The Philippine War, 1899–1902

“We are bound for googoo land now,” Lieutenant Edward A. Bumpus remarked as the army transport ship steamed through the tropical evening dusk. Aboard were 77 men in heavy blue woolen shirts, khaki trousers, and floppy felt campaign hats. Ahead of them lay a clearing with 200 or so thatch-roofed huts resting on stilts, a church building, and a meeting hall, all squeezed precariously between the vast, forbidding mountainous jungle and the shark-infested Leyte Gulf. This was the village of Balangiga, located at the southernmost tip of Samar, the third largest island in the Philippine archipelago. On August 11, 1901, the men of Company C, 9th U.S. Infantry, splashed ashore to a surprisingly boisterous welcome from the Filipino residents. The troopers expected a spell of routine occupation duty at the tail end of a war they thought was almost over.

More than three years before, the burgeoning power of the United States had dismembered the remains of the Spanish empire and put the Philippines under the Stars and Stripes. The Filipinos stubbornly resisted their new colonial masters, and though successive U.S. generals proclaimed victory at hand, American soldiers kept dying in ambushes, telegraph lines kept getting cut, and army convoys kept being attacked. Among the most stubborn of guerrilla commanders was General Vincente Lukban, scion of a rich family of mixed Chinese and Tagalog origin who directed resistance on Samar. Lukban’s men had begun by executing all the Spanish clergy on the island and replacing them with native priests. Afterward they targeted not only Americans but also their collaborators, burying three americanistas alive, tying another to a tree and hacking him to bits. The Americans retaliated in kind, occasionally torturing suspected guerrilla sympathizers to elicit information, sometimes killing prisoners, and routinely burning the homes and crops of villagers who harbored insurrectos.

It was not at all the kind of conflict that soldiers like. This dirty war offered no heroic charges, no brilliant maneuvers, no dazzling victories. Just the daily frustrations of battling an unseen foe in the dense, almost impassable jungle. For Company C, this was an unwelcome contrast to the excitement of recent years, when the men had fought in Cuba (the Spanish-American War) and north China (the Boxer Uprising), distinguishing themselves at San Juan Hill, Tientsin, and Peking. There was no campaign to be waged in Balangiga, in fact not much to do: no gambling dens, no bars, no bordellos, not even regular mail calls. The men were afflicted with malaria and homesickness and boredom. One private went mad. Another committed suicide.

The most immediate task at hand was sanitation. The Americans were disgusted by what they found. “On the ground beneath the flooring, the natives threw every kind of filth, and it was rarely one could approach a hut without holding his nose,” complained Company C’s trumpeter. The company commander, Captain Thomas W. Connell, a by-the-book West Pointer and a “young, vigorous, zealous officer,” demanded that the Filipinos clean up the mess, which he considered a breeding ground for diseases like cholera. They refused. So he rounded up local men and forced them into “policing” their village at gunpoint. Then he confined them in tents too small to hold so many comfortably. Naturally they resented their involuntary servitude.

The captain was blissfully unaware of the villagers’ true feelings. Connell thought that as a fellow Catholic he had special empathy for the villagers, and that he and his men were welcome because Pedro Abayan, Balangiga’s presidente (mayor), had asked the army to send a contingent to protect the town from “pirates.” What Connell did not know was that Abayan had separately written to General Lukban, telling him that he had adopted a “deceptive policy” with “the enemy” and that “when a favorable opportunity arises, the people will strategically rise up against them.” That letter was one of many captured by an army raid on Lukban’s headquarters on August 13, 1901, but it moved so slowly up the army chain of command that it never reached Company C in time.

The men of Company C had already spent more than a month in Balangiga when on Friday, September 26, 1901, the first of 80 burly laborers mysteriously appeared from the jungle to help with the cleanup. Captain Connell did not suspect that they were actually Lukban’s insurrectos.

On Sunday, September 28, the bugler sounded reveille at 5:30 A.M., and following roll call the men poured out of the village meeting hall, used as a barracks, to head for the mess tent. Most of them were unarmed; only three sentries were left on duty. The town’s police chief, Pardo Sanchez, casually strolled up to one of them, grabbed his rifle, and smashed him on the head with its butt. At that moment the church bells began pealing, the surrounding jungle resonated with the sound of conch shells being blown, the doors of the church flew open, and hundreds of bolomen poured into the streets of Balangiga, “yelling like devils.”

Some of them rushed for the convent, which had been converted into officers’ quarters. Captain Connell was caught in his room, still in his pajamas. He jumped out of his second-story window and landed in the plaza, only to be hacked to death by at least 20 bolomen. Company C’s other two officers were also killed right away.

The men in the mess tent and the barracks were similarly unprepared. A sergeant bending over a vat of boiling water to wash his mess kit was attacked with an ax and pitched head first into the water, with only his legs protruding. Another sergeant’s head was cleaved right off his neck and plopped onto his plate. In just 15 minutes, 38 officers and men were killed—and of the 36 survivors, most were wounded, many severely. One private, a survivor later recalled, “was crawling on his hands and feet like a stabbed pig, his brains falling out through the wound he had received.”

Those not killed in the initial assault fought ferociously for their lives with whatever came to hand—knives and forks, picks and shovels, rocks and a baseball bat. A cook threw a pot of boiling coffee in the faces of his assailants and then pelted them with canned goods. Some of the men reached the barracks where the company’s rifles were stored, grabbed their .30 caliber Krag Jorgensens and “starting pumping lead into the ‘googoos.’” They drove the attackers out of Balangiga, at least for the time being, but they knew that to survive they had to reach another U.S. garrison, and the only way to do that was by water. Under the direction of Sergeant Frank Betron, 36 survivors, most wounded, staggered down to the beach and clambered into five barotos (wooden canoes with double outriggers), clutching a handful of provisions and the U.S. flag that had been fluttering above their parade ground.

“We at last shoved off, thanking God we were leaving, and thinking the worst of our troubles were over. But our troubles had hardly started,” a private wrote. The Americans fired their rifles to hold off Filipinos in pursuing boats, but sharks were not so easy to drive off; a school of them followed the canoes, drawn by the blood dripping into the water. Fresh water ran out about noon. “Words cannot express our state of mind with that tropical sun burning down on our heads, no water to drink, and the salt water causing excruciating pain as it soaked into our wounds. But God favored us with delirium, and I don’t think any of us can tell all that happened that afternoon.”

Not until dawn the next day did the survivors finally reach the U.S. outpost at Basey, 30 miles up the coast. Just 26 men out of Company C’s original roster of 74 survived the ordeal, and all but four of them were wounded.

Stationed at Basey was Company G, also of the 9th Infantry. Their reaction to the news of their comrades killed and wounded can only be imagined. Captain Edwin V. Bookmiller, the Basey commander, set off for Balangiga aboard a steamer with 55 of his men and eight survivors from Company C. They arrived at 12:30 P.M. on Monday, September 29, 1901. As they got to within 500 yards of shore, they opened fire, driving out of the village any remaining Filipinos, who took with them 52 working rifles and 26,000 rounds of ammunition. In Balangiga, they found smoldering buildings and a series of harrowing sights: Corpses stripped naked, some burned or hacked beyond recognition; Lieutenant Bumpus, a bolo slash across his face filled in with strawberry jam to lure ants from the jungle; even the company dog was dead, its eyes gouged out and replaced with stones. The men of Company G gathered up the dead Americans and buried them in a mass grave. There were also some dead natives strewn about, though the Filipinos had taken many of their dead with them, making an accurate count of their losses impossible to calculate (estimates ranged from 50 to 250 dead). “After burying dead,” Captain Bookmiller noted laconically in his report, “burned the town and returned to Basey.”

The news of the Balangiga “massacre” made front-page headlines in the United States. The press compared it to the Alamo and the Little Bighorn in the annals of the country’s military disasters. As they read the gruesome details, more than a few Americans must have wondered what their sons were doing, 7,000 miles from home, still fighting and dying in a war whose conclusion had been officially announced more than once. Subjugating the Philippines was turning out to be a lot harder than promised.

