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  • James Houser

March 23, 1901 - The Philippine Insurrection & Capture of Aguinaldo

Updated: Jun 4, 2021

March 23, 1901. With the aid of local informants, American troops launch a daring raid into the mountains and finally capture their High Value Target, the leader of a deadly counterinsurgency they’ve been fighting for years. No, it’s not the Global War on Terror. The target is Emilio Aguinaldo. The Philippine Insurrection has finally begun to end.

The Philippine War, 1899-1902, is truly America’s forgotten war. Few Americans even know that decades before Vietnam, the United States fought a protracted and frustrating guerrilla war to subdue a Southeast Asian nation. Few Americans know that before Iraq or Afghanistan, what looked like a quick victory turned into a war that required the paradoxical strategies of counterinsurgency and an effort to win the “hearts and minds” of the population.

The reason the Philippine War doesn’t feature in most American history is very simple: it features us in a bad light, and it was the opposite of sexy, nice-painting chest-bumping history. How exactly did we get involved in this thing?

The Spanish conquered the Philippines in the 1570s and typically governed them pretty loosely ever since. The island chain is huge and incredibly diverse, with almost two hundred different languages spoken and all different kinds of religions and cultures. The Spanish never had the ability or will to impose any sort of order on this kaleidoscope of peoples, but in the 1870s some of the newly educated middle classes started agitating for independence. The Spanish overreacted, committed atrocities, and started a resistance movement.

By the 1890s, this movement’s leader was Emilio Aguinaldo. He stitched together a loose band of Filipino insurgents that fought the Spanish to a near-standstill by 1897. The Spanish offered Aguinaldo a deal: take a bunch of money and go into exile, and they promised to implement limited reforms.

Aguinaldo made his way to Hong Kong, but the Spanish Governor quickly reneged on his promises and the reforms never emerged. Spain couldn’t, or wouldn’t, change; it was fighting a similar rebellion in Cuba, and any sign of weakness could embolden the rebels in both nations.

Spain was about to lose both, however. In April 1898, the Spanish-American War broke out, and an American fleet under Commodore George Dewey made ready to set sail from Hong Kong to take the Philippines from Spanish control. Dewey and some American diplomats made a deal with Aguinaldo that he could return and help liberate his homeland – but what that meant, exactly, no one could be sure. Aguinaldo thought it meant independence for the Philippines, and the Americans thought it meant that the Philippines would become an American colony.

Dewey destroyed the Spanish Fleet in Manila Bay quickly, a victory that would make him a national hero, and Aguinaldo arrived soon after. With the aid of Aguinaldo and the Filipino army he quickly raised, American forces conquered Manila by August, but troubling signs already appeared – the Americans refused to let Aguinaldo’s forces enter the city. Even as the Filipinos under Aguinaldo’s leadership were setting up assemblies to vote for independence, things were turning against them. It was a terrible shock on December 10, 1898, when Spain’s peace treaty with the United States explicitly ceded the Philippines to them as an imperial possession – but the same treaty stated that Cuba was independent.

Aguinaldo went ahead and declared Filipino independence anyway on January 23, 1899, but the Americans were having none of it. Fighting broke out on February 4, and by the next day the Filipinos had been defeated by overwhelming American firepower and were in headlong retreat from Manila.

"Battle before Caloocan", painted 1899. General Arthur MacArthur Jr. is in the foreground.

The war had begun. Around 35,000 US soldiers were in the Philippines, and they faced about 40,000 Filipino soldiers. As the Americans spread throughout the main island of Luzon, the Filipinos tried and failed to resist them, but were forced to fall back through the jungle. Aguinaldo and his government abandoned temporary capital after temporary capital, and they continued to lose every time they confronted the American forces. On November 13, 1899, Aguinaldo accepted the inevitable and declared a general guerrilla war.

Col. Frederick Funston's 20th Kansas Volunteers after Caloocan, Feb 20, 1899

For the Americans, the guerrilla war turned what had been a walkover victory into a living nightmare. The Filipinos staged deadly ambushes and often committed terrible atrocities against captured American soldiers, including the Balangiga massacre that murdered 48 sleeping soldiers of the 9th Infantry, and became infamous for mutilating the genitals of their prisoners.

The Americans committed atrocities as well, the most infamous being the “reconcentration” of Filipino villagers in an effort to deny the partisans a place to hide. This tactic had been used by the British against the Boers, and would be used again in Vietnam. The American troops also committed their fair share of random killings, mutilations, and massacres; they regularly used torture to get information from guerrillas.

