Black American Anti-Imperialist Fighters in the Philippine American War

buffalo soldiers in the Phillipinesby Gill H. Boehringer
On Black History Month, we are offered constant examples of Black sacrifice in the U.S. Armed Forces. But seldom do we hear of those Black soldiers that deserted to fight on the anti-imperialist side in the brutal U.S. war against Filipino independence, at the turn of the 20th century. As one journalist of the day put it, “the negro soldiers were in closer sympathy with the aims of the native population than they were with those of their white leaders and the policy of the United States.”
Black American Anti-Imperialist Fighters in the Philippine American War
by Gill H. Boehringer
The Negroes deserted in scores and for the purpose of joining the insurgents, and many of them...became leaders and fought the white troops or their former comrades with zest and ability.”
The part played by black American troops in the imperialist acquisition of the Philippines has been a subject of commentary for the past century. Much of it has been praise for the loyal and positive contribution they made even in the face of the pervasive racism they experienced both in the US and in the military overseas. I want to look at a relatively little known and less remembered aspect of their participation in the “regime change” which the Americans wrought in the Philippine War. Not all the black troops (or white for that matter) remained in the US lines. A number took the decision to desert, and some of those defected to the Filipino side. It is appropriate to remember those anti-imperialist heroes from an earlier period of American expansionism and “regime change” at a time when the United States has once again, but even more dangerously to the rest of the world, shown itself to be intent on pursuing such unjustified and harmful foreign adventures.
Many commentators on the American war against the Filipino Republic have referred to the four black Regiments amongst the military forces occupying the Philippines after the defeated Spanish had sold the territory to the United States and withdrawn their troops. It is estimated that of the 125,000 troops who participated on the American side, up to 7,000 were African American. Some commentators have written about Corporal David Fagen,a black soldier who, in November, 1899, defected to the Filipino cause. Welcomed by the Army of Liberation and given the rank of Lieutenant, he fought in the Brigade of General Urbano Lacuna in central Luzon. Lacuna was thought by the Americans to be a very good military leader, one of the best after General Antonio Luna who was, unfortunately, assassinated following a serious disagreement with General Emilio Aguinaldo’s policies. Aguinaldo was Commander of all Filipino forces and the President of the Republic, and was sometimes referred to as “Dictator.”
Even after the surrender of the Lacuna Brigade the Americans could not capture nor kill David Fagen.”
As a guerrilla leader, Fagen proved highly skillful, harassing the Americans successfully for two years. His valor and guile brought military successes and led to his promotion to the rank of Captain. He gained considerable notoriety through accounts of his activities regularly published in the Manila Times, and in the USA where his exploits were covered by the New York Times and several of the San Francisco papers. Even after the surrender of the Lacuna Brigade on the 19th of May 1901, which left Fagen more vulnerable than he had been previously, the Americans could not capture nor kill him. It was the shrewd, if deceitful, Colonel (later Brigadier- General) Frederick Funston, captor of General Aguinaldo, who arranged the offer of a reward of $600 for him, “dead or alive.”
There are many different versions of the end of Fagen’s guerrilla days, in early December 1901. It is possible that he was killed by Anastacio Bartolome, a former insurrecto in the Lacuna Brigade, who claimed the reward. But there is some doubt about this “supposed” killing, as official American records refer to it, although they did “close” the case. It is also possible that his death was faked according to a plan conjured up by Fagen and Bartolome. After the surrender of General Lacuna, with his Brigade, resistance to the Americans had collapsed in Central and Northern Luzon. With such a price on his head and Funston’s spies all over the region, it may have been Fagen’s choice to retire in the mountains to live a quiet-and presumably longer- life with his Filipina wife.
Interestingly, though Fagen became the most famous of the black American guerrilla fighters, it seems there was another who joined the Filipino forces while the American black regiments were still in the USA. We do not know his name, nor how he found his way into the front lines in the early days of the war. The only reference to the presence of this “Unknown Soldier” appears to be in Funston’s fascinating “Memories of Two Wars,” an account not only of his very significant contribution to the crushing of the Philippine Republic but, contradictorily, of his volunteer service as a filibustero on the side of the Cubans in their struggle with the Spanish! According to Funston, on the 6th of February 1899, less than two full days after the start of the war at Manila, American troops of the Twentieth Kansas Infantry Regiment, which he commanded, completed a successful frontal assault on trenches of the Filipinos (“insurgents” as they were called then, as today in Iraq) near La Loma Church, outside Caloocan. Funston’s account is worth re-visiting. He tells us in a patronizing tone, that the insurgents were given “the necessary castigation.” A number, including one “plucky little Filipino,” were run through with bayonets, getting “the cold steel.” He notes that “These troops were fighting under a very fine silken flag with the emblem of the Katipunan embroidered on it…When we finally got the flag it had been riddled with bullets and was drenched with blood. It is now in the State House at Topeka” (The capital of his home state, Kansas.) He then, as he regularly did after each battle, gives an account of the relative losses, which in this period of the war was usually about forty to fifty Filipino casualties - mostly dead as the wounded were carried away - for every American. He then comments, “Among the dead we were surprised to find a very large and coal-black negro. As this was many months before any of our colored troops had been brought to the islands, the man could not have been a deserter from them, but was probably some vagabond seaman who had run away from a merchant-vessel in Manila Bay.”
