THE LEGENDARY EXPLOITS of the Buffalo Soldiers are well known among historians and the African/American community, but the general public has heard little of their role in U.S. history. Even less is known about the role of the Black troops in the Philippine War of Independence.
The so-called Buffalo Soldiers, made up of African American army units, were organized in 1866. They were led by white officers because it was believed that Blacks were not capable of leadership positions.
In the Spanish-American war of 1898, Black troops distinguished themselves in Cuba, taking part in the famous charge up San Juan Hill that also included future President Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders. It was errantly assumed that the Black soldiers would be more resistant to the tropical diseases which they would encounter. By 1899, 18 Black soldiers had been awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for bravery and gallantry above and beyond the call of duty.
Gill H. Boehringer, former law and history professor af Macquarie University, Sydney,, Australia, wrote in an article about the role played by the Buffalo Soldiers who fought in the Philippines for Black Agenda Report:
“During the 1899-1902 American-Filipino war the United States Army dispatched four Black regiments to the Philippines. Some sources indicate that 7,000 Black soldiers served in this conflict. Here the Black soldiers found themselves in the position of fighting against oppressed islanders who were seeking independence from foreign (i.e. U.S.) rule. “
He cited a letter by M.W. Saddler, one of the members of the 25th Infantry, :
“We are now arrayed to meet a common foe, men of our own hue and color. Whether it is right to reduce these people to submission is not a question for a soldier to decide. Our oaths of allegiance know neither race, color, nor nation.”Another soldier wrote in 1899:
“Our racial sympathies would naturally be with the Filipinos. They are fighting manfully for what they conceive to be their best interests. But we cannot for the sake of sentiment turn our back upon our own country.
“In the Philippines, the Black soldiers were angered by the use of the term “n*gger” by the White soldiers in referring to the Filipinos. Some of the Black troops deserted and joined the Filipino rebels.
“Corporal David Fagan of the 24th Infantry accepted a commission as an officer in the rebel army and fought against the American forces for two years. He fought in the Brigade of General Urbano Lacuna in central Luzon. While originally commissioned as a lieutenant, Fagan’s valor, guile, and many military successes led to his promotion to the rank of captain. Because he was a successful guerilla leader, the American military became obsessed with his capture. His exploits were reported in the Manila Times, and in several American newspapers.
Fagan led Filipino freedom fighters in at least eight engagements and his exploits reached legendary proportions. A $600 award was offered for his capture, dead or alive.
Perhaps the reason that the Buffalo Soldiers’ time in the Philippines is not so well recorded in U.S. history books is because of the relatively high number of desertions, which may besmirch the Buffalo Soldiers’ heralded exploits. Best estimates put the number of desertions of Black soldiers to number 15 to 30.
In their propaganda war, the insurgents used posters addressed to “The Colored American Soldier” in which they reminded the Black soldiers of the lynchings back in the U.S. and asked them not to serve the White imperialists against other people of color.
Boehringer cites journalist, Stephen Bonsal, who wrote from the Philippines that “The desertions from the Negro regiments were large-much larger, I believe, than from the White organizations; and these desertions were invariably of a different character. The White man deserted because he was lazy and idle and found service life irksome. Sometimes he joined the insurgents; but he did so, evidently, because that was the only way in which he could obtain his dream of becoming a wild man in the woods. But the Negroes deserted in scores and for the purpose of joining the insurgents, and many of them, like the celebrated Fagan, became leaders and fought the White troops or their former comrades with zest and ability.”
The military museum of the Presidio of San Francisco, notes that the role of Black soldiers in the Philippine War for Independence, was a subject of debate among the African American community.
“Within the Black community in the United States there was considerable opposition to intervention in the Philippines. Many Black newspaper articles and leaders supported the idea of Filipino independence and felt that it was wrong for the United States to subjugate non-Whites in the development of what was perceived to be the beginnings of a colonial empire.”
Boehringer writes about Black infantryman William Fulbright, in a 1901 letter to the editor of an Indianapolis newspaper, summarized the conflict:
“This struggle on the islands has been naught but a gigantic scheme of robbery and oppression.” The Filipino situation created among Blacks in the United States a militant opposition to the war. Henry M. Turner, the senior bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church called the war ‘an unholy war of conquest.’”
At the end of the war, the United States granted amnesty to the insurgents, but they offered a substantial reward ($600) for David Fagan who was considered a traitor. There are two conflicting reports about what happened to him after the war. One story is that he married a local woman and lived peacefully in the mountains. The other story claims a partially decomposed head was turned in for the reward. There is, however, no record of the reward actually being paid., thus adding doubt to that tale.
After the formal end of the war, (although resistance continued for many years after 1902) the African/American regiments would be honored for their service in the Philippines, and several senior noncommissioned officers, such as Medal of Honor recipient Edward L. Baker, would become officers in the newly established Philippine Scouts.
One Black infantryman described his duty with resignation, “We’re only regulars and Black ones at that, and I expect that when the Philippine question is settled they’ll detail us to garrison the islands. Most of us will find our graves there.”
It was in the U.S.’s first land war in Asia that the derogatory term “gooks” was coined to describe the Filipinos, waterboarding was used extensively for interrogation and the strategy of “hamletting” was developed, later to be used in Vietnam to separate the locals from the Vietnamese guerrillas or Viet Cong.
Today, at this point in America’s story, when immigration and affirmative action are being used as wedges to divide communities of color, when civil rights are being attacked, when the Black Lives Matter movement is gaining support beyond the African American community, it is vital that communities of color recognize what they have in common in the past in order to raise hope for joint action for the future of our country.
“In remembering the atrocious treatment of the Filipinos in that war, it is fitting that we also remember those who refused to do the dirty work of their military and political leaders. Just as the American Anti-Imperialist League is remembered for its active, though ultimately unsuccessful, campaign to prevent the war, we should remember those Black Americans who fought in the jungles and mountains to keep the Philippines free. Their struggle continues in many parts of the world today.”
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