- Historic Sites
“Little Colonel Funston”
That’s what the newspapers called him, and he spent an increasingly reckless career trying to edit out the adjective. But even winning a war single-handed didn’t get him what he wanted.
September 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 5
On the night of March 22, 1901, as fierce rains battered his campsite in the wildest reaches of Luzon Island, Frederick Funston pondered what awaited him the next day. In a career that had been full of mortal risks, he was about to take by far the greatest risk of all. Ten miles to the north lay his prey, Emilio Aguinaldo, formerly dictator of the Philippines but now, having tailored his title to fit American expectations, president of the Philippine Republic. Aguinaldo’s Filipino soldiers had long been at war with the United States, a bizarre consequence of the momentous events three years earlier.
On April 11, 1898, President William McKinley had asked Congress to declare war on Spain. Adm. George Dewey, stationed in Hong Kong, had immediately steamed to Manila Bay, found the Spanish fleet at anchor, and destroyed it. As he awaited American invasion troops, Dewey sent to Singapore for Aguinaldo, who had left the Philippines to buy weapons for his anti-Spanish insurgency. By the time the American forces arrived, Aguinaldo had returned to the Philippines, driven the Spanish army into Manila, and thrown up entrenchments around the city. The American Army then squeezed past the resentful Filipinos, briefly exchanged fire with the Spanish, and accepted a surrender on August 13. Because the telegraph cable had been cut, no one knew that Spain, defeated in Cuba, had sued for peace the day before.
The Filipino insurgents then advanced into the trenches the Spanish had used to defend the city and turned their guns to face the Americans. Tensions mounted as both sides awaited news from Washington about the fate of the Philippines. It came on October 25: McKinley would annex the islands, dashing the hopes of the Filipino nationalists.
On February 4, 1899, American sentries opened fire on Aguinaldo’s troops in what soon turned into a rout. Funston himself was the first American soldier into Malolos, Aguinaldo’s capital city, spurring his horse past the burning buildings and racing through the town square to clean out the final barricade with his revolver. But after that, Aguinaldo had bedeviled the U.S. expeditionary Army of some sixty thousand men. McKinley had replaced the American commander with Gen. Arthur MacArthur, who admitted that the defeat of the rebels would cost a hundred million dollars and thousands of American lives. Funston knew that if he himself could somehow capture Aguinaldo, the resistance would collapse.
During the next two years Aguinaldo had proven elusive, and now he was securely ensconced in a remote jungle hideout, and the prospects of catching him were even worse. Long before an American force sufficient to seize his stronghold could make it through the intervening jungles, swollen streams, and mountain ranges, Aguinaldo and his army could slip away to even more inaccessible outposts. That Funston had gotten this close was proof that his ruse was working. Unless, of course, Aguinaldo was luring him into a deadly trap.
Funston knew he had a wild idea, something out of a boy’s adventure story. He came up with it after his men had captured a Filipino courier holding coded documents. Several bore the signature “Colon de Magdalo,” which Funston recognized as Aguinaldo’s secret Masonic name. His interrogation of the courier was successful. (It was later said that Funston had subjected him to the “water torture,” an effective new aid to military intelligence whereby several gallons of water were forced down the throat of a suspect, whose painfully distended belly was then beaten with logs. Funston would say only that he had interrogated the courier “forcefully.”) For whatever reasons, the courier confirmed that Aguinaldo had written the dispatches and revealed that Aguinaldo’s secret redoubt was at Palanan, an inaccessible village in remote Luzon. Working feverishly through the night, Funston deciphered the courier’s documents. One he found particularly intriguing. In it Aguinaldo demanded that the recipient send reinforcements back with the courier.
Funston decided to oblige Aguinaldo. But instead of providing the rebels Aguinaldo desired, Funston would disguise and send his own Macabebe scouts, inveterate foes of Tagalogs such as Aguinaldo. The Macabebes would escort five American “prisoners,” including Funston, directly to Aguinaldo’s headquarters at Palanan. The entire entourage would be guided by the erstwhile courier, whose enthusiasm for the Filipino cause was dwindling by the hour. Once in the heart of Aguinaldo’s compound, the Macabebes and the American “prisoners” would overpower the startled Filipino defenders, seize their leader, hurry him back to Manila, and thus bring the war to an immediate end.