, and he broke his fall by landing first on his knees, then sprawling unceremoniously forward on his stomach, arms outstretched, to keep the bottles from spilling. He was mostly successful, but before he could compose himself a sharp crack split his skull moments before an explosive bang tore through the air.
Hobart lowered his gun and waited briefly, looking to see if there were any other figures nearby. But he found himself transfixed on the fallen guerrilla, mesmerized by the rivulet of blood that spurted out in an arc from the top of his head and the growing stain of red that seemed to blossom out from the center of the vueltiao hat. The dead man’s hands remained clasped around the liquor bottles, which had miraculously remained upright and intact.
In his feverish stupor, Hobart left his Krag down at the bottom of the trench and pulled himself up, staggering over to the slain guerrilla. He knelt down and tugged at the liquor bottles. They popped free and the guerrilla’s hands seemed to twitch, index fingers reproachfully pointing upward at the American for a brief moment before they slumped back down to the jungle floor. But Hobart was already on his way back to the trench, inspecting the bottles—one was only a third of the way full, but the other was pristine and unopened.
It was aguardiente—that strong anise-flavored liquor as common in Colombia as any beer or wine. In a matter of minutes, the unopened bottle was wedged open with Hobart’s knife and drained dry. He sat there, stupidly content, at the foot of his trench, his unfocused gaze watching a line of ants crawl along a stick.
Then—“Hey! Langford!” Hobart turned his head and smiled vacantly as his sergeant stomped down the trench. “Christ, what the hell have you done to yourself?”
“I saved some, don’t worry,” Hobart slurred, holding up the mostly-empty bottle.
“Christ, get a hold of yourself. Anyway… mail’s here. Thought you might like seeing this.”
In spite of his drunkenness, a jolt of adrenaline shot through Hobart’s head and struck him right in his heart, which pounded in anticipation. He couldn’t bear not knowing any longer—the news, the news! Good or bad, good or bad! He had to know. Dorothy, Dorothy… and their child—he had thought, if she was a girl, maybe Gertrude—of course, if it was a boy, it’d have to be after his father, and his middle name’d be after Dorothy’s father—or maybe the other way around, but—
“Aw, shit, Hobart. That’s a shame. Look what you’ve done.”
The ink was already running down the page with the streams of aguardiente that splashed across the letter. Hobart dropped the bottle and pawed desperately at the paper, trying to blot out the stain, only making the smearing worse. He frantically tried to focus his eyes on any one part of the letter, to get any piece of information—the liquid hadn’t yet made it to the bottom of the page—there it was—wait.
In the last moments before the spill rendered the whole damn thing illegible, Hobart made out his mother’s signature, instead of Dorothy’s.
4. An American Trova
Monche Brito hoisted his accordion to a comfortable height, twitching his nose to shoo away a meddlesome pest that buzzed around his face. His friend Chiche Guerra sat on a log with his guitar while the rest of the troop gathered round, squatting on their haunches or leaning against trees. The two were famous for their vallenato—that lively style of Colombian folk music that was equal parts jovial and acerbic. They were especially famous as trovadores, a subgenre of vallenato that emphasized a dueling exchange of barbs and insults that kept the audience roaring and the aguardiente flowing. Everyone knew that the best trova came from the upper department of Magdalena, on the Caribbean coast and on the border with Venezuela—the best trova, and the best contraband.
Chiche Guerra was everybody’s go-to guy when it came to bootlegged stuff, be it salted beef or coca leaves or cigars that he always claimed were from Cuba, but burnt up with black smoke that burned with each puff. Monche Brito always denied it, yet he was always around… somehow… whenever Chiche was there with a new shipment.
The accordion sprang to life in the guerrilla camp, at first an unsteady, wobbly see-saw of a tune, but a grin spread across Monche’s sun-beaten face and suddenly the tempo kicked into high gear, a veritable quilt notes belted out and stitched together in a patchwork quilt that burst rhythmically into the night air and jolted some unconscious physical response from the audience. “My accordion and I are from La Guajira, my accordion and I are from La Guajira,
My songs are quite famous, Chiche nobody’d hear ya, my songs are quite famous, Chiche nobody’d hear ya!”
A low chuckle rose from the ranks surrounding them. Chiche shook his head but couldn’t stop the smirk that played out on his face, as he started up his reply with his guitar. He matched Monche’s tune, their instruments in harmony even as they took turns hurling insults.
“Poor little Monche, poor little Monche, he’s much too cocky, he’s much too cocky,
He has no woman, so all he’s got’s his socky, he has no woman, so all he’s got’s his socky!”
The riposte earned uproarious laughter from the soldiers, and Monche grinned, taking the lyrical blow in stride and continuing to play the repetitive melody with Chiche until the audience settled down.
