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Funston Captures Aguinaldo

June 2024
15min read

In the wily, elusive leader of the Philippine Insurrection a bedeviled Uncle Sam almost met his match.

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.

On February 8, 1901, Funston was at his headquarters at San Isidro on Luzon Island when a detachment of American troops reported the surrender of some rebels in a nearby village. To be sure, rebels drifted into the American lines daily, offering to take the oath of allegiance; but this particular party happened to be commanded by Cecilio Segismundo, Aguinaldo’s trusted messenger. Furthermore, Segismundo was reported to be carrying some important dispatches.

Suspecting that this might be a significant development. Funston ordered Segismundo and the dispatches rushed to San Isidro. Under questioning the Filipino admitted that he was connected with Aguinaldo and identified the village of Palanan, in the mountainous northern reaches of Luzon, as the rebel headquarters. Segismundo told Funston that there were no more than fifty guards at Palanan, adding that even the villagers were unaware that the famous leader was in their midst. Aguinaldo was known to them simply as “Captain Emilio.”

Delaying judgment as to whether or not Segismundo was telling the truth, Funston then turned to the dispatches, many of which were in code. A closer examination revealed that some were signed with the names “Pastor” and “Colon Magdalo,” which were pseudonyms often used by Aguinaldo. The handwriting of the signatures was unmistakably his, so there could be no doubt that the dispatches were genuine.

Funston, another American officer, and Lazaro Segovia, a trusted intelligence agent who understood English, Spanish, and the Tagalog dialect of the islands, labored all night over the code. By morning, the messages were deciphered. Unfortunately they did not mention the location of Aguinaldo’s headquarters but indicated that this information was known by the bearer. Funston concluded that Segismundo had been telling the truth.

One of Funston’s first plans was to land a military force close to Palanan from a gunboat and march overland to the capital; but Segismundo warned that such an operation would be instantly detected. Actually an American column had entered Palanan some months before but had found nothing. Segismundo’s explanation was that the approach of the Americans had been reported and that the dictator had fled to the hills with his staff and archives.

Some other method would have to be found. At length, Funston concluded that Aguinaldo’s dispatches provided him with the method whereby the capture could be effected. The most important message was an order to Baldomero Aguinaldo, the dictator’s cousin, instructing him to assume command of all guerrilla operations in central Luzon. He was further ordered to have his subordinate commanders send some companies of crack troops to headquarters for Aguinaldo’s personal service.

Funston decided to disguise some loyal Filipinos and send them to Palanan posing as the men Aguinaldo had requested. Funston and a few other American officers, disguised as prisoners of war, would accompany the column. The plan was submitted to American Headquarters, where it was approved by General Arthur MacArthur (father of General Douglas MacArthur). Later, when the expedition was ready to depart, MacArthur voiced his misgivings as he seized the brigadier’s hand and said, “Funston, this is a desperate undertaking. I fear that I shall never see you again.”

The plan was prepared with care. Funston handpicked 81 Macabebes, whose loyalty to the United States was intensified by their traditional hatred of Aguinaldo’s Tagalogs. These Little Macs, as Funston dubbed his charges, were chosen because they spoke Tagalog in addition to their own dialect. They were armed with captured rebel rifles, and most of them were dressed as peasants, since few insurgents wore uniforms.

Since Funston was supposed to be a prisoner, the column would have to be under the command of Filipino officers. In addition to Segismundo, Funston picked Hilario Tal Placido, Lazaro Segovia, Dionisio Bató, and Gregorio Cadhit. Placido had been an officer in the rebel army before taking the oath of allegiance to the United States, and he knew Aguinaldo personally. To join him in acting as American prisoners (all the Americans were to be disguised as privates), Funston chose Captains Harry W. Newton and R.T. Hazzard, and Lieutenants Burton J. Mitchell and O.P.M. Hazzard. Newton knew something about the country through which the expedition would pass.

