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“Little Colonel Funston”

June 2024
13min read

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.

On the night of March 22, 1901, as fierce rains battered his campsite in the wildest reaches of Luzon Island, Frederick Funston pondered what awaited him the next day. In a career that had been full of mortal risks, he was about to take by far the greatest risk of all. Ten miles to the north lay his prey, Emilio Aguinaldo, formerly dictator of the Philippines but now, having tailored his title to fit American expectations, president of the Philippine Republic. Aguinaldo’s Filipino soldiers had long been at war with the United States, a bizarre consequence of the momentous events three years earlier.

On April 11, 1898, President William McKinley had asked Congress to declare war on Spain. Adm. George Dewey, stationed in Hong Kong, had immediately steamed to Manila Bay, found the Spanish fleet at anchor, and destroyed it. As he awaited American invasion troops, Dewey sent to Singapore for Aguinaldo, who had left the Philippines to buy weapons for his anti-Spanish insurgency. By the time the American forces arrived, Aguinaldo had returned to the Philippines, driven the Spanish army into Manila, and thrown up entrenchments around the city. The American Army then squeezed past the resentful Filipinos, briefly exchanged fire with the Spanish, and accepted a surrender on August 13. Because the telegraph cable had been cut, no one knew that Spain, defeated in Cuba, had sued for peace the day before.

The Filipino insurgents then advanced into the trenches the Spanish had used to defend the city and turned their guns to face the Americans. Tensions mounted as both sides awaited news from Washington about the fate of the Philippines. It came on October 25: McKinley would annex the islands, dashing the hopes of the Filipino nationalists.


On February 4, 1899, American sentries opened fire on Aguinaldo’s troops in what soon turned into a rout. Funston himself was the first American soldier into Malolos, Aguinaldo’s capital city, spurring his horse past the burning buildings and racing through the town square to clean out the final barricade with his revolver. But after that, Aguinaldo had bedeviled the U.S. expeditionary Army of some sixty thousand men. McKinley had replaced the American commander with Gen. Arthur MacArthur, who admitted that the defeat of the rebels would cost a hundred million dollars and thousands of American lives. Funston knew that if he himself could somehow capture Aguinaldo, the resistance would collapse.

During the next two years Aguinaldo had proven elusive, and now he was securely ensconced in a remote jungle hideout, and the prospects of catching him were even worse. Long before an American force sufficient to seize his stronghold could make it through the intervening jungles, swollen streams, and mountain ranges, Aguinaldo and his army could slip away to even more inaccessible outposts. That Funston had gotten this close was proof that his ruse was working. Unless, of course, Aguinaldo was luring him into a deadly trap.

Funston knew he had a wild idea, something out of a boy’s adventure story. He came up with it after his men had captured a Filipino courier holding coded documents. Several bore the signature “Colon de Magdalo,” which Funston recognized as Aguinaldo’s secret Masonic name. His interrogation of the courier was successful. (It was later said that Funston had subjected him to the “water torture,” an effective new aid to military intelligence whereby several gallons of water were forced down the throat of a suspect, whose painfully distended belly was then beaten with logs. Funston would say only that he had interrogated the courier “forcefully.”) For whatever reasons, the courier confirmed that Aguinaldo had written the dispatches and revealed that Aguinaldo’s secret redoubt was at Palanan, an inaccessible village in remote Luzon. Working feverishly through the night, Funston deciphered the courier’s documents. One he found particularly intriguing. In it Aguinaldo demanded that the recipient send reinforcements back with the courier.

Funston decided to oblige Aguinaldo. But instead of providing the rebels Aguinaldo desired, Funston would disguise and send his own Macabebe scouts, inveterate foes of Tagalogs such as Aguinaldo. The Macabebes would escort five American “prisoners,” including Funston, directly to Aguinaldo’s headquarters at Palanan. The entire entourage would be guided by the erstwhile courier, whose enthusiasm for the Filipino cause was dwindling by the hour. Once in the heart of Aguinaldo’s compound, the Macabebes and the American “prisoners” would overpower the startled Filipino defenders, seize their leader, hurry him back to Manila, and thus bring the war to an immediate end.

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.

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.

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.”

Mark Twain suggested that Funston’s “conscience leaked out through one of his pores when he was little.”

The manner in which Aguinaldo was apprehended also proved unsettling. In an article in Harper’s Weekly on November 11, 1899, Funston had complained that the Filipinos “violated all the rules of civilized warfare, and they knew perfectly well what they were violating. They would bring flags of truce, and when our men went forward under similar flags, the insurgents would fire upon them.” Yet Funston’s stratagem for taking Aguinaldo was far more outrageous. Critics noted that Funston and the Americans had fired their weapons after Aguinaldo had surrendered and that the Macabebes had been wearing enemy uniforms; both actions violated international law. The underhanded manner in which the Filipinos had been defeated raised further doubts about whether the nation’s imperial venture subverted the ideals on which the American nation was founded.

But there was something else too. Although he embodied a heroic ideal as old as history itself, Funston’s stark lust for martial glory, unsoftened by the haze of time, disconcerted those who chose to look closely. There was no point in blaming Funston for his deeds, wrote Mark Twain, “because his conscience leaked out through one of his pores when he was little.”

Shame has always impelled young men to battle and to do things great and gruesome. Tim O’Brien, our foremost novelist of the Vietnam War, explained that he participated as a foot soldier in that conflict “out of a kind of personal terror—fear of censure, fear of humiliation, fear of exile, fear of jail, fear of ridicule, fear that my reputation might be damaged among my friends and family, fear of blushing before the stolid folks in my little hometown. ... In short, I capitulated to an overwhelming fear of embarrassment. . . . Conscience is crippled by cowardice. We kill out of embarrassment. We die of embarrassment.”

Aggression is necessary for military success, and both are essential to the survival of peoples and nations. Yet aggression often takes root in the darkest recesses of the soul, wherein lurks, among young men especially, an immense fear of humiliation. Funston’s life, so familiar in its basic outlines, so heroic in its wild trajectory, so inspiring in its determined assault upon adversity, on closer inspection provides a disturbing glimpse into that darkness.

Sometimes we forget our heroes because there is too much to remember; the press of new events inevitably crowds out the old. But sometimes it’s best that our heroes remain forgotten, lest they remind us of things we do not wish to know.

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