Fagen became the most famous of the black American guerrilla fighters.”
Like the focused military man he was, Funston moves on, literally and literarily. We learn no more about this extraordinary man. He was apparently left to be buried in anonymity and may remain one of the most interesting and mysterious of the world’s “Unknown Soldiers.” However, it may be possible to track down this independence fighter. The indefatigable Filipino historian George Hizon has found a picture of a black soldier in the ranks of the “boy General,” Gregorio del Pilar, the hero who laid down his life at Triad Pass so that the advancing Americans could not capture General - and president - Emilio Aguinaldo. The photograph is to be found between pages 112 and 113 in the book In Our Image: America’s Empire in the Philippines, by Stanley Karnow (1989). The picture is clear. There is a large black man facing the camera. He is not a Filipino. He is dressed in the attire of all the others in the picture, the ordinary uniform of the Filipino Liberation Army. He is standing in the front, close to the General on his horse. It seems that he was a leader of the troops, and as such may very well have stayed in the trenches to give his life in an attempt to steady the Filipino troops in the face of the American attack which for many of them would have been a new and frightening experience, especially compared to the more passive tactics of the Spanish in the recent past. We still are not clear as to where the black-presumably an American-came from and how he happened to fight in Del Pilar’s unit. But if there are any records of enlistment of Pilar’s troops, we may yet find out who he was.
Fagen was not alone in his rejection of the American “mission” in the Philippines. Exact figures of deserters and defectors do not seem to be available. Commentators differ, but it seems likely there were between fifteen and thirty deserters from the black regiments. Of those it is difficult to say how many joined the Filipinos, but we know the names of seven including Fagen. It seems that the number of black deserters was considered large and quite unusual given their excellent fighting record and steadfastness in previous wars, including the Cuban campaign against the Spanish in which many of those in the Philippines had recently been engaged with great credit. An insight into the desertions is provided by a journalist, Stephen Bonsal, who wrote from the Philippines that “The desertions from the Negro regiments were large-much larger, I believe, than from the white organizations; and these desertions were invariably of a different character. The white man deserted because he was lazy and idle and found service life irksome. Sometimes he joined the insurgents; but he did so, evidently, because that was the only way in which he could obtain his dream of becoming a wild man in the woods. But the Negroes deserted in scores and for the purpose of joining the insurgents, and many of them, like the celebrated Fagan, became leaders and fought the white troops or their former comrades with zest and ability.”
Bonsal and others have commented on the racism which the black troops experienced from the white American soldiers and officers, and the extreme racism at home which resulted in thousands of Afican Americans being lynched during the course of the deployment of the black regiments. The Filipinos reminded them of this white racism in posters and leaflets which were widely circulated calling on the black soldiers to desert, and promising them commissions in the Filipino Army.
Among the dead we were surprised to find a very large and coal-black negro.”
Another factor which weighed on the minds of the black soldiers was the white American racism towards the Filipino people. They were widely and openly called “niggers” and belittled as “savages”; the use of the word “gugu” was not a term of endearment, and seems to be the antecedent for the term of contempt used in Vietnam: gook. As one astute black American noted, the whites had brought Jim Crow to the Philippines; he and many other blacks who did not desert, nevertheless had some understanding of those who did. Indeed, the same soldier, Sgt. Major John W Calloway, was later prosecuted by the Americans after they raided the Manila house of a suspected insurrecto, Tomas Consumji, and found a letter from Calloway in which he expressed sympathy for the Filipinos and stated his opinion that it was an immoral war. The American military hierarchy were becoming increasingly worried that the black troops were too close to the Filipinos. Bonsal commented “While the white soldiers, unfortunately, got on badly with the natives, the black soldiers got on much too well…they became united with the tenderest of ties…many observant officers expressed the view…that the negro soldiers were in closer sympathy with the aims of the native population than they were with those of their white leaders and the policy of the United States.” An example was made of Calloway. He was broken to the rank of private, given a prison sentence and, when he eventually returned to the United States, he was dishonorably discharged. It did not pay, especially if you were black, to express your opinion about the war which was being fought to bring freedom, democracy and civilization to the Philippines! The so-called Operation Enduring Freedom in Iraq has its antecedents in that long ago war.