“Splendid Little War”

The conflict in the Philippines was the unwelcome and unforeseen offspring of that “splendid little war,” as Secretary of State John Hay famously described the Spanish-American War. The war against Spain had come about in 1898 in large part because Americans wanted to free the Cubans from the yoke of Spanish oppression. Few realized that the first shots would be fired in the Far East. But that was the logic of war plans drawn up by the Navy Department under the guidance of Assistant Secretary Theodore Roosevelt. Those plans called for the U.S. Asiatic Fleet to head to Manila upon the outbreak of hostilities and destroy the Spanish warships based there.

Commodore George Dewey carried out those instructions to perfection. At 5:45 A.M. on May 1, 1898, Dewey gave the order that would become a catchphrase, “You may fire when you are ready, Gridley,” to Captain Charles V. Gridley, captain of the USS Olympia. In the next seven hours the more modern U.S. fleet proceeded to sink all but one of the Spanish vessels. Spain suffered 371 casualties, the U.S. only nine wounded and one dead, of heatstroke. Dewey became a national hero overnight, but he was left with one major problem: what to do about the Spanish army still in possession of the Philippines. A naval victory was all very well, but ships could not occupy land.

The Spanish, who had ruled the Philippines for more than 300 years, already had their hands full with a native uprising that had started in 1896, led by a 27-year-old provincial mayor named Emilio Aguinaldo y Famy. A small man of mixed Tagalog and Chinese ancestry, born into a moderately well-to-do family, Aguinaldo had little schooling—he had dropped out at 13 to help run the family businesses, his father having died when he was just nine—but he had no shortage of charisma, shrewdness, and eloquence. With no formal military training, he proved himself to be a talented guerrilla leader, driving the Spanish out of his native Cavite province, at least temporarily. He became the undisputed leader of the independence movement after engineering the execution of a rival, Andres Bonifacio.

Unfortunately, this infighting weakened the independence movement just as the Spanish were stepping up their attacks. Aguinaldo was forced to abandon Cavite, but he displayed considerable skill in evading his Spanish pursuers, establishing an unimpregnable stronghold in the mountains north of Manila. Unable to defeat the rebels, the Spanish tried to buy them off. Aguinaldo accepted an offer of 800,000 pesos in return for his pledge to leave the country, but he had no intention of giving up the struggle. He merely relocated to Hong Kong with some aides and used the Spanish lucre to buy more arms. In Hong Kong and Singapore he sought backing from the local U.S. counsels, offering to help America in its war with Spain. The American envoys were enthusiastic—so enthusiastic that Aguinaldo later claimed that they had pledged U.S. support for Philippine independence. If so, they exceeded their authority.

Having sunk the Spanish fleet, Dewey now sent a cutter to Hong Kong to fetch Aguinaldo. When the two men met aboard Dewey’s flagship, the Olympia, anchored in Manila harbor, they were a study in contrasts. The young Filipino, not yet 30, was an unprepossessing sight, with his slight stature, face pockmarked by smallpox scars, and rumpled khaki uniform complemented by a captured Spanish sword. Rear Admiral Dewey was equally diminutive, but he was more than twice Aguinaldo’s age, sporting silver hair and a mustache to match, resplendent as always in his sharply creased, white dress uniform, and basking in his new-found celebrity and rank. The two men, different in so many ways, also offered sharply different accounts of what occurred that day, May 19, 1898, and in subsequent encounters. Aguinaldo claimed Dewey promised him U.S. support for an independent Philippines; Dewey protested that he had said no such thing. Aguinaldo may have been so desperate for American backing that he read more into Dewey’s vague assurances than the admiral intended. All that Dewey wanted was for Aguinaldo’s men to engage the Spanish army until American troops arrived. He told the rebel leader, “Go ashore and start your army.”

Even before Aguinaldo went ashore, the Filipino army had already sprung into existence, led by capable regional commanders, and before long the Filipinos had won control of almost the entire archipelago, leaving only Manila in Spanish hands. On June 12, 1898, Aguinaldo and other Filipino leaders issued a declaration of independence based on the U.S. model. Dewey refused to attend the ceremonies or to give any recognition to the new government. At the end of June the first U.S. troops began arriving in the Philippines, part of a 12,500-man expeditionary force sent by President McKinley with a vague goal: to “complete the reduction of Spanish power in the archipelago” and provide “order and security to the islands while in the possession of the United States.”

The U.S. troops found Filipino forces already entrenched around Manila. After delicate negotiations Aguinaldo agreed to let the norteamericanos pass through his lines. The commanders of the 15,000 Spanish soldiers trapped inside the capital had no desire to fight, but feared the consequences should their former subjects take over. So they negotiated an elaborate hoax with Admiral Dewey whereby the U.S. troops would lob a few shells into Manila and then the Spanish could surrender “under fire.” The sham “battle” of Manila occurred on August 13, 1898. Unfortunately the troops on the ground had not been let in on the joke. When they heard the firing, some of the Spanish soldiers panicked and started shooting back. Six Americans and 49 Spaniards died before the Spanish governor-general managed to surrender the city as intended. U.S. troops occupied Manila, keeping the Philippine army out at gunpoint.

The Filipinos, who had done the bulk of the fighting and dying, were given no role in the surrender ceremony. They were understandably aggrieved.

Treaty of Paris

Now that the United States found itself unexpectedly in possession of the Philippines, or at least its capital, President McKinley had to figure out what to do with it. Most Republicans were screaming for annexation. But the famously indecisive, inscrutable president temporized and agonized. “I walked the floor of the White House night after night until midnight,” he later told a group of Methodist missionaries, “and I am not ashamed to tell you, gentlemen, that I went down on my knees and prayed Almighty God for light and guidance more than one night. And one night late it came to me this way . . . that there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos and uplift them and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the best we could by them, as our own fellowmen for whom Christ also died.” Most Filipinos were already Christian, Catholic to be precise, but never mind. McKinley’s thinking very much reflected the twin currents of Protestant piety and American jingoism that defined the turn-of-the-century zeitgeist.

There were also more practical reasons for grabbing the Philippines. The race for colonies was in full swing, and Americans feared that they would be locked out of the Asian market. The British already had a naval base at Hong Kong that gave them access to China; many strategists argued the U.S. needed its own base, and what better place than near Manila? But the War and Navy departments warned that it was impractical to confine the U.S. presence to Manila and the naval town of Cavite; if a European empire or Japan gobbled up the rest of the islands those American outposts would become indefensible. As if to confirm those fears, the German navy, dispatched by a kaiser lusting after colonies, was shadowing Dewey’s fleet. McKinley feared that if the U.S. did not annex the Philippines, Germany or Japan or some other power would step in, to the detriment of not only American but Filipino interests.

That the Philippines could be self-governing was not a notion seriously entertained in Washington. Based on what scant information he had about life in the islands, McKinley concluded that Aguinaldo was not a popular leader, especially among non-Tagalogs, and that, absent outside rule, the archipelago would sink into chaos and conflict between competing ethnic groups.

The president therefore wired U.S. representatives meeting in Paris with Spanish envoys to demand all of the Philippines as well as Guam and Puerto Rico as the price of peace. The treaty ending the Spanish-American War was signed on December 10, 1898. The U.S. paid Spain $20 million and thereby acquired title to the Philippines, with its 7,108 islands and some 7 million inhabitants. McKinley issued a proclamation announcing the U.S. goal as “benevolent assimilation.”

To make good on the president’s pledge, the U.S. occupation army undertook a wide variety of improvements in Manila—cleaning up the unsanitary conditions left behind by the Spanish, vaccinating the inhabitants, repairing roads, building schools, and generally making the city bustle again. This work was only partly altruistic, since its larger purpose was to make Manila more livable for the army of occupation. But most Filipinos had no desire to be “assimilated,” benevolently or otherwise. Tensions mounted between the U.S. troops in Manila and the Philippine soldiers who surrounded them. Some of Aguinaldo’s men attacked American soldiers; some American soldiers attacked Aguinaldo’s men.

Although some historians have hinted that there was an American conspiracy to provoke a clash, the reality is that neither side was eager to commence hostilities. McKinley, with his memories of service as a Union major in the Civil War, had seen enough dying to last him a lifetime. Besides, he hoped that if he waited long enough, Filipino resistance would crumble. Aguinaldo, for his part, hoped that if he waited long enough, the U.S. Senate would refuse to ratify the Treaty of Paris.

