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Music Hath Charms

In the days when armies used horses, it was not uncommon for their steeds to be trained to obey commands delivered by buglers and trumpeters.  Many are the tales told of horses who had lost their riders in action yet nevertheless maintained formation and obeyed the bugle calls signaling various maneuvers, even at times when they themselves had been wounded,

Knowing that well trained horses would often obey bugle calls even when not bearing a rider sometimes came in handy in emergencies.  For example, when the American V Army Corps debarked at Daiquiri, in Cuba, on June 22, 1898, the horses were landed by the simple expedient of throwing them into the surf, so that they could swim to shore.  Some of the animals panicked, however, and began to swim out to sea.  A quick-thinking bugler sounded "right wheel", which caused most of the errant steeds to turn toward shore, so that only a few were lost.

There are at least two instances in history, however, when horses were too well trained to obey musical instructions, with disastrous results, as the Second-Century Alexandrian Greek littérateur Athenaeus tells us in his The Deipnosophists: Or, Banquet of the Learned, of Athenaeus , a collection of anecdotes, jokes, and miscellanea.

  • Sybaris was a Greek city on the arch of the “foot” of Italy.  A by-word for luxury, the Sybarites (from whom we get the adjective “sybaritic”), had taught their horses to dance to flute music for various festivals.  In about 510 BC, when the neighboring Greek city-state of Croton (further toward the “toe” of Italy) gave shelter to some political fugitives from Sybaris, the Sybarites declared war.  Now the Crotonians were aware of the Sybarite custom, and so recruited flute players to accompany their troops.  When the armies met, the flutists began to play.  Naturally, the well-trained horses began to dance, and some even ran headlong toward the musicians.  This disrupted the Sybarite array and gave the battle to the Crotonians, who razed Sybaris to the ground, erasing it so thoroughly the even today its precise location is uncertain.
  • Cardia, on Saros Bay, was the chief city of what is now known as the Gallipoli Peninsula.  The Cardians were also in the habit of training their horses to dance to flute music at various festivals, rearing up and whirling about.  About half a century after the fall of Sybaris, the Bisaltae, a hostile tribe from western Thrace (northeastern Greece), went to war with Cardia.   Having been a slave among the Cardians, Onaris (the commander of the Bisaltae) knew of this custom, and therefore included in his army flutists who had been trained to play the appropriate music.  On the day of battle, Onaris deployed his flute players, who began to tootle away.  Naturally, when the Cardian horses heard the music, they began to dance, enabling the Bisaltae to quickly win the battle.

 

Perhaps because the experiences of the Sybarites and the Cardians were well known among the ancients, these seem to have been the only instances in history on which music and dancing played a decisive role in destroying an enemy army.

 

T.R. Goes to War: Teddy Roosevelt and the Cuban Campaign of 1898

On the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, in April of 1898, Theodore Roosevelt (who was serving as Assistant Secretary of the Navy) was offered command of a volunteer cavalry regiment.  Despite having risen to captain in the New York National Guard in the 1880s, TR pled lack of experience and recommended veteran army officer Leonard Wood for the job.  Roosevelt did, however, accept a commission as lieutenant colonel in the new regiment, the 1st Volunteer Cavalry, better known as the “Rough Riders”.

Roosevelt proved an excellent soldier, with a talent for improvisation.  For example, on June 7, 1898, when the V Army Corps embarked for Cuba, to make sure his regiment got to Cuba, Roosevelt commandeered a train and then hijacked a ship.  Approached by an irate officer of the 71st New York, Roosevelt said, "Hello, What can I do for you?" 

"That's our ship!" 

"Well, we seem to have it."

The expedition landed on the southeastern coast of Cuba, near Siboney and Daiquiri, on June 22nd

Early on the 24th, the Rough Riders formed the left hand column of a two-pronged probe of Spanish positions along Las Guasimas Ridge, a few miles inland from the beachhead, when they encountered the Spanish outpost line.  A hot little skirmish developed.  Roosevelt distinguished himself under fire for about two hours before the Spanish executed a planned withdrawal.  Over the next few days the American forces closed up on the Spanish defenses of Santiago, in preparation for a general assault on July 1st.  

On the afternoon of July 1, 1898, the Rough Riders were on the extreme right flank of the American line in position for the attack on the Spanish defenses, which were anchored on the Heights of San Juan, just east of Santiago.  Roosevelt was in command, since Colonel Wood was in temporary command of the brigade, which also included the “Buffalo Soldiers” of the 10th Cavalry and the white 1st Cavalry. Although they were supposed to be cavalry, the men fought as infantry, with the horses reserved for the officers.  The actual assault on the Heights was relatively short but intense, Roosevelt later calling it “my crowded hour.”  The  troops rapidly stormed up the first hill, which they nicknamed “Kettle Hill” from a number of large sugar-rendering kettles they found there.  Roosevelt, who had dismounted about half-way through the attack and been lightly wounded, got the troops into line to fire on the Spanish on San Juan Hill proper, just a little further to west, in support of the attack by other American troops to their left. 

As those troops began sweeping up the southern end of San Juan Hill, Roosevelt decided to support them with an attack on the northern end.  Shouting an order, he jumped over a barbed wire fence and started across the narrow valley between Kettle Hill and San Juan Hill.  He had not gone a hundred yards before he realized that only five men were following him.  Believing that the regiment had chickened out in the face of the Spanish fire, he angrily raced back, only to discover that the troops "were quite innocent," as he put it, not having heard the order amid the noise of battle.  Roosevelt once more leaped the fence, this time with the mass of troops following behind.  They quickly crossed the little valley, taking some casualties.  The Americans swept up and over the Spanish trenches with Roosevelt in the lead, the troops “completely intermingled—white regulars, colored regulars, and Rough Riders,” as he would write in his memoir of the campaign, Rough Riders .  There was some close-in fighting, with Roosevelt in the thick of it as the troops pressed on to occupy the crest of the hill, which was done by about 2:00 p.m.  There Roosevelt organized a defensive line in anticipation of an enemy counterattack.  This never came.  Instead, the expedition began a close siege of Santiago. 

Roosevelt, the Rough Riders, and the rest of the army endured more than two weeks in the trenches before Santiago.  There were shortages of food and blankets, the rain was sometimes incessant, the heat oppressive.  Worst of all, malaria and yellow fever began spreading among the troops.  The Spanish surrendered on July 16th.  Even afterwards, the condition of the American troops continued to deteriorate, as yellow fever and malaria reached epidemic proportions.  In early August the weakened troops were replaced by fresh forces and the expedition returned to the United States. 

For his leadership during the attack on Kettle Hill and San Juan Hill, Roosevelt was nominated for the Medal of Honor.  Unfortunately, attempts to influence the award decision (perhaps by Roosevelt himself) led to the nomination being shelved.  It was not until nearly 103 years later, on January 16, 2001, that Roosevelt was awarded the nation’s highest honor. It is now displayed in “Roosevelt Room” of the White House (his former office) along with his Nobel Prize for Peace.

BookNote: Despite being derided by a critic as “Alone in Cuba,” Rough Riders , Roosevelt’s memoir of the Santiago Campaign, is actually very readable and even-handed, Roosevelt  usually being quite generous in his treatment of others.  

 


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