After sundown on March 6, 1901, the gunboat Vicksburg steamed out of Manila Bay with the expedition aboard. Once at sea, Funston revealed the nature of the adventure to his men. The ex-insurgent officers were visibly perturbed at being asked to go into the lion’s den, but the Macabebes were enthusiastic about the project. Pedro Bustos, a sergeant who wore decorations conferred by the Spanish, spoke up proudly, “My General, I cannot speak for the others; but for myself, I am a soldier of the United States.” Funston would have no difficulty with his Little Macs.

Although the plan had involved several weeks of preparation, it was actually quite simple. Segismundo had warned that no steamer could touch shore within 100 miles of rebel headquarters without being reported immediately by Aguinaldo’s agents. So it was decided to leave the Vicksburg some miles at sea and paddle ashore in three barcas. These canoe-like sailboats were procured en route, but the seas ran heavily and they all swamped. So Funston was forced to run the risk of detection by having the Vicksburg approach the beach at night. The men then went ashore, and the steamer was again out of sight by dawn. Fortunately this operation was accomplished without incident or discovery. The expedition found itself ashore near its first objective, the village of Casiguran.

The next morning, March 14, the party set off for Casiguran. It was only a few miles away, but the sea was rough and it rained incessantly during the trip. The men followed the beach all the way, but mangrove thickets often came down to the water’s edge, and the troops were forced to wade around them. As a result of the delay, the journey consumed the better part of one whole day, and when the men reached Casiguran they were completely exhausted and famished, since they had brought only enough food for breakfast. Although it was not much of a town, Casiguran proved a welcome sight. Funston, his fellow “prisoners,” and the Macabebes had three days in which to recuperate before they resumed the journey.

While resting at Casiguran, Funston put the plan into operation. He had prepared letters for Aguinaldo, and these were sent to rebel headquarters from Casiguran. One letter, purportedly from Placido, recounted how his column, while en route to rebel headquarters with Segismundo, had encountered a small force of Americans, with whom a skirmish had been fought. Five of the Americans had been captured and were being brought to headquarters for questioning. In this manner Funston prepared Aguinaldo to accept the presence of some Americans so close to his hiding place.

Under ordinary circumstances Aguinaldo might have been suspicious of this message, but Funston had added a master touch to give it an authenticity above question. Another letter allegedly came from Lacuna, one of Aguinaldo’s commanders in Luzon. In this letter, Funston, in the role of Lacuna, said that in accordance with instructions from Baldomero Aguinaldo he was sending eighty men to the rebel capital under command of Placido, Segovia, and Segismundo. This was in keeping with instructions contained in the messages Segovia had decoded at San Isidro.

During the previous October, Funston had had a brush with Lacuna in which he had captured the rebel’s personal property, including some stationery with the words “Brigada Lacuna” printed at the top of each sheet. An expert forger in Manila had imitated Lacuna’s signature on some of them, and it was on these that Funston wrote his message to Aguinaldo. The signature and letterhead deceived Aguinaldo completely, and he accepted the message as being genuine.

The Macabebes had a holiday at Casiguran as the village band turned out to do them homage, and the inhabitants clustered around to hear of their gallant victory over Funston’s men. The Little Macs proved to be consummate liars and took much delight in expanding their stories. Funston was justifiably worried that they might overdo it and arouse suspicion, forget themselves and speak in their native dialect rather than Tagalog, or fail to treat the Americans as prisoners. A deference for officers was something the Spanish had instilled in them, and it was extremely difficult for Funston to convince his Macs that they would have to treat him and the other American officers as prisoners of war.

Worrisome as these problems were, they were the least of Funston’s headaches. In Casiguran he heard that Aguinaldo had been reinforced by 400 men. Five to one odds were sufficient cause for alarm, but Funston assured his men that the element of surprise would more than compensate for this disparity in force.

The principal danger, however, was a lack of provisions. It was a seven-day march to Palanan and the alcalde, or mayor, of Casiguran could supply enough food for only three days. The terrain was known to be the roughest and most difficult in Luzon. The alcalde offered to have enough food available in a week, but Funston did not dare delay that long because the Vicksburg was scheduled to arrive at Palanan Bay on March 25. If Funston did not bag his quarry and arrive before that date, the gunboat’s appearance would send Aguinaldo packing into the hills. Further delay at Casiguran was unthinkable.