As the Filipino leader was well aware, there was substantial opposition to annexation in the United States. A virtual who’s who of prominent Americans, including Grover Cleveland, Andrew Carnegie, Samuel Gompers, William James, Jane Addams, and Mark Twain, joined the Anti-Imperialist League. Carnegie, one of America’s richest men, even offered to buy the islands himself for $20 million in order to set them free. Many of these worthies were old-fashioned “mugwumps” who believed America could best serve the world by setting a shining example at home. Another, less high-minded strain of opposition to annexation came from Southern Democrats such as Senator “Pitchfork Ben” Tillmann who opposed mixing with “Asiatic hybrids” and “inferior races” and feared that Caucasian workers could not compete with “those who live on a bowl of rice and a rat a day.”

But those resisting annexation were swamped by a tidal wave of imperialist sentiment. Led by the likes of Theodore Roosevelt, the advocates of annexation represented the coming generation whose “progressivism” at home was matched by imperialism abroad. Although they made appeals to America’s security and commercial interests, their primary pitch was idealistic. Albert J. Beveridge, the newly elected senator from Indiana, thundered: “God has not been preparing the English-speaking and Teutonic peoples for a thousand years for nothing but vain and idle self-contemplation and self-admiration. . . . He has made us adepts in government that we may administer government among savage and senile peoples.” The English poet Rudyard Kipling joined in, urging the U.S. to “take up the white man’s burden” in a poem of the same name, subtitled “The United States and the Philippine Islands.”

The Senate did wind up ratifying the Treaty of Paris by one vote more than the two-thirds required (57–27), but only after fighting had already broken out.

“The Ball Has Begun”

On the night of February 4, 1899, Private Willie Grayson, a small-town kid who had enlisted in the First Nebraska Volunteers, was on guard duty in an eastern suburb of Manila whose control was in dispute between the U.S. and Philippine forces. The night was oppressively hot and humid, and the mosquitoes were giving him no rest. Just before 8 P.M., Grayson heard some low whistles, possibly signals, and saw three or four armed Filipinos approaching him, cocking their weapons. “I yelled ‘halt,’” Grayson later recalled, “and the man moved. I challenged with another ‘halt.’ Then he immediately shouted ‘Halto’ to me. Well I thought the best thing to do was to shoot him. He dropped.” Grayson then ran back to camp to alert his comrades that the “niggers are in here all through these yards.” Firing quickly spread up and down the line. An aide woke up Colonel Frederick Funston of the First Kansas Volunteers to inform him “the ball has begun.”

The U.S. Army was only slightly better prepared for this war than it had been for the previous one, against the Spaniards. Prior to the Spanish-American War, the whole army had comprised just 28,183 officers and men—considerably smaller than the New York Police Department today. Upon the outbreak of hostilities, Congress raised the regular army strength to 56,688 men and McKinley issued a call for the states to recruit 125,000 volunteers for a one-year enlistment. The resulting regiments had little formal military training and generally lacked the equipment necessary for tropical campaigning, but some, the First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry (Rough Riders) most famously, more than compensated for these shortcomings with the formidable shooting and riding skills they brought with them from civilian life. The men were issued blue flannel uniforms that were unsuitable for the tropics and canned provisions that frequently turned out to be rotten.

The regulars were armed with the new Krag-Jorgensen, a Norwegian-made .30 caliber, five-shot rifle firing smokeless powder. But there were not enough Krags to go around, so the volunteers were issued the Civil War-vintage, single-shot Springfield rifle. When fired, the .45 caliber Springfield bucked like a bronco and emitted a smoke screen that blinded its shooter while revealing his position to the enemy. Its only advantage was that one of its shots was guaranteed to fell any adversary short of a rhinoceros. Supplementing these rifles were various early machine guns (Maxim-Nordenfeldt, Hotchkiss, Colt, and Gatling being the most popular brands) and 3.2 inch, breech-loading field artillery.

When the Battle of Manila began on February 4, 1898, 11,000 U.S. soldiers, mainly volunteers, were thinly deployed along 16 miles of front facing Filipino trenches. On paper it appeared that the Filipinos had the upper hand: Their 20,000 men surrounding Manila, part of an army of at least 80,000, outnumbered the Americans, they were well dug in, and they were armed with a combination of antiquated Remington single-shot rifles and more modern Mauser repeating rifles captured from the Spanish that were superior to the Americans’ Krags. Moreover, they had excellent intelligence on the U.S. deployments and planned a rising in Manila to attack the Yanquis from the rear.

All these advantages soon proved illusory. The Filipinos had even less training than the U.S. volunteers and they did not have enough shoes, let alone rifles, to go around; many of them were armed only with bolo knives and many of those who had rifles did not know how to use their sights. The Filipinos were courageous—U.S. General Henry Lawton called them “the bravest men I have ever seen”—but they were no match for a modern Western army.

As soon as the sun rose over the rooftops of Manila on Sunday morning, February 5, 1899, following a night of wild shooting in the dark, Major General Elwell S. Otis, the U.S. commander, ordered a general advance. Admiral Dewey’s warships peppered the Filipino positions with their heavy guns; then the volunteers charged forward with a “Montana yell” or a “jayhawk cheer.” Aguinaldo’s army crumpled. Some desperate Filipinos tried to escape by swimming the Pasig River, but the marksmanship of the volunteers ensured that few made it to the other bank alive. One American soldier described the resulting slaughter as “more fun than a turkey shoot.” Back in Manila, three alert regiments managed to squelch the planned Filipino rising. The only problem the U.S. commanders encountered was reining in their overeager troops, who quickly overran their objectives and kept going. In the first day’s fighting, an estimated 700 Filipinos were killed, to only 44 Americans; another 194 Americans were wounded.

During the next few months, as American reinforcements poured in, U.S. troops advanced steadily. At the end of March, Aguinaldo’s capital at Malolos, 20 miles northwest of Manila, fell to General Arthur MacArthur’s Second Division, with Colonel Frederick Funston and his Kansans leading the way. But Aguinaldo and his government merely retreated farther north. The U.S. army was unable to consolidate its gains or destroy the Filipino forces. As often as not, victorious U.S. columns would head back to the safety of Manila and the Filipinos would reoccupy the territory they had just lost.

There were simply not enough U.S. soldiers in the Philippines to garrison the islands—only 30,000 men, and more than half were state volunteers whose term of service ended with the signing of the peace treaty with Spain in April 1899. Yet General Otis, convinced that the war was all but over, put off requesting additional manpower.

The initial U.S. offensive petered out in the spring of 1899, and not only because of the expiring enlistments. Spring also marked the beginning of the rainy season. The roads became virtually impassable and most campaigning had to be suspended until the fall. Although the Filipinos had proven easy enough opponents, the elements were harder to overcome. Cholera, dysentery, malaria, venereal diseases, and sheer heat exhaustion ravaged the ranks, depleting some units of 60 percent of their strength. By June 1899 the war in the Philippines had already lasted longer than the one against Spain and still U.S. control extended only 40 miles outside Manila. “We are no nearer a conclusion of hostilities here than we were three months ago,” lamented one officer in the field.

The Insurrectos

Luckily for the Americans their enemies were even more disorganized. The independence movement was riven by ethnic and class divisions. On September 15, 1898, just a month after the U.S. occupation of Manila, a national assembly had convened in the market town of Malolos, 20 miles north of the capital, to issue a constitution for the Philippine Republic. Ilustrados, as upper-class Filipinos were known, dominated this meeting and crafted a constitution that gave the vote only to the landed gentry. (Of course, at this time most Americans, specifically blacks and women, did not enjoy the franchise either.) Emilio Aguinaldo was given dictatorial powers as the first president of the Philippine Republic. General Antonio Luna, the army commander, and Apolinario Mabini, the disabled, intensely cerebral prime minister, were anxious to win the support of the peasants by challenging the existing power structure in Filipino society. But Aguinaldo went along with the wealthy landowners, effectively foreclosing the possibility of mobilizing the mass of the people against the Americans.

After the setbacks of February and March 1899, a majority of the Malolos Congress voted to end the armed struggle and accept an accommodation with the occupiers. The hotheaded General Luna was so incensed that he arrested most of the cabinet members for “treason”; they were immediately freed by Aguinaldo.