And so it went, the two dueling trovadores unleashing their very best wordplay, double entendres and dirty jokes that kept the audience amused even as they progressively got more and more drunk. But as the night dragged on and the moon struggled to break through the lush canopy overhead, the men around the musicians grew restless, egged on by the verbal sparring. You had to have a tough skin to be a trovador, since receiving biting insults was part of your trade. But a couple of guerrillas in the audience had been trying it out amongst themselves and it culminated rapidly in a shoving match that ended with a machete high in the air and a jostling group of men holding the two apart.
Chiche stood up on the log and tried to calm his fellow guerrillas. He exchanged a helpless glance with Monche, and the two sat there, watching as the drunken brawlers tired themselves out. Right as the crowd settled down, a momentary collective lull when the two angry guerrillas tried to catch their breath and the soldiers holding them back had a chance to snatch the weapons from their hands, a distant, mournful buzz met their ears.
It came through the trees and bounced across the camp, a long, low honk followed by a shriller toot. And, like the accordion, what started out as a series of slow, choppy notes quickly developed into a rhythmic melody from a Rough Rider’s harmonica that got the Colombians nodding and tapping their feet in spite of themselves.
“Across the Caribbean, from Cuba I set sail, across the Caribbean, from Cuba I set sail,
I didn’t come to Panama to run and tuck my tail, I didn’t come to Panama to run and tuck my tail,
So I’ll be damned, said Uncle Sam, we’re digging that canal! So I’ll be damned, said Uncle Sam, we’re digging that canal!”
There was a pause. The guerrillas, of course, didn’t understand the English lyrics, but as they shared shocked glances in the darkness, they collectively recognized the challenge that was being issued to them from somewhere in the American camp.
They all cheered as Monche and Chiche locked eyes and picked up again with their instruments, resuming the old melody that had been interrupted by the drunken macheteros. This time, though, the barbs were being directed against a common enemy. Though the Americans, similarly, would not understand the Spanish lyrics hurled back their way, they’d know well enough that their challenge had not gone unnoticed… or unanswered.
“Buenas noches a los yanquis, buenas noches a los yanquis,
Les aconsejamos que duerman con los ojos abiertos, con los ojos abiertos,
Pue’ porque si vos no lo hagas, ¡bajo tierra quedarás cubierto!”
“Good night to the Yankees, good night to the Yankees,
We suggest that you sleep with your eyes open, with your eyes open,
’Cause, well, if y’all don’t, you’ll end up buried six feet under!”
Then Monche and Chiche abruptly stopped as they waited for the reply. The guerrillas listened eagerly, grinning and exchanging excited glances. After a spell—long enough that they started to wonder if the Americans were throwing in the towel already—the harmonica piped up again, joined by the distinctive twang of the banjo.
“My mama always told me, be careful where you pick a fight,
And my papa always told me, that might don’t always make for right,
And they make me feel mighty guilty, ’cause far as I can see,
Y’all make for a mighty lousy sight!”
The guerrillas jittered in spirited indignation, chuckling, as Monche and Chiche got ready to strike up the tune again and send their most damning retort yet. But then a sharp bang pierced the air and sent everyone ducking. It faded into the darkness—it was no closer to their camp than the harmonica and banjo had been, but a rifle was a much louder instrument, and it sent a much more forceful message.
The somberness of the night descended upon the guerrilla camp again, extinguishing the feisty energy that had kept the trova going for hours. As far as the Colombians were concerned, the Americans had ended the duel in bad faith.
5. Pranks and Surprises
Alford Brown and Ellsworth Lubbock stirred in the glowing twinkle of the early morning light. The rest of the camp was quiet, boots sticking out from tents, snores punctuating the stillness of the dawn.
“Hey—Ellsworth,” Alford whispered in a sharp hiss. “Where the hell’re Furman and Pinkney?”
Bleary-eyed, Ellsworth shrugged. He cast a tired glance over to where the sentries who relieved him earlier that night should have been posted. “Maybe they went off to piss or summat.”
“No, no…” Alford whispered, his tone suddenly grave, his eyes conveying silent urgency. He reached out and put a heavy hand down on Ellsworth’s shoulder. “They should be there.”
Alford got up from his cot and ducked out from the tent. His crunching footsteps faded out into the distance as Ellsworth labored to sit up. He shook his head to gather his senses, looking down at the palms of his hands before he buried his eyes into them, rubbing vigorously. Taking a deep breath, he swung his feet down to the ground and stomped out after Alford.
The sun wasn’t yet bright enough to make him squint. He cast a glance over to where Alford had gone—over to where Furman and Pinkney should’ve been. They were a bunch of pranksters. Ellsworth was still a little annoyed about when they had left his boots out overnight by the tents in Panama City, under a dripping fall of rainwater, so that they filled up and stayed soaked for days. Now they were probably all hiding behind a tree or on the other side of the earthen embankment marking the perimeter, giggling to themselves, waiting for him to peek around looking for them.
