As America expanded its influence across the world at the end of the 19th century, it began to grow its military prowess to match. Some of the expansion’s success was thanks to Army Maj. Gen. Leonard Wood, who earned the Medal of Honor at the very beginning of what became a very distinguished career.
Wood was born on Oct. 9, 1860, in Winchester, New Hampshire, but he and his brother and sister were raised in Massachusetts. According to the Mayflower Society, they were the descendants of four pilgrims.
Wood’s family was able to put him through private school as a child. He wanted to attend the Naval Academy, but he didn’t get an appointment. Luckily for Wood, he met a philanthropist who decided to fund his Harvard Medical School education.
Wood graduated from Harvard in 1884. He spent about a year practicing in Boston before the prospects of a medical career in the military attracted him, so he was contracted by the Army in the summer of 1885 to work as an assistant surgeon. On Jan. 5, 1886, a then 25-year-old Wood commissioned into the Army as a medical officer at Fort Huachuca, Arizona.
Wood earned his Medal of Honor that same year while under the command of Army Capt. Henry Lawton, whose units were tasked with capturing Geronimo, the prominent Apache leader who had been leading many of his followers on continued escapes off the reservations on which they were forced to live.
As Army units chased Geronimo across the sweltering deserts of Arizona and Mexico, the Native Americans continually evaded them. On one such occasion, Wood was with Lawton in the railroad town of Calabasas, Arizona, when Geronimo and his followers escaped their grasp once again. Because of this, Lawton needed someone to travel immediately north to a telegraph station to wire his commanding officer, Army Gen. Nelson Miles, for their next orders. However, it was evening, and the locals refused to make the journey at night.
Wood, who had just finished marching 20 miles, volunteered to go on the treacherous journey through a region filled with hostile natives. He and another man started the journey on horseback at 4 p.m. Within a few hours, though, the second man couldn’t continue, so Wood finished the journey alone. By the time Wood made it to the telegraph station, received his orders and gotten back to Lawton’s camp, he had ridden 70 miles.
The next day, Wood’s horse was exhausted. But Lawton wanted to get an early start to follow Miles’ orders, so Wood ended up marching 30 more miles by foot to their next destination.
Wood eventually received the Medal of Honor for that exhausting mission, as well as for taking over command of an 8th Infantry detachment after all the officers were lost. That detachment didn’t capture Geronimo during the weeks the Army pursued him, but it was part of the expedition that wore him down.
Geronimo eventually surrendered along the Arizona-New Mexico border. He was the last Native American warrior to give in to U.S. forces, which signaled the end of the so-called Indian Wars in the Southwest.
Medal of Honor … and Controversy
According to a biography of Wood written by Jack McCallum, “some in the Army didn’t think Wood was deserving of the honor because of his status as a medical officer. Many also didn’t believe that chasing Geronimo across the desert counted as combat, which was a requirement for earning the medal. Furthermore, no other officers involved in the manhunt received similar honors.”
Their concerns, however, were dispelled. For his actions during the Indian Wars, Wood received the Medal of Honor on April 8, 1898, a few weeks before the Spanish-American War began.
Making A Name For Himself
Despite the controversy surrounding the high honor, the rest of Wood’s career may have made up for it.
By 1891, Wood had gotten married and been promoted to captain. The following year, he was assigned to Washington, D.C., where he became the personal physician to President Grover Cleveland and then President William McKinley. He also met and became close with future-President Teddy Roosevelt.
During the Spanish-American War, Wood and Roosevelt — who at that time was the assistant secretary of the Navy — organized and commanded the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry Regiment, which famously became known as the Rough Riders. Roosevelt took over command of the regiment from Wood when Wood was promoted to be the military governor general of Cuba in December 1899.
Over the next two years, Wood transformed the troubled island, restoring order by establishing educational and political systems and instituting better sanitation to cut down on disease. In March 1902, Wood turned over the reins of Cuba’s government to its first president.
Wood was promoted to major general in August 1903 and served as a provincial governor of the Philippines before being named as the commander of the Army’s Department of the East as it worked to quell rebellions by Filipino nationalists. By 1910, he was appointed as chief of staff of the Army.
Over the course of the next four years, Wood went to great lengths to prepare the Army for the challenges of World War I. According to his obituary in the 1927 newspaper The Wilkes-Barre (Pennsylvania) Record, “Wood repeatedly risked censure from the War Department because of his untiring efforts to promote national defense and preparedness measures. It was his personal influence alone that resulted in the establishment of civilian training camps.” The obituary continued, “Wood had the satisfaction of seeing more than 4,000,000 men trained under the theories first applied at his civilian camps, and he also accepted the responsibility of establishing some 30 divisional campsites throughout the country.”
When the U.S. entered World War I, Wood continued to train troops at home. He was in the running to command the American Expeditionary Forces in Europe, but that honor was given to Army Gen. John Pershing.
Wood unsuccessfully ran for the 1920 Republican presidential nomination and retired from the Army in 1921. That same year, the man who beat him for the nomination, President Warren G. Harding, appointed Wood as the governor general of the Philippines.
Wood remained in that position until he died on Aug. 7, 1927, at a Boston hospital. Wood had traveled back to where he began his career to have surgery to remove a recurrent brain tumor. He was 67.
Wood is buried in Arlington National Cemetery near his fellow Rough Riders. As Army Col. Carmi A. Thompson said after Wood’s death, “history will point to him as one of America’s great soldiers and leading statesmen.”
About a decade after Wood’s death, a crisis again started brewing in Europe, so the U.S. prepared for the inevitable by building up its forces once again. In 1940, the War Department broke ground on a new training center in south central Missouri. It opened in January 1941 and was named Fort Leonard Wood in his honor. Wood’s Medal of Honor is currently held at the Army Engineer Museum on Fort Leonard Wood.
This article is part of a weekly series called “Medal of Honor Monday,” in which we highlight one of the more than 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military’s highest medal for valor.
Source: Department of Defense