Luna was an upper-class Ilocano, whereas most of the other independence leaders were Tagalogs. As a young man, he had gone to Spain to study chemistry but instead immersed himself in military strategy. He was, according to Aguinaldo, a “fiery and fanatical commander,” but his terrible temper was his undoing; he alienated many of his putative allies. On June 5, 1899, Luna was murdered by soldiers loyal to Aguinaldo. There is much circumstantial evidence to indicate that the president at least approved of, if he did not actually order, the assassination. Without Luna to help him, Aguinaldo now assumed personal command of his Army of Liberation. At the same time, some prominent leaders of his government journeyed to Manila and surrendered to the Americans.

“Filipino Thermopylae”

In November 1899 General Elwell Otis, the U.S. commander, mounted an offensive designed to destroy the army of liberation and occupy most of Luzon, the main island in the archipelago. He had at his disposal newly formed federal volunteer regiments, 35,000 men in all, authorized by Congress to replace the state volunteers, who had disbanded. Otis drew up a three-pronged attack designed to capture Aguinaldo and his men before they could escape into the mountains of northern Luzon. The plan called for Major General Arthur MacArthur to pin down the Filipino army on the plains of central Luzon while Brigadier General Loyd Wheaton staged an amphibious landing in the Filipino rear at Lingayan Gulf, 150 miles north of Manila. Major General Henry Lawton’s cavalry would close off the mountain passes to the northeast.

It was a good plan, but Wheaton was too cautious in its execution and failed to link up with Lawton’s division in time to block Aguinaldo’s retreat into the mountains. Nevertheless a “flying column” of 1,100 cavalrymen under Brigadier General Samuel B. M. Young advanced so rapidly north that they almost managed to nab the Filipino leader. In his haste to escape, Aguinaldo was forced to leave behind his wife, mother, sister, and son.

Brigadier General Gregorio del Pilar, the commander of Aguinaldo’s bodyguard, volunteered to stay behind with 60 men to block the American advance at Tila Pass, a narrow entrance to the Benguet Mountains. Still in his early twenties, the “boy general” was already a legend: well-born, educated, handsome, dapperly dressed, and a ladies’ man, he was also a spectacularly brave soldier, always leading his men from the front. “The Americans could never take this place,” he vowed theatrically, “and if they ever take it, it would only be over my dead body.”

At dawn on December 2, 1899, a battalion of the 33rd Infantry Regiment under Major Peyton C. March, part of Young’s flying column, reached the Tila Pass. Mauser fire from the Filipino barricade killed several of March’s men and blocked his advance. On one side of the narrow, zigzagging trail was a deep gorge; on the other, a mountain 1,500 feet high. March ordered a company to climb the mountain in order to flank the Philippine position. Two hours later the Americans reached the summit and opened fire on the Filipinos from above, while March led the rest of his men in a frontal charge. Correspondent Richard Henry Little, watching from a nearby town, described what happened next in a much-quoted passage:

Then we who were below saw an American squirm his way out to the top of a high flat rock, and take deliberate aim at the figure on the white horse. We held our breath, not knowing whether to pray that the sharpshooter would shoot straight or miss. Then came the spiteful crack of the Krag rifle and the man on horseback rolled to the ground, and when the troops charging up the mountain side reached him, the boy general of the Filipinos was dead.

Maybe it happened like that. Other eyewitnesses closer to the action did not see the white horse—this Homeric touch was probably added by an overly poetic correspondent—but in any case the deaths of del Pilar and 50 of his 60 men at the “Filipino Thermopylae” had bought Aguinaldo just enough time to escape deep into the mountains. The rest of his force did not fare so well. By February 1900 American troops had marched the length and breadth of Luzon, scattering insurrectos wherever they went, and breaking the back of Aguinaldo’s army.

But the war did not end. It entered a new and more dangerous phase.


While fleeing from General Young’s flying column, Emilio Aguinaldo and his top commanders held a council of war at Bayambang on November 13, 1899. Here they decided to dissolve the Army of Liberation and resort to guerrilla warfare, the traditional strategy of the weak resisting the strong. Guerrillas cannot hope to defeat the enemy in the open field; they must wear down the occupying army until it finally tires of the struggle. To achieve this goal, guerrillas have to alter the odds in their favor, using the element of surprise to attack where they can bring superior numbers to bear against isolated enemy outposts. “The strategy of guerrilla war is to put one man against ten,” Mao Tse-tung later explained, “but the tactic is to pit ten men against one.”

Though often associated with modern wars of “national liberation,” such methods had been employed millennia before Mao’s birth. The apocryphal Books of the Maccabees record the hit-and-run tactics employed by Judas Maccabaeus in his attacks against the Syrians. The Romans faced similar challenges not only in Judea but in North Africa, Britain, Gaul, Germany, and elsewhere. Indeed the Roman Empire was ultimately brought down by “barbarian” tribes, the Goths and Huns, who fought in quasi-guerrilla fashion. The most successful guerrillas were really partisans operating in conjunction with regular forces, such as the Spanish irregulars who harassed Napoleon’s army from 1808 to 1813. Their campaign, which contributed to the Duke of Wellington’s ultimate victory, gave birth to the word guerrilla, meaning “small war.” But there was no longer a regular Philippine army available to assist in the campaign against the Americanos; it was to be purely a struggle waged in the shadows.

It is unclear how much of this history the uneducated Aguinaldo was familiar with. His knowledge of guerrilla war was more practical, gained during the earlier uprising against Spain. Yet his own experience would be of limited use in the coming campaign. Although Aguinaldo remained the titular leader of the independence struggle, he had no way of controlling events across a vast archipelago from his remote mountain hideaway. His subordinate commanders thus had almost complete autonomy. This was both a strength and a weakness: a strength because the capture of one band of guerrillas would not affect the rest, a weakness because it was impossible to coordinate an offensive across the archipelago.

As a result, the nature and intensity of the guerrilla warfare varied considerably from place to place. While some regions, particularly Tagalog-speaking south and central Luzon, were hotbeds of insurrecto activity, in nearly half the archipelago’s provinces there was no fighting at all. Where the guerrillas were active they tended to operate in 30- to 50-man bands, usually living in the hills. They would attack army patrols, ambush supply wagons, cut telegraph wires, and fire into occupied towns, while avoiding pitched battles. The efforts of these full-time insurrectos were complemented by part-time militia who lived in the towns and barrios.

The U.S. Army tried to exert control by appointing Filipinos to act as police chiefs, mayors, and other municipal officials under the supervision of the local U.S. garrison. But in many provinces the guerrillas set up their own parallel government structure, sometimes run by the very same officials the Americans had selected. In this way, the revolutionaries managed to collect taxes from the townspeople, recruit more men, and keep their forces supplied, all under the noses of the American troops.

Even those Filipinos not active in the Katipunan society, as the secret nationalist movement was called, usually refused to aid the army by divulging the names of sympathizers. Those who did share information could expect violent retribution. Some americanistas were burned or buried alive; others had their tongues cut out, limbs hacked off or eyes gouged out. The insurrectos even burned down whole towns on occasion if they refused to pay “taxes.”

Few guerrilla uprisings are easily suppressed, and the Philippine experience was no exception. The insurrectos could strike any time at any of the U.S. garrisons thinly sprinkled about the archipelago. On one occasion, an American sentry on duty outside the town of Neuva Caceras was approached by a farmer with a basket of eggs to sell. Before the soldier could look up, the farmer reached into his basket, pulled out a bolo and decapitated him, vanishing before anyone could respond. The guerrillas also concocted the kind of traps that the Vietcong would one day build: pits concealing sharpened bamboo stakes or trip wires that would propel a spear into a man’s chest. Most of the patrols sent out to snare the perpetrators wound up catching nothing more than a mouthful of dust. As Brigadier General James F. Wade noted: “The common soldier wears the dress of the country; with his gun he is a soldier; by hiding it and walking quietly down the road, sitting down by the nearest house, or going to work in the nearest field, he becomes an ‘amigo,’ full of good will and false information for any of our men who may meet him.”