The expedition set out for its final destination, trusting to luck that the provisions on hand would be sufficient. There were other dangers and mishaps. Funston took along twelve men from Casiguran to act as bearers, and he was still concerned that his Macabebes might betray the plan to them by speaking m their own dialect. This did not happen, but before the first day’s hike ended, the enterprise was jeopardized by the desertion of the party’s guide. Fortunately one of the Casiguran bearers thought he knew the way to Palanan, and the expedition pressed forward.

The rain continued to fall daily. Although the column hugged the beach, it was still necessary to bypass mangrove thickets by wading in the heavy surf, to ford innumerable streams, and to ascend precipitous cliffs which rose directly from the water’s edge. Even where the beach was wide enough to permit passage, progress was delayed by innumerable boulders ranging in size from watermelons to boxcars.

The meager three-day rations were stretched to last five days by partaking of only two meals daily, supplementing them with a “revolting mess” of stewed snails, limpets, and devilfish. On the fifth night the men lay down supperless. The column was rapidly approaching the limit of endurance as the exhausted men reeled along the trail without any semblance of order. Upper-most in Funston’s tired brain was the thought that 450 men at Aguinaldo’s camp still had to be fought: the Macabebcs, in their weakened condition, were no match for a dozen.

Ironically, it was Funston’s good fortune to be rescued by Aguinaldo himself. The dictator had received the forged letters and dispatched a man to intercept the approaching column. This envoy arrived on the sixth night and presented to the Filipino officers a message from Simon Villa, Aguinaldo’s chief of staff. Provisions could be sent from Palanan. There was one dark spot, however, for Villa ordered that the American prisoners were to be left at Dinundungan. It would be impolitic, he said, to bring them to Palanan, where they would discover the dictator’s presence.

The town of Dinundungan actually proved to exist in name only. When the expedition arrived there, it found an old man supervising a few natives, who were building huts for the prisoners. Food arrived from Palanan, and the Macabebes and the prisoners revived their spirits with a hearty meal; but even more revivifying was the news that Aguinaldo had not received the 400 reinforcements. He had only the fifty guards that Segismundo had previously mentioned.

During the night Funston, Placido, and Segovia held a conference, and again the General utilized his facile pen. It was arranged that the Macs would leave the next morning and that an hour after the departure a false message would be sent back to the jailer instructing him to send the prisoners forward. This was done to allay the old man’s suspicions. The next day everything went according to plan. The decoy message arrived, and the jailer, after a few comments on the unpredictability of army ways, sent the prisoners along with the ten Macabebes who had been left as guards.

Palanan and success were only eight miles away, but within sight of the goal Funston began to falter. His splendid physique, perfected by years of campaigning and exploring, now began to collapse. He moved forward under great strain and every hundred yards was forced to lie prostrate for a few minutes to regain his breath. The rear guard moved at a snail’s pace.

Suddenly there emerged from the bushes ahead of them a panting Macabebe sergeant, running at top speed, who waved them into a thicket and held up his other hand for silence. Funston and the others had scarcely reached the protection of some bamboo and brush when the reason for the warning became apparent. A small band of rebels was coming toward them along the trail. The gaily chatting insurrectos passed within a few feet of the crouching Americans.

As it turned out, these were a group of rebel officers from Palanan en route to guard the prisoners. At the head of the main column, Placido and Segovia had moved ahead with all possible speed after sending the faked letter to Dinundungan. When they met the rebel guards, Segovia had engaged them in conversation for a moment, while signaling to the sergeant to scurry back and warn Funston.

About the time Funston and his men were crouching in the undergrowth, the main party had reached the Palanan River, which proved to be about 100 yards wide, swollen from the rain. On the opposite bank stood Aguinaldo’s hideout. Segovia and Placido crossed the stream in a barca and made their way toward Aguinaldo, who stood before his headquarters with seven of his officers. Since the one available barca held only eight men, it would take at least half an hour to ferry the rest of the command across.