Ellsworth’s foot caught on a root and he tripped, stumbling, catching himself with his hands before he went face-first into the dirt. He straightened himself, dusting his hands off on his pants—only to leave streaks of liquid red on them. He looked down again and noticed a river of blood pooling out around his feet. Turning, Ellsworth realized it wasn’t a root he had tripped on—it was a pair of boots sticking out from a tent.
Pulling aside the tent flap, Ellsworth found Norval Henery with his throat sliced wide open, choking on his own blood. The quiet gurgles and gasps weren’t loud enough to wake any of the sleeping troops around him. Norval’s pathetic struggle faded as the man’s eyes glazed over. Stumbling back in shock, Ellsworth found himself face-to-face with a Colombian machetero. The man put his finger to his lips mockingly and raised the blade to strike, but Ellsworth pushed him back violently and turned, shouting incoherently, trying his best to rouse those who were still only asleep.
“¡Estamos comprometidos! ¡Nos han descubierto!” went the warning cry from the Colombian. The camp instantly burst into a frenzy of noise as Rough Riders stumbled out from their tents, pursued by the liberal guerrillas carrying machetes soaked in blood. Ellsworth had no weapon on him—he barely had his boots on—he found his feet carrying him over to the spot where Alford and Furman and Pinkney disappeared.
Alford was on his back, his massive Bowie knife unsheathed and hilt-deep in the gut of a surprised machetero crouched on top of him. A second guerrilla lay splayed out on his back in a pool of his own blood. Ellsworth rushed forward and pulled the mortally-wounded Colombian off of his friend, but stopped in shock at the huge gash carved down Alford’s neck and into his chest. The blood was already spurting out in rhythmic jolts from the gaping wound, and Alford’s eyes didn’t focus on Ellsworth before they went slack.
And then, before he even had a chance to process what was happening, a hand gripped Ellsworth’s right shoulder from behind, holding him firm moments before a sickening crack and a white-hot sprout of pain burst from his neck.
6. The Charge of the Bull Moose
“The Colombians, sir! They just overwhelmed Captain Moody’s company. A sneak attack.” The runner paused, breathless, as Theodore Roosevelt absorbed the information. He maintained his composure, but his blood was clearly boiling as he clenched his hands into fists and looked up at the sky.
“Mobilize the rest of the regiment.”
Elsewhere, in the liberal guerrilla camp, Uribe looked up from his table of maps to see a machetero enter his tent, the sleeve of his right arm rolled up to the shoulder. They had all done that, so that in the heat of battle, they could easily identify friend from foe with the simple touch of a hand. You had to grab your enemy to cleave him with a machete, after all.
“General Uribe. We overran the camp. We killed everyone that we could.”
“A few, sir. Santander Martínez, Luis Pitre, Carlos Huerta. Julio Francisco and Chema Gómez were wounded.”
Uribe nodded slowly, mulling over the names. After a brief pause, he looked back at the machetero. “The Americans will not take this lying down. We have to move now and get our second phase into action.”
The Colombian trenches were swiftly overrun by the furious Rough Rider counterattack. The guerrillas manning the forward position had ineffectively traded shots with the Americans, but their Winchester rifles lacked the accuracy of the Krags, and the coffee farmers manning them lacked the training afforded the volunteer regiment opposing them. The steady cracks of the Krags overwhelmed the staccato bangs of the Winchesters, which melted into little more than whispers of resistance in the wind as the troops wielding them either fell or broke like rabbits into the brush.
A gun crew carrying a disassembled potato digger machine gun sprinted forward under fire as the Rough Riders advanced. Hopping over the abandoned guerrilla trenches, they pushed forward into the jungle. Roosevelt was right there with them, his revolver in hand, waving it to urge his soldiers onward. “This is payback, boys!” he bellowed. “Payback for Moody and our boys!” He growled to himself as an aside, “… and payback for me.”
Sprinting past the broken bodies of liberal guerrillas, individual Rough Riders let out war whoops, firing into the thicket even when there was no discernible target. But the constant barrage of gunfire had its intended psychological effect, as droves of guerrillas emerged, hands high in the air, pleas for mercy issued in rapid Spanish and faltering, broken English, weapons long since discarded. The Americans furthest forward opted to ignore them, leaving them to be captured by the Rough Riders bringing up the rear of the advance.
Unexpectedly, a burst of automatic gunfire raked through the leaves and kicked up dirt around the Americans as they emerged into a clearing where the rebel encampment sat. Diving for cover, some of them hollered in pain as they took rounds to the gut or legs, wounded. The inexperienced guerrilla gunners fired in a manic, panicked frenzy, feeding the belt and swiveling the barrel back and forth across the gun’s sight picture. As long as the gun spoke, the Americans took cover.