Aguinaldo intensified his campaign in the months leading up to the U.S. election of 1900, hoping to deliver a victory for the Democratic candidate, William Jennings Bryan, who had proclaimed his opposition to imperialism. Some of the more outspoken American anti-imperialists even openly wished for Aguinaldo’s victory “against our army of subjugation, tyranny and oppression.” Many soldiers fighting in the Philippines were bitter about the antiwar rhetoric coming from home. “If I am shot by a Filipino bullet,” complained General Henry Lawton, who was in fact killed shortly thereafter, “it might just as well come from one of my own men . . . because . . . the continuance of the fighting is chiefly due to reports that are sent from America.”

The perceived link between the insurrectos and the Democrats backfired for both. The Republicans were able to paint their opponents as unpatriotic, and Bryan, who had actually abandoned anti-imperialism as an issue just before the election, was trounced by the McKinley-Roosevelt ticket. This was a big setback for Aguinaldo. The U.S. was now in the Philippines to stay and was prepared to do whatever it took to defeat the insurgency. The following year, the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for long-term U.S. rule by holding, in the Insular Cases, that the Constitution does not follow the flag and that the U.S. could govern foreign peoples without granting them citizenship and all of its attendant rights. It was these decisions that prompted Mr. Dooley’s famous observation that “th’ Supreme Court follows th’ illiction returns.”

Early in 1900 the ineffectual General Elwell S. Otis stepped down as the army commander. He was replaced by General Arthur MacArthur, father of Douglas, and, like his son, a military genius at least in his own mind. In the 1890s, after decades of lobbying, he was finally awarded a Medal of Honor for his Civil War exploits at Missionary Ridge. MacArthur was determined to stiffen what he viewed as Otis’s overly lenient treatment of the Filipinos. To back him up he had 70,000 battle-hardened veterans, two-thirds of the entire army, assisted by units composed of Macabebes, Illocanos, and other Philippine ethnic groups suspicious of the Tagalogs who led the independence movement. Enlisting natives as soldiers and scouts was, for the army, a tactic as recent as the just-concluded Indian Wars and as old as William Eaton’s expedition to overthrow the pasha of Tripoli in 1805. In the Philippines (as in many other places, including Vietnam six decades later), these locally recruited soldiers, acting out clan and ideological hatreds, were usually harsher than Americans in their dealings with the guerrillas.

MacArthur often butted heads with William Howard Taft, a genial, 325-pound judge from Ohio sent by McKinley as chairman of a commission to supervise the transition from military to civilian rule in pacified areas. Taft associated with pro-American, upper-class Filipinos who told him the guerrillas were mere ladrones (bandits). Taft believed this. He called the Filipinos “our little brown brothers” and thought they welcomed U.S. rule. Soldiers campaigning in the wilds far from Manila knew better. They coined a contemptuous song: “He may be a brother of Big Bill Taft/But he ain’t no friend of mine!”

Despite the disagreements between Taft and MacArthur, they effectively pursued a complementary two-pronged approach. Taft emphasized the policy of “attraction” that, from the very beginning, had been an integral part of the army’s occupation strategy. Soldiers built schools, ran sanitation campaigns, vaccinated people, collected customs duties, set up courts run by natives, supervised municipal elections, and generally administered governmental functions efficiently and honestly. A thousand idealistic young American civilians even journeyed to the Philippines to teach school in a precursor of the Peace Corps. Despite the use of increasingly harsh methods against guerrillas and their suspected sympathizers, most U.S. soldiers remained on good terms with most civilians. Officers frequently socialized with Filipino notables in their area; and, writes one historian, “the vast majority of these daily interactions were civil, even cordial.”

On December 23, 1900, with Taft’s encouragement, prominent Filipinos, many of them former members of the independence movement, organized the Partido Federal (Federal Party) on a platform calling for eventual statehood for the Philippines. The Federalistas toured the countryside, telling guerrillas to surrender and take a loyalty oath to the U.S. Those who did were generally well treated.

All this was part of the struggle for what a later generation would call “hearts and minds.” But it was clear to privates and generals alike that, although such positive steps might help to reconcile the Filipinos to American rule in the long run, the insurgency could only be defeated in the short term by military means. There were plenty of Americans willing to play “bad cop” to Taft’s “good cop.”

Already the army had displayed considerable cruelty in fighting the Filipinos. Even during the initial campaigns of 1899, there were credible reports of soldiers shooting prisoners “while trying to escape,” burning towns, and torturing suspects to elicit information. One interrogation technique, passed down from the Spaniards, was called the “water cure”: the victim would be held down, his mouth propped open, and water forced down his throat until his guts felt close to bursting, then a soldier would push on his stomach to clear out the water. American soldiers became more hard-hearted the longer the guerrilla war dragged on. It was common, for example, after guerrillas cut telegraph wires or attacked U.S. supply wagons for the army to burn a nearby town. Abuse of American prisoners of war further inflamed the soldiers; while most POWs were courteously treated, some had limbs hacked off or eyes gouged out or were slow-roasted over a fire. “No more prisoners,” wrote one Washington volunteer in the war’s early days. “They take none, and they tortured our men, so we kill wounded and all of them.”

Senior officers did not usually order such illegal conduct but they often turned a blind eye, in an early version of a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. The prevailing view was summed up by Major General Loyd Wheaton in 1900: “You can’t put down a rebellion by throwing confetti and sprinkling perfumery.”

General Arthur MacArthur gave official sanction to policies designed to punish the insurrectos and their sympathizers, for he saw no other way to end the war quickly. On December 20, 1900, he declared martial law over the islands and invoked General Orders 100 (GO 100). Issued by President Lincoln in 1863 and widely imitated by other countries since, this landmark document envisioned war as a social contract: An occupying army had a duty to be humane in its dealings with civilians; to do otherwise would be stupid as well as immoral, for it would turn potential friends into foes. But likewise civilians had a duty not to resist; if they violated this duty, they would be dealt with harshly. GO 100 held that combatants not in uniform would be treated like “highway robbers or pirates” and, along with civilians who aided them, they could be subject to the death penalty.

General William Tecumseh Sherman had invoked this order as he cut a swathe of destruction through the South, and now MacArthur wanted to do the same in the Philippines. His intent was to force the civilian population, especially the prominent families, to choose sides; neutrality would be considered akin to resistance and punished accordingly. As part of this strategy, MacArthur confiscated the property of some rebel leaders and shipped 38 of them off to exile in Guam. To Taft’s consternation, MacArthur increased press censorship so that word of his tough tactics would not leak out.

MacArthur’s harshness, combined with Taft’s softer approach, helped to blunt the effectiveness of the guerrillas. But the most dramatic blow to the independence movement was delivered by a hard-drinking officer with less than three years’ experience in the army.

“Is This Not Some Joke?”

Frederick Funston was a generation younger than the senior army brass at the turn of the century. Born in the last year of the Civil War, he grew up on a Kansas homestead. From his father, Edward, who served in the state legislature and Congress, where he was known as “Foghorn Funston, the Farmer’s Friend,” Freddie inherited a booming voice and a lifelong allegiance to the Republican Party. He did not inherit his father’s imposing height—Freddie never grew taller than 5 feet 4 inches—but in compensation he developed a powerful chest and strong shoulders.

Like his friend Theodore Roosevelt, Funston combined a love of history, literature, and science with a hankering for adventure and a passion for the outdoors. Failing to gain admittance to West Point, he spent a couple of years at Kansas State University, where a fraternity brother described him as “a pudgy, applecheeked young fellow . . . [who] had absolutely no sense of fear, physical or spiritual.” After dropping out of college, he got a job working as a field botanist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which sent him on long, lonely treks through the Dakota Badlands, Death Valley, and Alaska. When he returned from the wilds, bronzed and fit, Funston quit his job and moved to New York to pursue a writing career.

One spring evening in 1896 Funston happened upon a Madison Square Garden rally staged by supporters of the Cuban guerrillas then fighting the Spanish. He immediately signed up, “I fear as much from a love of adventure and a desire to see some fighting as from any more worthy motive.” Along with some other gringo volunteers he was smuggled into Cuba and joined the rebels as an artillery officer. He took part in several battles, was twice wounded, had his legs crushed by a falling horse, and contracted typhoid fever and malaria. When he finally tried to go home, he was caught by a Spanish patrol and barely escaped execution. He returned to the United States on January 10, 1898, weighing just 90 pounds, limping badly, and coughing up blood. Yet his hunger for war was not sated.