Filipino soldiers outside Manila, 1899

The war became decidedly unpopular in the United States, especially once the brutality of combat and the morally doubtful methods of American counterinsurgency came to light. Many Americans called the war hypocritical, considering that they had just fought the Spanish to free Cuba from imperial domination and were now imposing that same domination on another people. William Jennings Bryan, Andrew Carnegie, and Mark Twain were only some of the most notable members of the American Anti-Imperialist League, which strongly objected to the Philippine War. As news of atrocities continued to trickle in, public support for the war dwindled.

The generally fumbling tactics of the early war came to an end in May 1900, when General Arthur MacArthur Jr. took over the Governorship of the Philippines. MacArthur embarked on what has come to be known as “counterinsurgency” tactics: the winning of the hearts and minds of the population and separating them from the guerrillas. MacArthur directed the building of schools, the distribution of food, and further improvements.

Counterinsurgency does not mean weakness, however, despite many misconceptions. MacArthur imposed harsh martial law on the Philippines. He ended the practice of punishing whole towns for insurgent attacks, but had no mercy towards the guerrillas themselves who continued to hide amongst the people. He continued forced relocation of the population – drain the water to expose the fish. He imposed strict, deadly curfews and interrogated captured guerrillas. All in all, the counterinsurgency tactics MacArthur employed in the Philippines would never be acceptable in the modern media-driven atmosphere.

Political cartoon depicting Uncle Sam trying to capture Aguinaldo, September 1899

As brutal as they were, they had much of the intended effect in the Philippines. Aguinaldo’s area of operations shrunk smaller and smaller, until March 1901 when MacArthur received intelligence as to his recent hiding spot. He dispatched General Frederick Funston with some Philippine Scouts – local fighters trained by the United States – to find and capture Aguinaldo.

They found him on March 23 in the town of Palanan. The Americans pretended to be the Scouts’ prisoners; yes, they pulled a Luke, Han and Chewbacca on the Death Star ploy. Once Funston and his troops were in the camp, they immediately overwhelmed the guards and captured their target. After over two years of war, Aguinaldo was theirs.

Aguinaldo was brought before General MacArthur, who convinced him to make his peace and put an end to the war. On April 1, Aguinaldo swore to accept the authority of the United States, and issued a proclamation of surrender to all his troops on April 19.

Emilio Aguinaldo, 1900

This did NOT end the war. If there’s one thing America still doesn’t quite get sometimes, it’s that taking one guy out of the equation almost never ends the war. The government of the Philippine Republic continued to fight for over a year until their final surrender of April 1902 – some of the worst massacres and bloodiest battles were committed in this period after Aguinaldo’s surrender. He had always been a restraining influence on his men, and the war only grew harsher after his surrender.

The war can be considered to have “ended” finally on July 1, 1902, when the Filipinos got at least part of what they wanted. Congress passed the Philippine Organic Act, setting up a legislature and native governing body for the Philippines, re-establishing civil government, and extending the Bill of Rights to Filipino residents. Theodore Roosevelt, who had just become President a few months before, proclaimed amnesty to all those who participated in the conflict – including Aguinaldo.

The Philippine-American War ended up costing the United States over 6,000 military dead, and the Filipino guerrillas anywhere from 20,000 to 40,000. Around 250,000 civilians are estimated to have died as well, most from famine and disease (mostly cholera) - always the fellow horsemen of war and death. For the record, that's more US military deaths than the Iraq War. And it's completely forgotten.

Even this did not end conflict in the Philippines. For the next two decades, American forces would continue to fight indigenous peoples in the South Philippines – especially the Moro Rebellion on Mindanao, Sulu, and Palawan. There would still be combat operations in the Philippine Islands before, during, and after America’s participation in World War I. The long struggle seemed never-ending, but out of sight, out of mind. Who cares about the long war once the fun fireworks have stopped? Like a certain other war I could think of.

U.S. Army troops fighting the Moros, 1913.

Emilio Aguinaldo lived in the Philippines the rest of his quite long life, constantly promoting independence and haranguing every American governor of the Islands for self-determination – peaceably, of course. He ran for President of the Philippines in 1935, helped shelter his people during Japanese occupation 1941-45, and lived to see his country become independent in 1947, at age 77.

Aguinaldo died in 1964, at 94 years old - two months before his friend, fellow hero to Filipinos, and son of his arch-nemesis, Douglas MacArthur.

Book Recommendations: The best scholarly book on this VERY forgotten conflict is Brian McAllister Linn, The Philippine War, 1899-1902 (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2000).

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