In the circumstances of a racist, immoral war of conquest, the black soldiers faced a cruel dilemma. They were soldiers trained to obey orders without question. Most thought that in fighting for their country they were carrying out their patriotic duty and thereby helping to improve the position of blacks back home. While they resented the racism, they wanted to prove that African Americans were deserving of a better deal in American society. But they also were aware of the contempt which their “comrades in arms” held for all non-whites, Filipino or American. As Muhammed Ali was to point out in regard to his refusal to fight the Vietnamese: no VCs ever called him a nigger; so too the black American soldiers realized they were better treated by the Filipino people, as “cousins of color” as it was sometimes put, than by their own white countrymen.
While they resented the racism, they wanted to prove that African Americans were deserving of a better deal in American society.”
While we do not know precisely why individuals deserted, it is interesting to note that 6 came from the same unit, the Ninth Cavalry Regiment. There may have been some particular elements involved in the dynamics of personal and official relations in the Ninth, as there seem to have been in Fagen’s experience in I Company, 24th Infantry. (Calloway and others indicated that he was badly treated, came to be labeled insubordinate, and was regularly given the dirty jobs to do by superiors.) Nevertheless, the commitment of such as Fagen to the anti-imperialist cause was made clear in their willingness to risk their lives fighting under severe conditions against over-whelming force of arms.
Having deserted and fought with the resistance, the defectors fared badly when caught. Lewis Russell and Edmond Du Bose were executed before a crowd of 3000 in Albay Province. We are not told what the mood or sympathies of the crowd were. Of some 20 sentenced to death for desertion, only these two black privates were executed. All others, including about fifteen whites, had their sentences commuted by President Theodore Roosevelt ( a national hero for his charge with the Rough Riders against entrenched Spanish troops at San Juan Hill, Santiago de Cuba, “TR” was ever after loathe to admit that it had been a black Regiment-the 10th Cavalry- which had saved him from disaster that day).
Two other black soldiers were sent to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas to serve life terms: Garth Shores and William Victor. A third, John Dalrymple, was reported to have died of fever while still in the mountains of Albay with the Filipino guerrillas. The last of those “Magnificent Seven,” Fred Hunter, was, as they say, “killed while escaping custody.”
Massacres and killings, often after torture, of civilians was not uncommon.”
The Philippine American War, was officially terminated by President Roosevelt on 4 July 1902. Yet like so many other aspects of that imperialist “crusade,” the truth lies elsewhere. President McKinley spoke of his policy as “benevolent assimilation.” In fact it was a long and dirty war of repression. Filipino resistance continued for many years after Roosevelt had said, in effect, “Mission Accomplished.” For the Americans all subsequent resistance was referred to as “brigandage.” The guerrilla fighters were now ladrones, criminals, nolonger even “insurgents.But those who continued the struggle in the following years, such as General Macario Sakay, were treated as heroes by the Filipino people.
It should be remembered that the tactics used against the Filipino resistance were used again and again in subsequent wars: innumerable forms of torture including the “water cure”; territorial curfews and free- fire zones; internal blockades to starve the guerrillas which had the effect of starving the population and led to deepening of epidemics; the “re-concentration” villages of Batangas especially were the model for “hamletting” in Malaya and Vietnam. Reprisal killings of civilians and destruction of houses have perhaps been most often associated historically with the Nazis, but this was a deliberate tactic employed by the Americans in the Philippines. Massacres and killings, often after torture, of civilians was not uncommon, and at Bud Dajo in Moro Mindanao, the Americans committed one of a number of slaughters which rank with My Lai and those of Iraq in recent years.
In remembering the atrocious treatment of the Filipinos in that war, it is fitting that we also remember those who refused to do the dirty work of their military and political leaders. Just as the American Anti-Imperialist League is remembered for its active, though ultimately unsuccessful, campaign to prevent the war, we should remember those black Americans who fought in the jungles and mountains to keep the Philippines free. Their struggle continues in many parts of the world today.
Gill H Boehringer is a Professor of Law and History (ret.) at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. He can be contacted at gil_boehringer(at)