As soon as he had healed, Funston accepted the colonelcy of a volunteer regiment being raised in his native Kansas. The unit was sent to the Philippines, where, during the initial offensive in February of 1899, Funston distinguished himself as one of the most reckless and courageous officers in the army. His men were invariably at the front of the U.S. advance, and Funston was invariably in front of his men. For performing “one of the most difficult of military operations”—“forcing the passage of an unfordable river in the face of an entrenched enemy”—Funston won the Medal of Honor. An opportunity for even greater glory would come once the conventional war had ended and the guerrilla campaign had begun.

On January 8, 1901, Funston, by then a 35-year-old brigadier general in command of a district in northern Luzon, was in his headquarters in the town of San Isidro when he received a telegram that created “no little excitement.” It informed him that some couriers bearing dispatches from Emilio Aguinaldo had surrendered to a U.S. garrison 60 miles north. Under interrogation, the chief courier, Cecilio Segismundo, told the Americans that Aguinaldo was holed up in Palanan, a village in the Sierra Madre mountains of northeastern Luzon, adding that all the approaches to this remote hideaway were carefully guarded and that it would be impossible for an American force to get close without alerting el presidente, who would simply slip away again.

A way out of this dilemma presented itself in Segismundo’s coded letters. Working all night, fueled by copious quantities of coffee, Funston and two of his aides were able to decrypt the dispatches. One of them turned out to be an appeal from Aguinaldo to his cousin, asking him to send 400 armed insurgents to his headquarters.


Funston hatched a bold plan: He would use Macabebe Scouts—Filipino natives who belonged to an ethnic minority hostile to Tagalogs like Aguinaldo—to stage an elaborate ruse. Funston and four other American officers would pretend to be prisoners of war. The Macabebes would pretend to be the reinforcements that Aguinaldo had requested. Using “false colors,” Funston would penetrate Aguinaldo’s lair and capture the guerrilla leader. General Arthur MacArthur approved the scheme but told its designer, “Funston, this is a desperate undertaking. I fear that I shall never see you again.”

Funston’s force slipped out of Manila Bay on March 6, 1901, aboard a U.S. Navy gunboat. There were 89 men in all, most of them Macabebes in captured rebel uniforms, but also five U.S. officers, four renegade rebels, and a Spaniard named Lazaro Segovia who worked as an intelligence officer for the Americans. So as not to arouse suspicion, they landed 100 miles south of their objective in a wild part of Luzon where no U.S. troops were stationed. They were on their own. Under the laws of war, capture in enemy uniforms meant certain death. Funston sent ahead forged letters to Aguinaldo informing the president that his reinforcements were on the way, and then led his men on their long hike north along the coast. Almost nonstop rain accompanied them as they hacked their way through thick jungle and traversed overflowing streams. They had not brought enough supplies, so that by the end of their weeklong march most of the men were malnourished and reduced to eating snails and limpets.

Just as they were nearing the end, only 10 miles from Palanan, the men were shocked to receive news that could derail their whole scheme: A letter from Aguinaldo instructed them not to bring the American “prisoners” to the rebel headquarters. Funston had hoped to snare the rebel leader himself, but now that might not be possible. He decided to send the Macabebes ahead with Segovia, while he and the four other U.S. officers trailed cautiously behind. At one point the Americans had to dive off the trail to avoid the real insurgents sent by Aguinaldo to take custody of the “prisoners.”

Finally, on the afternoon of March 23, 1901, the insurgent “reinforcements” were welcomed to Palanan, a village of 80 thatch-roofed huts neatly arrayed around a square. There was even an honor guard lined up to greet them. Lazaro Segovia and another phony guerrilla leader went to Aguinaldo’s headquarters, a one-story structure perched on stilts, where they chatted pleasantly for a few minutes with the Filipino president and his officers.

After a while, Segovia excused himself, stepped outside, and gave the signal to a comrade who yelled, “Now is the time Macabebes. Give it to them!” The “Macs” fired a ragged volley, scattering Aguinaldo’s honor guard. Hearing the firing, and thinking it was done in celebration, Aguinaldo leaned out the window and angrily demanded, “Stop all the foolishness. Don’t waste ammunition.” At that moment, Segovia charged back in, gun drawn, to announce, “You are our prisoners. We are not insurgents. We are Americans! Surrender or be killed!” Aguinaldo was too stunned to put up much resistance. When Funston arrived a few minutes later and introduced himself, Aguinaldo asked, “Is this not some joke?”

The trip back to Manila was uneventful, Funston recalled, with “the pleasantest relations . . . established between captors and captured.” A rapturous reception awaited the ruddy-faced, red-bearded commando leader. “To say that the city [Manila] went wild with excitement,” wrote Funston, “mildly expresses the condition.” The U.S. went wild too. Aguinaldo’s captor instantly became a national hero—one of the few to emerge from this inglorious war. The one sour note came from a London magazine that accused “Fighting Fred” of “a piece of sharp practice.” As for Aguinaldo, he was well treated by his captors. On April 19, 1901, he issued a proclamation accepting American sovereignty and calling on his former comrades to give up their struggle.

In the months that followed Aguinaldo’s announcement, more than 4,000 guerrillas surrendered and turned in 1,363 rifles. “The armed insurrection is almost entirely suppressed,” General MacArthur crowed.

And then came the calamity at Balangiga on Samar island, in which 48 men of Company C, 9th U.S. Infantry, were killed in a surprise dawn attack on their garrison by bolo-wielding insurrectos. It was the worst setback for U.S. forces during the entire war.

“Kill and Burn”

On July 4, 1901, General Arthur MacArthur stepped down as commander of the Division of the Philippines. His duties were split between Major General Adna Chaffee, the “butt-sprung” old cavalryman fresh from suppressing the Boxer Uprising, who assumed military responsibility for the islands, and William Howard Taft, the portly judge who became the first civilian governor with authority over all pacified areas. To deal with the situation on Samar, Chaffee called in Brigadier General Jacob H. Smith, a short, wizened 62-year-old who had earned the nickname “Hell-Roaring Jake” for the nonstop stream of invective he directed at subordinates in his booming voice.

Smith was given command of the 6th Separate Brigade, a special unit that included a battalion of 315 marines, most of them veterans who had fought in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and north China. Their commander was Major Littleton Waller Tazewell Waller, a short, stout, swaggering, 45-year-old officer from an old Virginia family who had spent better than two decades in the corps. Smedley Butler, his longtime comrade, described him as “a little fellow with a fiery mustache and a distinguished bearing,” an “enormous nose,” and posture “straight as a ruler.” He “dominated the others” and “his men adored him.” Another marine said of Waller: “The U.S. Marine Corps was his God. He never let you forget it.” Butler, no mean soldier himself, called Waller “the greatest soldier I have ever known.” Others have had a less kind assessment of this “ambitious and ruthless officer with a fondness for the bottle.”

“Tony” Waller had seen more than his share of hard fighting, but even he was shocked by the orders he received from Hell-Roaring Jake. As he later recalled, the tiny general told him, “I want no prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn, the more you kill and the more you burn the better you will please me. . . . I want all persons killed who are capable of bearing arms.”

Waller: “I would like to know the limit of age.”

Smith: “Ten years.”

Waller, who knew the laws of war as well as any officer, told his subordinates that “we are not making war against women and children,” but nevertheless in October 1901 his marines launched an aggressive pacification campaign. The 6th Separate Brigade marched out in two columns along the Samar coast, burning villages and slaughtering carabao (water buffalo) and rebels alike, carrying out Smith’s order to turn “the interior of Samar” into “a howling wilderness.” Waller achieved a major success when he discovered the location of one of General Vincente Lukban’s strongholds atop the Sojoton cliffs overlooking the Cadacan River deep in the interior of Samar.

