As reported by USNI News, Captain Brett Crozier was recently relieved of command of the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) by Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly for showing “extremely poor judgement” while attempting to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 among the 4,800 members of his crew. According to Modly, Crozier allowed a letter he wrote to his chain of command, which outlines his view of the problem the ship faces and the immediate support he requires to deal with it, to reach informal channels by sending an email out “pretty broadly.” While not sent directly from Crozier, a copy of the letter ultimately fell into the hands of a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle where it was published to wide national interest.
Modly’s firing of Crozier has raised criticism across mainstream and social media, with many claiming Cozier’s leaking of the letter put the spurs to an unresponsive chain of command and ultimately saved lives and that Modly fired the commanding officer because he embarrassed high-ranking officials. Modly has responded to that criticism by stating that Cozier’s actions actually slowed down a process that was already in motion and induced fear among the aircraft carrier crew’s dependents.
In an interesting twist of history, the aircraft carrier’s namesake was involved in a similar situation. During the summer of 1898, Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, U.S. Army, was leading the famed “Rough Riders” in Cuba. The Rough Riders were part of the Army’s Fifth Corps garrisoned near Santiago de Cuba. At the time, more than 4,000 of the Fifth Corps’ 4,270 soldiers were sick with malaria and yellow fever. Many were on the verge of dying. The eight divisional commanders, including Roosevelt, were convinced that if they remained in Cuba Fifth Corps would be wiped out.
The divisional commanders met with Major General William R. Shafter, Fifth Corps Commander, and requested that Fifth Corps immediately redeploy to the United States. While it is unclear how Shafter responded to the request, he was certainly aware that President McKinley wanted to maintain a military presence in Cuba until the United States was able to finish peace negotiations with Spain. Whatever his reaction, the divisional commanders left the meeting compelled to put their request in writing.
The writing allegedly fell to Colonel Roosevelt, as he was the lowest ranking officer among them and the only volunteer, which meant he had the least to lose, career-wise, in the event the chain of command was to react negatively to the letter. As documented in Roosevelt’s book The Rough Riders, published in 1899, the letter, known as the Round-Robin letter and signed by all of them, reads as follows:
MAJOR-GENERAL SHAFTER. SIR: In a meeting of the general and medical officers called by you at the Palace this morning we were all, as you know, unanimous in our views of what should be done with the army. To keep us here, in the opinion of every officer commanding a division or a brigade, will simply involve the destruction of thousands. There is no possible reason for not shipping practically the entire command North at once. Yellow-fever cases are very few in the cavalry division, where I command one of the two brigades, and not one true case of yellow fever has occurred in this division, except among the men sent to the hospital at Siboney, where they have, I believe, contracted it. But in this division there have been 1,500 cases of malarial fever. Hardly a man has yet died from it, but the whole command is so weakened and shattered as to be ripe for dying like rotten sheep, when a real yellow-fever epidemic instead of a fake epidemic, like the present one, strikes us, as it is bound to do if we stay here at the height of the sickness season, August and the beginning of September. Quarantine against malarial fever is much like quarantining against the toothache. All of us are certain that as soon as the authorities at Washington fully appreciate the condition of the army, we shall be sent home. If we are kept here it will in all human possibility mean an appalling disaster, for the surgeons here estimate that over half the army, if kept here during the sickly season, will die. This is not only terrible from the stand-point of the individual lives lost, but it means ruin from the stand-point of military efficiency of the flower of the American army, for the great bulk of the regulars are here with you. The sick list, large though it is, exceeding four thousand, affords but a faint index of the debilitation of the army. Not twenty per cent. are fit for active work. Six weeks on the North Maine coast, for instance, or elsewhere where the yellow-fever germ cannot possibly propagate, would make us all as fit as fighting-cocks, as able as we are eager to take a leading part in the great campaign against Havana in the fall, even if we are not allowed to try Porto Rico. We can be moved North, if moved at once, with absolute safety to the country, although, of course, it would have been infinitely better if we had been moved North or to Porto Rico two weeks ago. If there were any object in keeping us here, we would face yellow fever with as much indifference as we faced bullets. But there is no object. The four immune regiments ordered here are sufficient to garrison the city and surrounding towns, and there is absolutely nothing for us to do here, and there has not been since the city surrendered. It is impossible to move into the interior. Every shifting of camp doubles the sick-rate in our present weakened condition, and, anyhow, the interior is rather worse than the coast, as I have found by actual reconnoissance. Our present camps are as healthy as any camps at this end of the island can be. I write only because I cannot see our men, who have fought so bravely and who have endured extreme hardship and danger so uncomplainingly, go to destruction without striving so far as lies in me to avert a doom as fearful as it is unnecessary and undeserved. Yours respectfully,THEODORE ROOSEVELT, Colonel Commanding Second Cavalry Brigade.
Roosevelt delivered the letter to Shafter, but, presumably not convinced the corps commander would act on it in a timely fashion, also allegedly handed a copy of it to the Associated Press correspondent who was covering the Cuba beat. That correspondent quickly cabled the letter to AP headquarters and it published nationwide the same day.
The public outcry was overwhelming and unanimous in accusing the McKinley Administration of not caring about the troops. McKinley summoned his Secretary of War, Russell A. Alger, and vented his fury that the letter was leaked and ordered him to do what he could to make the problem go away. Alger ordered the Navy to send transport ships to retrieve Fifth Corps from Cuba and the Army to ready facilities at Camp Wikoff on Long Island to house the stricken soldiers once they arrived back in the United States.
Alger demurred when asked by the press whether the leak had caused him to react faster than he otherwise would have; however, he was on record as previously having asserted that no ships were available to bring Fifth Corps back from Cuba.