- 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 afternoon of March 23, 1901, eighty-one Macabebes, wearing Filipino uniforms, and their five American “prisoners,” including Funston, met up with a contingent of Aguinaldo’s army, which escorted them to the banks of the Palanan River. The Filipinos held the Americans on the far bank and ferried the Macabebes across and into town, where the houses were bright with garlands and wreaths of flowers. Aguinaldo’s lieutenant explained that the townspeople had been celebrating the thirty-second birthday of el presidente . He apologized that most of the festivities were over. “But,” he added, “we still have music, and I believe you can still have some fun.” He led them to a bandstand in the town square, where they were presented to an honor guard of some sixty soldiers wearing the blue tunics and white hats of the Filipino army. Aguinaldo watched from a window in his headquarters. One of his officers grew uneasy and requested permission to disarm the newcomers. Aguinaldo angrily refused to countenance such behavior toward his “brothers and allies.”
A few minutes later a shout came from outside. “Now is the time, Macabebes! Give it to them!” Shots rattled out.
Aguinaldo ran to the window, thinking the troops were firing a salute. “Stop that foolishness,” he cried out. “Don’t waste ammunition!”
Below, all was chaos. Some of his men lay dead. Others were fleeing, trying to load their guns as they ran.
On the other side of the Palanan River, Funston and the other American “prisoners” snatched their hidden guns and began firing. They leaped into a boat and paddled furiously across the river. By the time they stormed el presidente ’ headquarters, Aguinaldo had been seized.
“I am General Funston, commander of the expedition,” the sudden victor proclaimed. “You are a prisoner of war of the Army of the United States of America. You will be treated with due consideration and sent to Manila at the first opportunity in a steamer, which is coming to take us on board.”
Dazed, Aguinaldo replied, “Is this not some joke?”
Before Aguinaldo’s army could re-group to save its leader, Funston and the Macabebes had him aboard the steamer. Weeks later, after being subjected to intense pressure from U.S. military officials, Aguinaldo renounced the Filipino revolution, swore allegiance to the United States, and called on his followers to do likewise. Most did, and the Philippine-American war was over. Frederick Funston had in fact won the war, almost single-handedly. Because of him more than anyone else, the United States became a formal empire and the Philippines its first colonial possession.
Back home Funston was a sensation. Instead of being mustered out he was promoted to brigadier general, the youngest in the Army. Newspaper editors and politicians championed him for governor of Kansas or for Vice President under Roosevelt in 1904. Publishers offered big advances for his memoirs, and he was the hottest speaker on the lecture circuit. If not the bravest soldier in the annals of American warfare, he was the only one whose actions in the field had decided an entire war. Funston had realized his fondest dream.
His name streaked across the national consciousness, but within a few years it had all but vanished. In 1902 the hero delivered a spate of speeches denouncing anti-imperialists, especially congressmen who were “playing at peanut politics and gambling in the blood of their countrymen.” President Roosevelt, once an admirer of his, now ordered him to cease making speeches, and Funston was subsequently given inconsequential commands. In 1906 he was stationed in San Francisco when the earthquake struck; to the chagrin of his commanding officer, who was away from his post, Funston took charge and blew up some buildings to create a crucial firebreak. Grateful citizens of San Francisco eventually named a park after him. He died of a heart attack in 1917, at the age of fifty-one.
Why was Funston so quickly forgotten? Part of the explanation is that immediately after capturing Aguinaldo he was subjected to sharp criticism. Anti-imperialist members of the Senate, perhaps fearful of his political prospects, launched an inquiry into disturbing rumors concerning his behavior. One of his captains told the Senate committee that Funston had routinely administered the water torture and had ordered his men “to take no prisoners.” The hearings were quickly shut down, but they also brought to light some earlier embarrassments. Two years before, Charles Brenner, a Kansas private, had written home that Funston had ordered that all Filipino prisoners be shot. When word of this accusation was circulated by the anti-imperialist press, the War Department had ordered Gen. Ewell Otis to investigate, and Brenner had produced a corroborating witness, another Kansas soldier, who confessed that he had shot two prisoners after Funston’s lieutenants had ordered, “Kill them! Damn it, kill them!” In his report to the War Department, Otis was dismissive. “It is not thought that this charge is very grievous under the circumstances then existing,” he noted, “as it was very early in the war, and the patience of our men was under great strain.”