- 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
Then he withdrew from college —and, emphatically, from human contact. First he explored an unmapped section of Death Valley. Then he volunteered to gather botanical samples in northernmost Alaska for the Department of Agriculture. When the department proposed that he head an expedition for the purpose, he flatly turned them down. “I do not need anybody to take care of me, and I do not want to take care of anybody.” Alone, he trekked north into the frigid wastes of Alaska and remained there for the better part of a year. When he ran out of food, he ate the sled dogs.
During those excruciatingly long, hollow nights at the top of the world, Funston would read aloud the only book he had lugged beyond the Arctic Circle: Kipling’s Soldiers Three , a collection about British army life in India in which each soldier attempts to get the better of the others with ribald tales and sharp banter. What keeps their rivalry from destroying their friendship is a shared conviction that as English fighting men they are destined to prevail over the native peoples around them. Perhaps during one of these evenings it came to Funston that he could hardly prove that he measured up if no one was around to take the measurements.
Funston returned from Alaska longing for life as lived by Kipling’s heroes. He wanted to experience war and didn’t much care whom or for what he fought. In 1895 he went to New York City to sell accounts of his adventures to the newspapers and magazines. While there he happened on a rally for the Cuban insurgents who were trying to rid the island of its Spanish overlords. Almost instantly he volunteered to serve with the rebels; though he had never fired a cannon, he was offered—and accepted—a commission as an artillery officer. Within weeks he had slipped into Cuba and was at war with the Spanish, one of a handful of Yankee guerrilleros fighting for the Cubans.
He said, “I am General Funston. . . . You are a prisoner of war.” Aguinaldo replied, “Is this not some joke?”
He made up for his lack of gunnery skill by sneaking his Hotchkiss cannon absurdly close to Spanish fortifications at night, often within four hundred yards, while a gang of nervous Cubans frantically threw up a protective parapet. As the sun rose, the Spaniards, aghast at what was sitting on their doorstep, fired everything they had at the cannon. Time after time Funston calmly adjusted the sights, pulled the lanyard, and climbed up on the parapet, shouting, “Viva cuba libre!” During one engagement Napoleon Chapleau, another American volunteer, was hit. Funston ran over to find him mortally wounded, blood gushing from his neck. The man said faintly, “It is finished, it is all over,” and died. “Another brave man had died a soldier’s death,” Funston later reported, adding a gloss on the dramatic possibilities of war: “The scene just described is such a one as we have all seen on the stage in melodramas and military plays, and have always thought overdone and unreal. But within a stone’s throw was a battery in action, and as Chapleau sank into his last sleep with the silent and uncovered men about him, the last sounds he heard were the booming of the guns and the crackle of the Mausers and the whistling of their bullets while the wisps of smoke blowing back from the battery gave a setting that could not be had on any stage.”
During that year Funston was repeatedly wounded, once when a bullet pierced both lungs. An even more serious hip wound became badly infected. He sought permission to go to the United States for medical treatment, but the Cubans refused to allow him to do what they could not, so he simply sneaked out of camp and made his way for the coast. But he was apprehended by a Spanish patrol and brought before a court-martial, which threatened him with execution. He managed to talk his way out and was released to the American consulate in Havana.
He was not yet done with war. In 1898 Funston, by now thirty-two, lobbied for and was given command of the 20th Kansas Regiment, which had volunteered to fight against Spain. To his dismay, however, the Kansans were sent not to Cuba, where Teddy Roosevelt and others were acquiring the fame Funston believed he had earned, but to the Philippines. He was thus deeply gratified when gunfire erupted between the Filipino nationalists and the Americans, and he finally got the war he craved, with gallant charges, glorious victories, and plenty of newspaper and magazine feature stories. And just ten miles away lay the greatest story of all. Captive would become captor, and the little man a great one. Dead or alive, Funston would become his nation’s biggest hero ever.