Aguinaldo took the two officers to his residence. While Placido answered questions and gave a verbose, time-consuming description of their magnificent victory over the American patrol and their capture of five of its members, Segovia stood near the window and watched the ferrying operation, well aware that any slip might betray the plot before the Macabebes had crossed.

It was a torturous thirty minutes, but Placido played his part magnificently without arousing any suspicion. Once across, the Little Macs formed ranks and marched up the bank to a point opposite Aguinaldo’s guards. As the line swung abreast of the dictator’s troops, Segovia called to his men and waved his hat. This was the signal, and in a moment eighty Mausers, Remingtons, and Krags barked a volley. Two guards went down, and the rest broke in confusion.

Still Aguinaldo did not surmise what had happened. Thinking that his men had fired a volley in honor of the new arrivals, he rushed to the window to order them to save their ammunition. As he did, Placido threw his arms about the dictator’s waist and wrestled him to the ground, while Segovia dashed back into the room from the balcony where he had given the signal. Aguinaldo’s officers began to recover from their shock and were drawing their side arms, when Segovia let fly with the six cartridges in his own revolver. He hit and downed two of the rebels; the rest surrendered or leaped out the windows and made for the river, where they escaped by swimming.

The rattle of rifle fire ended as swiftly as it had begun. Funston had reached the river just as the shooting commenced and crossed quickly. His timely intervention spared the lives of some of Aguinaldo’s men who otherwise might have been killed by the aroused Macabebes. Inside the headquarters building Funston found the rebel commander helplessly pinned to the floor with the rotund Placido astride his back. It was only then that Aguinaldo realized what had happened and meekly surrendered.

The expedition was over, and Funston’s men relaxed and dined luxuriously on the food left behind by the villagers, all of whom had fled to the hills at the first shot. On the morning of March 25, the party headed for Palanan Bay and the rendezvous with the Vicksburg.

On the way back to Manila Aguinaldo realized that the Americans intended him no violence, and he spoke to Funston quite frankly, admitting that he had been completely deceived by the letters. Within a few weeks he issued a proclamation from Manila urging his followers to lay down their arms and accept terms from the Americans. Except for a few pockets of resistance, the rebellion seemed broken.

General MacArthur recommended Funston for a general’s star in the Regular Army. The hero was feted and lionized for his daring actions. Suddenly, however, it became evident that the approbation was not universal. In Washington a spirited debate broke out in the Senate over the confirmation of his new commission.

After considerable delay Funston’s commission was confirmed in December 1901, and on January 9, 1902, he returned to America. But he was still the center of a violent controversy. Some anti-imperialists criticized anything or anyone connected with the American intervention in the Philippines. Others were genuinely shocked at the tactics Funston had used to capture Aguinaldo. He had, they charged, forged communications, clothed his men in enemy uniforms, accepted food from the man he planned to capture and gained admission to his stronghold by deception, and fired upon the guards without warning. All these constituted a damning indictment.

Never one to duck a fight, Funston countered with a speech in New York before the Lotos Club. He defended the Army and imperialism, and claimed that American lives were being lost because “misinformed and misguided” people at home were encouraging Filipino resistance.

When he went so far as to endorse hanging for critics of the war, Funston opened a breach between himself and his opponents that could not be closed. In the Senate Thomas M. Patterson of Colorado and Edward W. Carmack of Tennessee blistered him as “a Jayhawker Brigadier from the windswept plains, the mightiest Samson that ever wielded the jawbone of an ass as the weapon of war.” Funston’s violent diatribes against the senators proved embarrassing to the Administration, and on April 22, 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt ordered him to keep silent.

The controversy died down in time, and in 1906, when Funston commanded the troops in San Francisco after the great earthquake, he was universally praised as the man who saved that city from complete disaster.

Funston neither forgot nor forgave his critics, however, and some years later, while again stationed in the now-pacified Philippines, he remembered those who had criticized him for accepting food before capturing his benefactor. “I would be very much interested in seeing the results of a surgical operation performed on the skull of [such] a man,” he wrote.

He reflected a moment longer on what such an operation would reveal, and then with his ever-sharp pen he wrote his answer: “Sweetbreads.”

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