Two of Waller’s columns, commanded by Captain David D. Porter (a descendant of Navy Captain David Porter of Barbary and Marquesas fame) and Captain Hiram I. Bearss, reached Lukban’s redoubt by sunset on November 16, 1901, and attacked the next morning without waiting for Waller and the rest of the expedition to arrive. Gunnery Sergeant John H. Quick, a Medal of Honor winner, provided covering fire with a Colt machine gun while Porter and Bearss led the assault team up the 200-foot cliffs using bamboo ladders. The guerrillas had prepared tons of rocks suspended in large bamboo cages attached to vines, ready to drop on any attackers, but they could not spring the trap properly because of Quick’s heavy fire. The marines reached the top, and with their Krag rifles and .45 caliber Colt revolvers overpowered the bolo-wielding defenders. No marines were killed in this attack, which resulted in the death of 30 insurgents and the destruction of their headquarters. Bearss and Porter won Medals of Honor for their actions, but not until 33 years later.

Hell-Roaring Jake Smith congratulated Tony Waller on his “brilliant success” and urged him, “Give your command the needed rest, then touch up the enemy again.” Instead Waller’s next undertaking would “touch up” his own men. He decided, for reasons that have never been satisfactorily explained, to traverse Samar island from Lanang to Basey, a distance of 35 miles through dense jungle.

Waller set off with three officers and 54 enlisted men on December 28, 1901, accompanied by 33 Filipino porters and two Filipino scouts. They found it much harder going than anticipated. The foliage was dense, the leeches aggressive, the trail nonexistent, the rain incessant. The men lacked enough to eat, their clothes and shoes disintegrated in the damp climate, and their feet were swollen and bleeding. With the men weakening, Waller decided to push ahead to Basey with 15 of the stronger ones and 10 porters, and then send a relief column back for the rest. Along the way, Waller claimed he caught a Filipino guide, called Slim by the Americans, stealing his bolo; “Smoke,” another of the Filipino guides, later explained that this man was a former insurrecto who wanted to kill the major. Twenty-nine days after starting out, Waller reached Bassey, his shirt in rags, his eyes feverish, his men “cut, torn, bruised, and dilapidated.” He immediately plunged back into the jungle to search for the others, but failed to find them. Nine days later Waller staggered back into Basey, where he collapsed from fever and exhaustion.

The rest of his men, under the command of Captain David Porter, fared worse. “The men’s feet were like raw pieces of beef, and their bodies covered with sores,” Porter wrote. They were reduced to eating roots. As they got weaker, they became convinced that their Filipino porters were hoarding food from them. A lieutenant claimed he was attacked by three of the porters, one of whom stabbed him with a bolo while the other Filipinos looked on, doing nothing to help. By the time an army patrol from Lanang finally rescued the survivors on January 18, 1902, ten marines had been left to die along the trail, and those who remained alive were half-starved and half-mad.

Before long, eleven of the Filipino porters were arrested and brought to Basey. A feverish and delirious Waller ordered them executed without benefit of trial. He later explained that, given the small size of his garrison—just 45 men fit for duty, to keep an eye on 95 prisoners and 3,000 potentially hostile townspeople—he did not feel safe keeping the supposedly mutinous porters under lock and key. “It became necessary to expend eleven prisoners,” he telegraphed matter-of-factly to Hell-Roaring Jake. Waller thought nothing more of the matter until he arrived back in Cavite, near Manila, on February 29, 1902, and found himself charged with murder, an offense punishable by death under the Articles of War.

Filipinos trying to surrender or already taken captive had been killed before without the perpetrators being court-martialed, but most of those transgressions had been committed by individual soldiers in the heat of battle. An officer ordering the cold-blooded execution of 11 civilians was not something the military high command could ignore, especially not with public outrage building in the United States about army conduct in the Philippines.

In January 1902, a Senate committee had begun hearings on atrocities. Despite the best efforts of the pro-imperialist committee chairman, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, witnesses testified about the “water cure,” about villages being burned, and about other extreme steps that had become part of this dirty little war. In response, Mark Twain mordantly suggested that Old Glory be redesigned, with “the white stripes painted black and the stars replaced by the skull and crossbones.”

President Roosevelt and his secretary of war, Elihu Root, tried to defend the army as best they could, but they realized that to placate public opinion they had to make at least a show of cracking down on military excesses. Root decided to make an example of Major Waller. On March 17, 1902, a court-martial was duly convened in a Manila army barracks.

Waller took the stand and acknowledged that he had ordered 11 prisoners shot but argued that his actions were authorized under General Orders 100. Seeking to protect his superior officer, he assumed full responsibility. Six days later, Brigadier General Jake Smith testified. He did nothing to protect Waller, claiming he had ordered prisoners to be treated humanely and generally painting the marine as a rogue officer. Outraged by what he viewed as a betrayal, Waller took the stand again, and this time revealed what orders he had actually received, an account corroborated by other officers. (Waller added that he had disobeyed his orders not to take prisoners, because “I know the laws of war.”)

These admissions caused a sensation in the United States. The New York Evening Journal covered its entire front page on April 8, 1902, with a banner headline: “KILL ALL”: MAJOR WALLER ORDERED TO MASSACRE THE FILIPINOS! (This fit nicely with the previous day’s headline: BRITISH GUILTY OF AWFUL ATROCITIES IN BOER WAR). Waller was acquitted of murder, though the Samar campaign stained his record and prevented him from becoming marine commandant. Hell-Roaring Jake did not get off so easily. He was convicted of “conduct to the prejudice of good order and military discipline” and forced into retirement.

Most historians have taken as the lesson of the Waller case that the tactics practiced on Samar were typical of the war as a whole. Even if they were not, the Samar campaign provided ample ammunition for army critics and cast a pall over the entire U.S. war effort in the Philippines.


Samar was not the only place where the Philippine War was concluding in a last gasp of ferocity. In Batangas province in southern Luzon, General Manuel Malvar waged a dogged campaign against the American occupation. To end this resistance, General Adna Chaffee turned to Brigadier General J. Franklin Bell, a Kentuckian who vowed that he would “make the existing state of war and martial law so inconvenient and unprofitable to the people that they will earnestly desire and work for the reestablishment of peace and civil government.” Bell announced that he would force all law-abiding Filipinos to move with their household goods and livestock into towns controlled by the U.S. Army. Any able-bodied male found outside the “protected zones” without a pass, Bell warned, “will be arrested and confined, or shot if he runs away.” All crops, livestock, and dwellings on the outside would “become liable to confiscation or destruction.”

Setting up “concentration camps” (not to be confused with death camps) was a traditional counterinsurgency tactic, then being used by the British in South Africa and previously employed by the U.S. Army in its campaigns against the Indians, where the camps had been called “reservations.” The goal was to separate the insurgents from the population base, for as Mao Tse-tung later explained, “the guerrilla moves among the people as the fish through the water.” With more than 300,000 people clustering in his “zones of protection,” Bell succeeded in drying up the guerrillas’ water. To finish off the insurgency, he sent 4,000 soldiers to search “each ravine, valley, and mountain peak for insurgents and for food,” destroying all foodstuffs and capturing or killing all able-bodied men. This unrelenting pressure quickly paid off. On April 16, 1902, Miguel Malvar became the last major guerrilla commander to surrender.

American victory came at a high cost for the residents of Batangas. At least 11,000 of them died in the concentration camps from a combination of disease, malnutrition, poor sanitation, and other health problems. The most thorough historical analysis of the Batangas campaign suggests that most of those deaths can be attributed to malaria and cholera epidemics that the Americans tried in vain to stop, but nevertheless J. Franklin Bell came in for a good deal of opprobrium for his brutal tactics. More than a few critics compared him with Valeriano Weyler, a Spanish general whose reconcentrado program to put down the Cuban rebellion had led the yellow press to nickname him “Butcher Weyler.” “Who would have supposed that the same policy would be, only four years later, adopted and pursued as the policy of the United States in the Philippines?” wondered the Philadelphia Ledger.

It was true. Confronted with a native insurgency, the U.S. had resorted to many of the same tactics used by European colonialists. Yes, the U.S. Army was a good deal less brutal than the Belgians in the Congo or the French in Algeria—and less brutal than some critics have charged—but nevertheless the Philippine War was a rude awakening for those Americans who imagined their country always to be morally superior to the sordid Europeans.

“Why Don’t They Tyrannize Us More?”

