Two Wars and a Wedding: Betsy in Tampa, FL

I know I said I was going to post about the Greco-Turkish War this week, but… it’s very hard to post about the Greco-Turkish War without feeling a little like I’m including spoilers.

Since Two Wars and a Wedding doesn’t come out for another two weeks (two weeks, folks!!!!) and the book actually opens in Tampa, I’ve decided to jump around and post about Tampa this week instead.

Why Tampa, you may ask?  Because that’s where the U.S. Army– including Teddy Roosevelt’s famous Rough Riders!– camped for several weeks before embarking for Cuba in the Spanish-American War.

First of all, who were the Rough Riders?  Formally, they were the First Volunteer U.S. Cavalry.  Informally, they were known as Teddy’s Terrors, the Rocky Mountain Rustlers, and Roosey’s Roaring Roisterers after their charismatic Lieutenant Colonel, Teddy Roosevelt.  Technically, their commanding officer was Colonel Leonard Wood.  (Raise your hand if you’d ever heard of him!)  But everyone knew who the real force behind the Rough Riders was, the guy with the multiple sets of eyeglasses stowed all over his Brooks Brothers uniform: that’s right, Teddy Roosevelt.

The Rough Riders caught the American imagination partly because they were an eccentric mix of cowboys and millionaires’ sons, Texas Rangers and Ivy Leaguers.  It didn’t hurt that Roosevelt traveled with an entourage of journalist buddies, including Richard Harding Davis of the New York Herald (below, with Roosevelt), Stephen Crane of the New York World (yep, the same guy who wrote Red Badge of Courage, also below), and Edward Marshall of the New York Journal.

(Want to know more about Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders?  Check out Clay Risen’s The Crowded Hour, Mark Lee Gardener’s Rough Riders: Theodore Roosevelt, the Cowboy Regiment, and the Immortal Charge Up San Juan Hill, or go straight to the source and read Teddy Roosevelt’s The Rough Riders. There are also a ton of memoirs and articles written by the guys who were there and made it home again– which wasn’t everyone– and the journalists who traveled with Roosevelt.)

Tampa!  I was supposed to be posting about Tampa.  Back to Tampa!  Army bigwigs, including Teddy Roosevelt, made themselves at home at the fantastical Tampa Bay Hotel (above) in what was known as the Rocking Chair phase of the war.  While the troops sweated in the Florida heat, conflicting messages arrived from Washington DC, newspapermen angled for exclusives over games of cards, and Edith Roosevelt popped by to visit her husband (since no one seemed to be going anywhere fast).

It wasn’t just army brass and reporters.  Observers came from all over the world, forming their own chummy international club (why, yes, we’ll see some of these guys again later!).  Below, you can see a group of high ranking military representatives sent by Britain, Sweden, Japan, Russia, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Germany.  Somehow the French rep and the Ottoman rep missed the group picture….

Meanwhile, once you left the plushy environs of the Tampa Bay Hotel, accommodations weren’t quite as grand.  The Rough Riders steamed into Tampa on June 2, to encounter the first of many logistical issues: a train jam.  So many trains were trying to get into Tampa that no one could get anywhere at all.  (They had similar problems on the other end when they needed to get to Port Tampa to leave for Cuba.  The picture below shows the Rough Riders perched on the coal cars they commandeered to get them to the port in time.  You’ll hear more about this in the book.)

To compound their problems, the men had been given two days’ rations for a four day journey (this sort of thing is going to become a theme), and arrived in Tampa to chaos; finding nothing prepared for them, officers, like Teddy Roosevelt, purchased food for the soldiers out of their own pockets and commandeered wagons to transport their baggage (this is also going to become a theme).

In any event, here’s Tampa in 1898:

The city of 14,000 people was soon crammed with soldiers waiting to embark– at some point– for Cuba.  The map below, from the Tampa Daily Times on June 21, 1898, gives a rough idea of where the camps were placed:

The locals had mixed feelings about the influx of troops.  Some welcomed the business and the diversion of watching them drill.  Others weren’t so thrilled.  Concerned citizens, having heard exaggerated tales of the Rough Riders’ exploits, demanded that spiritous liquors not be served to inflame their already inflammable spirits– which meant that shops advertised things like “The General Miles Milkshake” (booze) and “Robert E. Lee Grape Juice” (also booze).

The Plant Museum recently put on an exhibit called The Spanish-American War & Its Tampa Connection.  The exhibit site contains some marvelous pictures and also very elegantly sums up the Tampa phase of the war in a few evocative paragraphs.

For those who want to learn more about Tampa in the Spanish-American War, there is a wonderful volume of the Tampa Bay History journal devoted entirely to that topic.  My favorite article is Alicia Addeo’s “‘Tampa is a BUM Place’: The Letters of First Sergeant Henry A. Dobson in
1898”, but all of the articles in it are fascinating.

Meanwhile, on the relief ship State of Texas, Clara Barton and her Red Cross treated the mild wounds of the restless men while waiting to be summoned to Cuba….

Join me next week for Betsy and the Red Cross!

Also– look what arrived at my house this week!  I can’t wait for these to be in your hands….


  1. Rachel Adrianna on March 8, 2023 at 12:02 pm

    As far as an Ottoman rep being in Tampa so soon after the Greco-Turkish War and the way that all ended… were there any strong feelings from Americans (the troops, the press, the population at large) about about him being there?

    • Lauren Willig on March 8, 2023 at 3:31 pm

      He was definitely not anyone’s favorite guy, although I’m not sure how much that was sentiment motivated by the Greco-Turkish War (which did make the news over here, although not many people felt as strongly as Betsy) and how much that was his own personal character. When we get to the fatal voyage of the hospital ship Seneca later on, he was one of the very few people who (in real life) refused to give up his cabin to house the sick.

      Random fun fact: that picture of Stephen Crane above actually comes from his time as a war reporter covering the Greco-Turkish War the year before (although he and Betsy didn’t cross paths there). He wrote an incredibly annoying novel about it called “Active Service”.

      • Rachel Adrianna on March 9, 2023 at 11:47 am


    • Lauren Willig on March 8, 2023 at 3:33 pm

      Ooops, but I realize that didn’t really answer your question! The short answer is no, not that I stumbled upon. There didn’t seem to be strong feelings about his presence one way or another. Everyone was very focused on the Spanish and the danger of espionage and all that sort of thing, and by that time, the Greco-Turkish War felt like old news….

      • Rachel Adrianna on March 9, 2023 at 11:48 am

        That makes sense. Thank you!

  2. Pat Dupuy on March 8, 2023 at 4:59 pm

    I’ve visited the Menger Bar in the Menger Hotel in San Antonio, Texas. Leonard Wood and Teddy Roosevelt set up an enlistment table there and recruited over 1250 men to be Rough Riders. Some things never change-young men looking for a “glorious” adventure. Speaking of glorious, that picture of Stephen Crane! Boy is he handsome!

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