Know Your Military

Medal of Honor Monday: Army 1st Lt. James Church

June 24, 2019 | BY Katie Lange

President Theodore Roosevelt's famous charge up San Juan Hill in Cuba during the Spanish-American War earned him the Medal of Honor, but another lesser-known "Rough Rider" also earned it saving several men beyond the scope of his job in the medical field.

James Robb Church was born in Chicago in 1866. He graduated from Columbia Medical College in New York City in 1893 before moving to Washington. That's where he was commissioned into the Army as a first lieutenant and given the job of assistant surgeon with the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry — the famous "Rough Riders" led by then-Colonel Roosevelt. They were a group of skilled frontiersmen with a reputation of being one of the stronger, more disciplined volunteer units during the Spanish-American War.

A man in 1800s-era suit and glasses poses with the Medal of Honor around his neck.
James Robb Church
Army Medical Corps Capt. James Robb Church.
Photo By: Army photo
VIRIN: 060110-A-ZZ999-189

According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, the unit's senior medical officer was absent during much of their stay in Cuba, where the war was being waged, meaning Church was serving as the main regimental surgeon.

Church earned the Medal of Honor on June 24, 1898, during the Battle of Las Guasimas, the first land engagement of the war. U.S. soldiers were trying to storm Spanish positions in the jungle areas of Cuba surrounding the southeast coastal town of Santiago.

Eventually, volleys of gunfire broke out from each side, and men were getting hit. According to a 1906 article from the Princeton Alumni Weekly, "Church was not content to remain in the rear while his comrades were engaged with the enemy. He was on the firing line constantly, going to the rescue of wounded soldiers and, under the heavy fire of the enemy, carried them unaided to places of safety."

Soldiers in wide-brimmed hats sit atop trenches topped with sandbags and rifles ready for firing; one man standing in the center waves his hat.
American Soldiers
American soldiers sit atop trenches near Santiago, Cuba, during a truce in 1898.
Photo By: Library of Congress
VIRIN: 980626-O-ZZ999-410C

To save his men, Church put himself in grave danger. Before long, though, the Americans had pushed the Spaniards into retreat. But Church had more work to do — he was in charge of the hospital during the days after the fighting ceased and the dreaded Cuban fever was circulating.

For his bravery during the battle, Church was appointed as an assistant surgeon in the regular Army later that year. He had earned the rank of captain by the time he received the Medal of Honor on Jan. 10, 1906. Church was the first recipient to get it at the White House from the president — who just happened to be his former commander, Roosevelt.

Several soldiers wearing wide-brimmed hats stand around a U.S. flag with then-Army Col. Theodore Roosevelt.
Rough Riders
Army Col. Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders pose at the top of the hill they captured in the Battle of San Juan during the Spanish-American War in 1898.
Photo By: National Archives
VIRIN: 980701-O-ZZ999-293

Church continued in his role with the military for many more years. He also served during World War I, where he volunteered while in his 50s to serve as an attache with the French army. He even wrote about his long experience as a war surgeon in his memoir titled "The Doctor's Part: What Happens to the Wounded In War," which was published in 1918.

Church was a colonel when he finally separated from the Army. He died on May 18, 1923, and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

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.