On July 4, 1902, President Roosevelt proclaimed that the Philippine Insurgency was over. All Filipino political prisoners were given an amnesty and civil government was established over the entire archipelago. Earlier declarations of victory had proved premature, but this one was more justified than most. There would be almost no more organized resistance on the main island of Luzon. Most of the campaigning in future years would be confined to the outlying islands of Mindanao and Jolo, whose fierce Muslim Moros the Spanish had never been able to subdue. Moro uprisings occurred with regularity in the first three decades of the twentieth century (as they still do to this day), but as the years went by responsibility for suppressing them shifted from the U.S. Army to the Philippine constabulary, a quasi-military force made up of Filipino enlisted men led by American officers.

The majority of Filipinos became reconciled to U.S. rule or at least not violently opposed to it, and they were granted increasing autonomy by Washington, far ahead of any comparable movement in European colonies. In 1907 the Philippines became the first Asian state to establish a national legislature. In 1935 the archipelago became a domestically autonomous commonwealth ruled by President Manuel Quezon, a former major in Aguinaldo’s army, who once complained of the difficulty of fostering nationalism under such a benevolent colonial regime: “Damn the Americans! Why don’t they tyrannize us more?” In World War II many Filipinos fought shoulder-to-shoulder with American G.I.s, though some, including Aguinaldo, collaborated with the Japanese invaders. In 1946, the U.S. granted the islands independence.

Among the institutions bequeathed to the Filipinos by the Americans were public schools, a free press, an independent judiciary, a modern bureaucracy, democratic government, and separation of church and state. Unlike the Dutch in the East Indies, the British in Malaya, or the French in Indochina, the Americans left virtually no legacy of economic exploitation; Congress was so concerned about protecting the Filipinos that it barred large landholdings by American individuals or corporations. To one American political scientist, “the American efforts in the Philippines look like a textbook example of good government.”

Filipino feelings about the legacy of colonialism remain more ambivalent, as exemplified by protests that led to the closing in 1991 of the U.S. naval base at Subic Bay, the last spoils of Admiral Dewey’s epic conquest. One protester waved a placard that read: Yankee Go Home—And Take Me With You.

How the War Was Won

Pacifying the Philippines had proved to be much more difficult than virtually anyone had predicted. Between 1898 and 1902, a total of 126,468 American soldiers served there (though never more than 69,000 at one time) and fought in 2,811 engagements. By July 4, 1902, the U.S. had lost 4,234 dead and suffered 2,818 wounded. By comparison, only 379 Americans were lost in combat in the Spanish-American War. By their own count U.S. forces killed 16,000 Filipinos in battle. As many as 200,000 civilians also died, victims of disease and famine and the cruelties of both sides. Yet in the end the U.S. did triumph. Decisively.

The Yanks’ victory can be ascribed in some measure to the mistakes of the enemy. Emilio Aguinaldo was no Ho Chi Minh, and Antonio Luna, his top general, was no Vo Nguyen Giap. Aguinaldo made the fatal mistake of trying to fight the U.S. Army in a conventional war. His forces were chewed up during a series of battles in 1899 that began just outside Manila in February and finished in northern Luzon in December. Thereafter Aguinaldo resorted to guerrilla warfare, but his government, dominated by ilustrados (wealthy landowners), never managed to rally most of the Filipino people to their cause.

The eventual U.S. triumph, however, was hardly foreordained. The U.S. had no tanks and no airplanes and not even enough infantrymen. There were an average of only 24,000 U.S. soldiers in the field at any given time to face at least 80,000 insurgents, who thus outnumbered the army by more than three to one. (By comparison, in the First Chechen War of 1994–95 the Russians had a three-to-one manpower advantage and still lost.) The U.S. also did not have much of a technological edge. Aguinaldo’s men were armed with Remington and Mauser rifles, certainly no worse than the regular army’s Krag-Jorgensens and superior to the volunteers’ Civil War-vintage Springfields. The U.S. could bring to bear superior firepower from field artillery and navy gunboats, but even in the war’s early days these advantages were to some extent obviated by the archipelago’s difficult jungle-and-mountain terrain; later on, heavy weaponry proved almost entirely irrelevant to combating elusive guerrillas. Moreover, while the insurrectos were acclimated to local conditions, foul weather and disease ravaged U.S. ranks. Finally, the rebels, with informers in every barrio, possessed better intelligence about the U.S. Army than the Americans did about them.

The U.S. success in pacifying the archipelago, despite all these disadvantages, may be ascribed to the skillful employment of carrot and stick, “chastisement” and “attraction.” The U.S. offered real rewards for those who cooperated with the occupation, ranging from political posts and business opportunities for the elites, to peace and security for the peons. Captured rebels were by and large well treated, and the Filipino people were given growing political autonomy. The army generated additional goodwill by running schools, hospitals, sanitation programs, and other charitable works. Eventually more and more Filipinos tired of the war and decided that U.S. rule was not so bad—certainly preferable to the “dons” who had come before and perhaps even to Aguinaldo’s oligarchy.

It is the policy of chastisement that attracted unwelcome attention to the U.S. war effort, both in the early 1900s and in the years since. Critics often have attributed the soldiers’ actions to racism. Many abuses did occur, and they were wrong, but it is important to place them into proper perspective. In the first place, isolated garrisons had to operate against an unseen enemy who would kill or mutilate their buddies one day and be transformed into smiling “amigos” the next. It is not surprising that in such stressful circumstances U.S. soldiers did not always observe Marquis of Queensberry rules. Then too it is not entirely fair to apply twenty-first-century morality to the actions of nineteenth-century soldiers. This was a more brutal time, when police departments in America routinely used the “third degree” to elicit confessions and U.S. soldiers themselves were subject to harsh hazing and physical punishment that would not be tolerated today. By the standards of the day, the conduct of U.S. soldiers was better than average for colonial wars.

Although wars against guerrillas tend to be particularly savage, atrocities are endemic to all wars, not just colonial ones. When men are thrust into kill-or-be-killed circumstances, the constraints of civilization often slip off with shocking ease. There were, for instance, many instances of Allied troops killing Germans who tried to surrender in World Wars I and II. “No soldier who fights until his enemy is at close small-arms range, in any war, has more than perhaps a fifty-fifty chance of being granted quarter,” writes a British military sociologist. “If he stands up to surrender he risks being shot with the time-honored comment, ‘Too late, chum.’” When perpetrated by the winning side in a popular war, such as World War II, such incidents are generally hushed up. They only become the focus of public debate when committed in the course of an unpopular conflict like the one in the Philippines or, later, Vietnam. It is a mistake, however, to focus exclusively on misconduct by soldiers at the expense of the larger strategic picture.

In the end, the success of the U.S. counterinsurgency effort was due not to committing atrocities—24,000 soldiers could hardly hope to terrorize 7 million people into submission—but to paying attention to the rudiments of counterinsurgency strategy. In Vietnam, as we shall see, the army squandered its resources on fruitless search-and-destroy missions. In the Philippines, by contrast, it concentrated on cutting off the guerrillas from civilian assistance by garrisoning the countryside. While the men grumbled about the monotony of life in the boondocks (an Americanization of the Tagalog bundok, meaning “mountain”), their very isolation forced them to become well acquainted with their area and the people who lived there. This in turn gave them good intelligence, the prerequisite for effective counterinsurgency operations.

The army’s success may be ascribed in some degree to the invaluable experience its top commanders had gained in fighting Indians, the finest irregular warriors in the world. Out of 30 U.S. generals who served in the Philippines from 1898 to 1902, 26 had fought in the Indian Wars. And of course one of the few generals without Indian-fighting experience was Frederick Funston, who had acquired plenty of firsthand knowledge of guerrilla warfare during his service with the Cuban rebels. Ordinary American soldiers were also of high caliber, no braver than their Filipino counterparts but better trained and disciplined.

The army could not have won without the navy. Not only did its gunboats provide fire support and supplies for isolated army garrisons, but its blockade of the archipelago effectively prevented Aguinaldo from receiving foreign arms shipments or moving supplies and reinforcements. Geography helped too: In the Philippines, there were no sanctuaries and no Ho Chi Minh trails to keep the guerrillas in business.

All these factors combined to make the Philippine War one of the most successful counterinsurgencies waged by a Western army in modern times.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.org. Thank you!