Cape Cod Cowboy: General Leonard Wood
Pocasset was the influential childhood home of one of America’s most accomplished figures who was present at some of the country’s most memorable moments.
The cowboy is one of America’s great mythological figures. One of the first motion picture hits, 1903’s “The Great Train Robbery,” was a Western, and the global pop culture phenomenon of 2019—Baby Yoda!—appeared in the Neo-Western television series, “The Mandalorian.” From John Wayne to Clint Eastwood and now to the armored Pedro Pascal, or “Mando,” cowboys have captured the hearts and imaginations of Americans for over 100 years. Their codes of honor, courage, rugged independence, and determination to do the right thing no matter the odds tap into a particular vein of the American Dream. These legends often have little to do with reality, and most of the stories conveniently omit ugly details, but they do capture a certain entrepreneurial spirit of self-sufficiency and strength. The heroes possess “true grit,” and they “speak softly and carry a big stick.” Indeed, few real-life characters did more to create and advance the cowboy legend than Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders; much of the visual iconicism of cowboys derives from this band of soldiers thanks to their unofficial portraitist, Frederic Remington. It’s no coincidence that Remington was a good friend of Roosevelt, and it’s no exaggeration to suggest that the images and lore of the Rough Riders led to the rise of one of America’s best beloved presidents. What’s less universally known is the fact that another friend of Roosevelt’s was the initial organizer and leader of this famed regiment, a man who grew up in a place most unlikely for cowboys—the village of Pocasset in the town of Bourne.
Few would have predicted that Leonard Wood, the son of a Civil War-era doctor, would rise to the top ranks of the U.S. Army from his childhood battlefields of Bourne’s village of Pocasset, where, according to biographer Jack McCallum, “He had few friends, a quick temper, and a reputation for getting into—and winning—fights.” And yet, a series of events and friendships led Wood to the White House, and very nearly to becoming the POTUS in 1920. He was lucky to attend Harvard, one of only two schools in the country at the time where medicine was, as McCallum put it, “going from being a cult to being a science.” After failing in private practice, he signed up as a contract surgeon in the army. The timing coincided with Geronimo’s escape from a reservation in Arizona, and Wood participated in the hunt for the fugitive Apache leader through the mountains of northern Mexico, which represented one of the key moments in “the closing of the American frontier.” He later earned a Congressional Medal of Honor for his service.
Following Wood’s Arizona campaign, McCallum says, “he talked his way into” an assignment as a surgeon in Washington DC. There, in 1890, he married Louise Adriana Condit Smith, whose legal guardian was Supreme Court Justice Stephen Field; the entirety of SCOTUS attended the wedding. This led to his development of a bond based upon hunting and card-playing with outgoing President Grover Cleveland. Wood remained in the “executive inner circle” of Washington, in part because the incoming President McKinley’s wife, Ida, was, according to McCallum, “an incorrigible hypochondriac,” and the doctor was “perfectly willing to sit at her bedside, hold her hand, and commiserate with her over illnesses that she didn’t have.” At the time, Wood’s rank was still only that of captain in the medical corps, so the access that he had gained to the president was truly remarkable. It also led to Wood befriending the young Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt wrote to his wife back in Oyster Bay, NY, “I met a most interesting Doctor Wood from the United States Army who just went through all of that Apache campaign.” They became inseparable friends and remained close for the rest of their lives. McCallum states, “They were young men in a fairly stodgy Washington, and they were not stodgy men.”
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