Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders. Credit: Courtesy Library of Congress

“War is a deplorable alternative and we must enter upon it only after the most earnest consideration,” a speaker at Darwin Merritt’s memorial service in Red Oak in 1898 declared. He said newspapermen and congressmen would not do the actual fighting in wartime. “The men who fight the war will be the men who enlist at the sound of the fife and the taps of the drum, and take in their hands the muskets.”


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The Merritt family knew firsthand the costs of war. Darwin was 26 years old in 1898. He had grown up on the family farm. He attended the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md., graduating in 1897, ranking third in his class of 84. In 1898 he was an officer on the U.S.S. Maine, a battleship at anchor in Havana, Cuba, at the height of tensions between the United States and Spain. On February 15 an explosion rocked the ship. It sank, killing 266 crew. It was generally believed the Spanish had played a role in the tragedy. By April the Spanish-American War had begun.

For the Merritts back in Red Oak, Iowa, the news of the explosion meant hours and days of uncertainty. They knew some of the crew of the Maine had survived. They hoped Darwin was on shore leave at the time of the explosion. Or maybe he was one of the lucky ones who was picked out of the water.

The Merritts didn’t know at the time, but shortly after the explosion, Secretary of the Navy John Long had received a cablegram from the captain of the Maine. It read, “Jenkins and Merritt still missing. Little hope for their safety.”

But on Feb. 17 the navy sent a dispatch to Red Oak: “Merritt was in junior officers’ mess room when explosion occurred. He got to hatch and found ladder gone. Officer Boyd climbed through and tried to pull Merritt up. Merritt lost his hold, fell back and was drowned. Body not found; probably in wreck.”

Cadet David F. Boyd was the last person to see Darwin alive. He said the two were reading when the lights went out and a “tremendous shock, accompanied by flying splinters and the sound of crashing bulkheads” was heard. He recalled trying to hold on to Darwin, but they were torn apart by the “tremendous flow of water.”

The news of Darwin’s death and the declaration of war had an effect on Darwin’s brother, William. In June he made his way to Washington, D.C., intent on joining the fight. He set his sights on joining Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders.

Roosevelt had high standards for men who joined the ranks of his First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry (the Rough Riders) in Cuba. He preferred “cow-boys, hunters, bronco-busters and mining prospectors.”

He described one of his officers as a “wild, reckless fellow, soft spoken, and of dauntless courage and boundless ambition.” And another as a man “on whom danger acted like wine.” And for the ranks he wanted men who had “led rough lives” and carried “lines in their faces” that told of “many a hardship endured.”

And Roosevelt found these traits in the men he invited to join his elite group. There was Cherokee Bill, Happy Jack, Smoky Moore and Rattlesnake Pete. A few were graduates of Harvard, Yale and Princeton. There were Baptist and Methodist clergymen and former New York City policemen. A former marshal of Dodge City who had lost half of an ear—bitten off by an outlaw who had crossed his path.

As soon as William Merritt arrived in Washington, he stopped at the office of the secretary of the navy. When he told Navy Secretary Long he was Darwin Merritt’s brother and that he wanted to join the fight as a Rough Rider, Long had William sworn in and arranged transportation to the First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry camp in Florida. And Long gave William a letter for Roosevelt suggesting he honor Darwin’s “gallantry” by giving William a commission.

William served with the Rough Riders in Cuba, and at the end of the conflict was mustered out on Sept. 15, 1898.

[Two additional Iowans served with the Rough Riders: John Shaw of Davenport and Philip S. Baker of Clinton.]



  • “Battleship Maine Blown to Pieces in Havana Harbor,” Audubon County Journal, Feb. 17, 1898.
  • Carpenter, Allan. “Iowa at War!” Des Moines Register, Oct. 22, 1939.
  • “Crucible of Empire: The Spanish-American War,” https://www.pbs.org/crucible/tl10.html
  • Ignacious Markey, Joseph. From Iowa to the Philippines, Red Oak: Thos. D. Murphy Co., 1900.
  • Merritt, William. A History of the County of Montgomery: From the Earliest Days to 1906. Red Oak: Express Publishing Co, 1906.
  • Roosevelt, Theodore. The Rough Riders, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1899.

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