Selfless Service of Theodore W. Miller

Selfless Service of Theodore W. Miller

Have you ever walked by a memorial plaque and wonder about the story behind it? Why did people spend the time, money and effort to erect it? Or like most of us, you walked by without even noticing it. This story is about a memorial plaque with name Theodore Westwood Miller affixed to it. He was born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth. He was the epitome of the “golden boy.” What he did next may surprise you.


Theodore W. Miller

Selfless service, silver spoon

Theodore Miller was the youngest son of Lewis Miller, a successful manufacturer of farm machinery. Born in 1874, he grew up on the family’s estate in Ohio. He spent his summers active in sports and competed in rowing on the lakes.

His older sister Mina married Thomas A. Edison, the inventor of the light bulb. His brother in law sent him expensive gifts while growing up such as chemistry sets and a printing press. He attended a prestigious boys’ prep school and went on to graduate from Yale University in 1897. Theodore was rich, handsome, popular, athletic and well-connected.

By 1898, Theodore Miller was living in New York about to begin law school. He was known as “Thede” by his close friends which included David Goodrich, the son of B.F. Goodrich the rubber tycoon. His other pal was Hamilton Fish II, the son of the governor of New York.

Thede seemed to have it all. There were no limits for him. It was merely a matter of what path he might choose in life. The United States was on the brink of war with Spain. Spain’s oppressive policies in Cuba heated the American people to enthusiasm for action. Once the war was declared, a call for volunteers followed. Remarkably, what Miller wanted was to be a soldier. Instead of a life destined for the comforts of his education, family, and connections, he chose selfless service to his country.

Enlistment in the Rough Riders

Thede decided to enlist as a private rather than seek an officer’s commission. Surprisingly, his father was wholly supportive. Lewis Miller regretted not serving in the Civil War, and he endorsed his son joining the cause.

Thede secured a position with the 1st U.S. Volunteer Calvary (1st USVC), also known as Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. His close friends David Goodrich and Hamilton Fish joined the regiment along with Thede. By the time Thede gained acceptance, he had missed the training that took place in San Antonio, Texas and joined the unit in Tampa, Florida and deployed to Cuba with the regiment.


Theodore W Miller muster document Rough Riders, 1898

Deployment to Cuba

By the end of June 1898, Thede was a combat veteran. He disembarked the transport ships at the makeshift landing at Siboney, Cuba and marched into the steaming jungles. Over 50 of the men became stragglers the first day due to heat exhaustion, yet Thede persevered. On June 24, the Rough Rider’s engaged in battle with the Spanish Army at Las Guasimas, Cuba.


Troop D 1st USVC, aka, “Rough Riders” Tampa, Florida, 1898

Battle at Las Guasimas

The Rough Riders defeated Spanish forces before them in the vicinity of Las Guasimas. However, the regiment paid the price. The Rough Riders lost one officer and seven men killed while three officers and 29 men were wounded in action. Thede lost his close friend Hamilton Fish in the opening shots. Fortunately, Thede escaped injury and actively continued the march. The Rough Riders continued to advance stopping at the base of San Juan Hill. It was here where the Rough Riders made their infamous charge up Kettle Hill.

Battle at San Juan Hill

Spanish forces held the terrain having the advantage over American troops at the heights of San Juan on the outskirts of Santiago, Cuba. Deadly Spanish cannon and machine-gun fire poured into the men. They hugged the ground seeking what little protection they could find. Instead of staying put and continue to be cut to pieces, the Rough Riders charged up the hill defended by Spanish trenches and blockhouses.

Thede’s friend David Goodrich was there that day. He recalls in a letter to Thede’s parents, “We went up the hill to the right of the house. There we halted a few moments and fired into the trenches of the second blockhouse. There I laid down beside Thede and took a couple of shots. He seemed to be enjoying himself.”

Goodrich continues, “I was then sent over to order a troop which was deployed to our right to charge. The first lieutenant of our troop ordered a charge at the same time. Just as they came over the hill, five of our men dropped, almost at the same instant. Thede was one of them.”

Goodrich ran to his friend. “I found Thede lying on the ground with a couple of men pushing his shirt back from his shoulders,” Goodrich wrote. “I asked him if was badly hurt. He smiled and said, no, he thought not.” He was still alive, but his fight was over.

Thede Miller Memorial

Thede was actually in bad shape. The bullet entered his shoulder, severed his spine and exited his body. The regiment transported him the five miles to a field hospital beyond its capacity. Thede dictated a letter to his mother, assuring her that he would be all right. In the field hospital, he whispered to a friend.“I’m going, Harry, but it’s in a good cause, isn’t it?” Thede did not recover from his wounds. Theodore Westwood Miller died in Cuba on July 8, 1898, seven days after making the charge up San Juan Hill.

Thede was a favorite of many of his classmates. His death did not go unnoticed. Soon after learning of his death, friends and classmates sprung into action by creating a fund to memorialize him. The Theodore Westwood Miller memorial gate was built and dedicated the following year at his alma mater, Yale University. It stands between Battell Chapel and Durfee Hall facing Elm Street to this day.


Theodore W. Miller Memorial Gate, Yale University 1899


Theodore W. Miller Memorial Gate, Yale University 2017, photo credit Google

A life of Selfless Service

This story of selfless service caught my attention because Theodore Miller had it all, yet chose a path to serve his country. He believed what he was doing was just and right. The man had wealth, education, connections, and friendships. He chose selfless service for the ideal of freedom and countering oppression. I find this remarkable as this is not always the case in our current culture of consumerism, self-promotion and a “me first” mentality. I think it is a gentle reminder to us all what it means to serve. Selfless service is about people willing to act for the benefit of others.

Stories of selfless service always inspire me. I am very grateful to have served and witnessed dedicated and professional men and women from across the globe from many different countries who lead a life of selfless service to the country from which they came.  I’ve served in combat zones around the world with Australians, British, Romanians, South Koreans, Germans, Slovaks, French, Italians, Iraqis, Afghanis, and many others. The one thing I noticed in the profession of arms, was the virtue of selfless service among them.


Not everyone has a passion or inclination for military service. The idea of any service performed selflessly, is a virtue that can be nurtured. There are boundless opportunities for selfless service in our communities, schools, civic organizations or religious affiliations. If everyone acted selfless service in a small way, this world would be just a little bit better.

I recommend the following book that contains extensive research on the backgrounds of the men who led the charge with Thede Miller. Rough Riders: Theodore Roosevelt, His Cowboy Regiment, and the Immortal Charge Up San Juan Hill by Mark Lee Gardner.

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