“Little Colonel Funston”


When Funston outlined his scheme to his superior, General MacArthur had deep misgivings. Sitting on his desk was a cable from Washington ordering Funston’s recall; his request for a permanent commission had been rejected, and he was to be mustered out of the service immediately. (“I am making lieutenants of better stuff than Funston every day,” the staff officer had noted. “Funston is a boss scout—that’s all.”) Quite apart from his orders, MacArthur saw that Funston’s venture was a tissue of implausibilities. Surely Aguinaldo or at least some of his Tagalogs would see through the disguises of the Macabebes or overhear them speaking their own dialect. And even if they got inside Aguinaldo’s compound, the Filipino army would almost certainly obliterate Funston’s greatly outnumbered troupe of play-actors. However, MacArthur had boldly promised decisive results and so far had little to show for his efforts. So he finally agreed to allow his headstrong subordinate to give it a try. “Funston, this is a desperate undertaking,” he said as they parted. “I fear I shall never see you again.”

His was the dream of boys who play soldier: charging ahead, dispatching the enemy, being feted by the nation.

Funston knew that this was his last chance. He had attracted far too much attention; his colorful comments had played into the hands of critics of the war, and his headline-grabbing exploits had irritated the regular officers. Time and again he had been told to keep his mouth shut, but every corpuscle in his blood impelled him to the heart of the action and then obliged him to talk about what he had done or seen. The truth of the matter was that Funston had always wanted to be a hero, someone whose martial prowess and courage could determine the outcome of a war: David bringing down Goliath and routing the Philistines; Achilles wading into the Trojans and breaking the siege; Napoleon working his will upon all Europe. His was the dream of boys who play soldier: charging ahead of the others in the teeth of enemy fire; seizing the ramparts and dispatching the enemy; sustaining dreadful (but not disfiguring) wounds; being publicly feted by a grateful nation; and receiving, in private, the adoring ministrations of a beautiful girl. Most men, on easing into manhood, redefine heroism in more prosaic terms: providing for a family despite being laid off; preserving scruples or friendships when to do so is unpopular; walking calmly, at the close of life, toward the abyss. Funston wanted none of this. He craved pristine glory of the classical kind, a glory that the industrial world had nearly blasted into oblivion. He wanted not just to win battles but to reclaim a type of heroism that had already become old-fashioned.

Funston had undertaken such a quest out of fear that he did not measure up. Partly this was because his father had set so daunting a standard. Edward (“Foghorn”) Funston stood six feet two, weighed two hundred pounds, and had a deep, bellowing voice and sharp, scathing tongue. During the Civil War he worked his way through the ranks to become an artillery officer. Afterward he set up a homestead in Kansas, became prominent in Republican circles, and was repeatedly elected to Congress. Nearly always he plunged into whatever fray he could find. At sixty-nine he gave a fiery speech on a street corner and nearly came to blows with a law officer who tried to arrest him for disturbing the peace. Foghorn Funston was an exemplar of late-nineteenth-century manhood.

But not his first son, Frederick, born in 1865, a boy who was always much smaller than his friends and seemed to them effeminate. His schoolmates teased him. At an early age Funston resolved to compensate for his appearance with displays of martial bravado. He soaked up his father’s war stories and read all that he could about war in dime novels and frontier tales; he also read Plutarch and Macaulay as well as Carlyle’s biography of Oliver Cromwell and essay on heroes and hero worship.

Funston craved a military career, but although his father was a congressman, the boy was rejected by West Point; his grades were mediocre, and he was too small. In 1886 he went to the University of Kansas at Lawrence, but there he proved something of a misfit. The professors and classes held no interest for him, and instead he read war novels and soldiers’ biographies. But most of his energies were devoted to his highly visible and wholly unsuccessful pursuit of the most desirable women on campus, all of whom spurned him. His fraternity brothers called him little Timmie Funston. Jokes about his size followed him into the Army. Behind his back his men called him the bantam general. Even his father, when asked to comment on his son’s activities, responded with wry humor. Worse still, The New York Times , in its coverage of a battle after Malolos that led to his winning the Medal of Honor, ran the headline DARING LITTLE COLONEL FUNSTON . The opening paragraph attributed Funston’s courage to the fact that, at five feet five inches and 115 pounds, he was too small to get hit.

His fear of humiliation made him wary of people even in college. Increasingly he retreated from social gatherings, preferring to drink alone in his room but periodically flying out of it in a drunken rage, tearing up Lawrence’s wooden sidewalks, and screaming obscenities. Some of his friends worried that he was becoming an alcoholic.