And just as suddenly as it started, the Colombians’ Maxim stopped, the belt exhausted. Turning on the spot, the guerrillas started to lug the piece away down a hill on the other side of the camp. Other rebels popped up from the flanks to distract the Rough Riders with ineffective, but bothersome rifle fire. “Get that gun!” went up the cry.
The potato digger crew had reached the clearing and landed on their elbows, mid-assembly, so that the machine gun was operable and belching a stream of lead at Uribe’s rebels in short order. Several of them toppled instantly, cast aside into the undergrowth by the unforgiving rounds, while others ducked low for cover and tried to crawl away. The firing had all but ceased on the Colombian side of the field, and the Rough Riders advanced, rifles at the ready, while the potato digger covered their movement.
At the bottom of the hill, in a little valley of a gully, the Colombian Maxim gun sat abandoned by its crew. The firing had stopped, the rebels completely routed. The Americans secured the piece and sent word back up to Roosevelt, who appeared presently to inspect the fruits of his labors. A machine gun and enemy encampment seemed like a fair exchange for the massacre that morning. The Rough Riders milled around, gawking at the Maxim that had given them a brief spell of trouble, waiting to see how their commander would react.
But then there was the sound of hammers being cocked and guns being lowered all above them. The Rough Riders looked up to find themselves completely surrounded in the gully, the Colombian rebels triumphantly aiming down at them. Inferior weapons, training, and marksmanship meant little at this distance. Roosevelt looked up in disbelief as a familiar mustachioed figure emerged, revolver pointed in the air.
From his position on top of the hill, Rafael Uribe Uribe lowered the gun and pointed it directly at Roosevelt. Some of the Rough Riders spiritedly raised their own rifles in response, but Roosevelt, recognizing the foregone conclusion of his position, gestured for them to put their guns down. Dejectedly, he tossed his revolver into the dirt.
Uribe descended while his troops stayed above. “Well, well, well…” he said in English, surveying the plight of the Americans before him. He looked up at his men and gave an order in Spanish. They bustled about, some turning away, others descending into the gully and restraining the indignant Rough Riders.
Uribe turned his gaze back to Roosevelt. “Send one of your men up with a white cloth, and tell your gun crews to present themselves here, with their machine guns, immediately. You will have ten minutes for them to appear.”
Roosevelt grimaced and turned over his shoulder. “Spurgeon, do what he says.”
“Matheus, ¡Acompáñelo!” Uribe said to a rebel, who walked over to Roosevelt’s chosen man, jamming the barrel of a revolver into his ribs. The two staggered up, clambering out of the gully toward where the potato digger crew sat, Spurgeon holding a handkerchief high over his head. “Stop! Stop! Don’t shoot!” he shouted. They paused, waited—a muffled cry of reply met them in response—then Matheus urged Spurgeon onward and they disappeared from sight.
His eyes smoldering, Roosevelt glowered at Uribe. “This doesn’t mean you’ve won, you realize,” he hissed. “The United States military commands far more resources than your loathsome band of misfits ever could. If you think this means you are keeping Panama—and the canal—you are sorely mistaken.”
A twinkle glimmered in Uribe’s eye as he laughed and looked over at Roosevelt. “Perhaps you are right about the canal, about Panamá. But I am afraid that I have won. I gave you my warning, in person, because I am a gentleman,” he told the furious American. “And so a gentleman shall I be. You, Señor Roosevelt, and all of your men are prisoners of General Rafael Uribe Uribe.”
WINNER: RAFAEL URIBE URIBE
The Rough Riders, were, perhaps, better equipped, trained, supplied, and fed than the Colombian liberal guerrillas. The logistical advantage enjoyed by the American forces was a substantial point in their favor. However, under the leadership of a hot-headed and impetuous leader like Roosevelt, this ended up sustaining and encouraging tactics and maneuvers that incurred unnecessary casualties for very little strategic gain. Rafael Uribe Uribe could be quite impetuous himself, but he demontrated himself to be far more tactically versatile, capable of deception, misdirection, and ambush. As a leader his presence held the liberal guerrilla movement together at times when it might not otherwise have endured. And, while Roosevelt's primary means of attack was to move forward on the offense, Uribe was just as experienced fighting on the defense as he was leading a hot-headed charge. Lastly, Uribe had a much longer military career under his belt than Roosevelt did, with much more substantial combat experience. In this case, Uribe as a leader more than made up for the shortcomings of his troops, who to their credit performed admirably under difficult circumstances. Roosevelt as a leader embodied many martial values, but his aggressive temperament came at the cost of tactical or strategic versatility, which proved to be his downfall in this fight.