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Funston Captures Aguinaldo
In the wily, elusive leader of the Philippine Insurrection a bedeviled Uncle Sam almost met his match.
February 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 2
In the relatively uneventful spring of 1901, news of an army officer’s daring exploit in a newly acquired possession across the Pacific was the talk of America. By an elaborate ruse General Frederick Funston had captured Emilio Aguinaldo, guiding spirit of the insurrection in the Philippine Islands. Since the Filipinos had no other leader of Aguinaldo’s prowess, it was apparent that the small but exasperating war, which for two years had engaged an American expeditionary force of 70,000, was virtually over.
Today few remember the names of Funston or Aguinaldo; for that matter, the Philippine Insurrection and America’s brief flirtation with imperialism at the turn of the century are all but forgotten. Yet the era is not without significance, because these were the years when, for the first time in its history, the United States extended its territorial jurisdiction beyond the limits of continental North America—and in the process became a world power.
Very soon after the brief war with Spain ended in the summer of 1898, the United States suddenly found itself with its first colonial problem. The Filipinos had expected independence, and when instead the islands were annexed by the United States, many of their “liberated” people, far from welcoming American rule, soon came to dislike the new masters as much as the old ones. Unlike some Americans, they did not view annexation as an act of humanity toward an ignorant, downtrodden, and backward people; and on February 4, 1899, two days before the Senate ratified the annexation treaty, Filipino insurgents attacked the American expeditionary force stationed in and around Manila.
At first it seemed an easy matter to put down the insurrection, for in fight after fight the Americans beat back the disorganized and poorly equipped rebel army. Finally realizing that they could not win by conventional means of warfare, thousands of Filipinos resorted to guerrilla tactics, and the struggle became a grim series of sudden ambuscades, brutal reprisals, and small patrol actions in the jungle—a type of combat for which the harassed Americans were totally unprepared. Once the rebels discarded their uniforms, the transformation from soldier to civilian was simply a matter of hiding rifle and bolo in the brush. Villagers who turned out of their thatched huts to wave flags and shout “amigo” at passing American columns became insurrectos again the moment the troops faded from sight.
This plan of resistance did have an Achilles’ heel, however, for it was predicated on the guiding spirit of one man, Aguinaldo, who led the insurgent army and who had proclaimed himself president of the Philippine Republic. A wiry, boyish-looking little man who weighed only 115 pounds, Aguinaldo was a veteran of revolutionary activity in the cause of Philippine independence. To the superstitious natives—and to the Americans as well—he seemed to possess “anting-anting,” a mystical power to resist bullets and capture.
After nearly two years of frustrating warfare against the guerrillas, American military authorities concluded that the revolt would never be broken until Aguinaldo was killed or captured. The trouble was that intelligence officers had been totally unable to discover his whereabouts and knew only that rebel army commanders received orders from a clandestine headquarters somewhere on Luzon Island. It was a mystery which remained unsolved until a chance occurrence revealed Aguinaldo’s hiding place to Funston, a tough little army officer from Kansas.
Funston had spent a large part of his 36 years wandering—a soldier of fortune in a real sense. Five feet five inches tall, he had the stocky, well-muscled build of a bantamweight boxer. A competent botanist (although he never finished college), he served for several years as a special agent of the Department of Agriculture, a job which took him on expeditions to such places as Death Valley and Alaska—where he once made a 1,500-mile canoe trip down the Yukon River.
Passing through New York City early in 1896, Funston volunteered to join the Cuban insurgents in their revolution against Spain. Always hungry for excitement, he enlisted as an artillery officer even though he had never fired a field piece. A few weeks in an attic with a small cannon and an instruction manual gave him enough knowledge to qualify, and in August 1896 he was smuggled into Cuba. There he fought for eighteen months, returning home just before the outbreak of the Spanish-American War. On the basis of his Cuban experience, he was made commander of the 20th Kansas Regiment, which sailed for the Philippine Islands in the fall of 1898.
Although Funston arrived too late to fight the Spanish—who had surrendered a few months after Dewey’s victory in May—he saw plenty of action in the insurrection. Leading his troops in 38 engagements, he was wounded once and rose in rank from colonel to brigadier general of volunteers. At the battle of Calumpit, he particularly distinguished himself. Under heavy fire he crossed a 400-foot river on a raft and with a small group of men established a bridgehead, which he held until reinforcements arrived to solidify the position. For his performance in this action he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.