On September 15, 1998, Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders were officially disbanded, or “mustered out.” Many had recuperated from the ills of the Spanish-American war at Camp Wikoff in Montauk, or were still recovering there when the news came through. No doubt this unit’s trek away from Camp Wikoff was filled with emotion.
The Rough Riders are compelling because they represented such an interesting mix of character and background. Expert marksmen from the American West had bull’s-eye aim from a galloping horse. They fought alongside prep school Easterners with moneyed backgrounds, men who possessed superb horsemanship and rifle skills. As Patrick McSherry writes on his excellent website spanamwar.com, “The unit included miners, cowboys, preachers, tradesmen, writers, professors, athletes, and clergymen. Remarkably, there were men from each of the forty-five states then in existence, the four territories and from fourteen countries! There were even sixty Native Americans on the roster. The unique combination reflected the interesting contrasts …of one of the driving forces behind the unit –Theodore Roosevelt.”
This stereograph titled Inspection – “Rough Riders” – Camp Wikoff, Montauk Point, N.Y. is a gem in the Montauk Library’s archival collection. Looking at stereo cards through a stereoscope, or handheld viewer, was a popular pastime during the second half of the 19th century. The craze took off in 1851 when Queen Victoria and her husband Albert, huge fans of photography, discovered stereoscopic equipment at the Crystal Palace exhibit in London. The stereo card – two duplicate photographic images affixed side-by-side on a rectangular surface – would be placed into the stereoscope. The apparatus was brought close to the eyes, and the two images on the stereo card would magically transform into a single 3-D photo. (The ViewMaster slides much beloved by children transform in the same way, using depth-of-field manipulation. In fact, the New York Public Library’s online “Stereogranimator” is a fun tool that allows anyone to create a stereo card. Check out stereo.nypl.org/ stereogranimator.)
The popularity of stereo cards would wane after 1898 but then peak with one last gasp during World War I. Alas, their entertainment value dissolved quickly as silent films became the rage. Unlike stereo photography, however, the Rough Riders have steadily gained in popularity. As Patrick McSherry maintains, they were only in existence for 133 days, but “the unit won its place in history, and has since passed into legend.”