The Brutality of the Philippine-American War

This lesson is continued from The Origins of the Philippine-American War.  It is a part of a larger unit on the Philippines: At the Crossroads of the World.  It is also written to be utilized independently.
This lesson was reported from:
Adapted in part from open sources.
The Philippine-American War pitted one time allies in the overthrow of Spain against each other.  Spain negotiated a separate peace with the United States in the Treaty of Paris, ceding colonial rule of the Philippine Islands to the Americans rather than granting the Filipinos independence.  The American government accepted this new imperial role, and set about subduing any Filipinos who resisted.  In this scene, the city of Iloilo is captured from Filipino forces by Americans led by Brigadier General Marcus Miller, with no loss of American lives. (Diorama in the Ayala Museum, Makati, Philippines, 2018.)

Waging the American War

  1. How did the Americans justify their takeover of the Philippines?  Are you convinced by this argument?
  2. In your opinion, did American conduct during the war match these justifications?  Why or why not?
  3. How did the American military attempt to counter rumors of their brutality?

Annexation of the Philippines as a colony of the United States was often justified by those in the U.S. government and media on moral and racial grounds. The U.S. was simply doing its duty as an advanced, Western nation, spreading civilization, democracy, and capitalism to primitive Asians who enjoyed none of these things and were too simple to be trusted with self-government.  Historian Stuart Creighton Miller writes that in this view, “Americans altruistically went to war with Spain to liberate Cubans, Puerto Ricans, and Filipinos from their tyrannical yoke. If they lingered on too long in the Philippines, it was to protect the Filipinos from European predators waiting in the wings for an American withdrawal and to tutor them in American-style democracy.”  Implicit in this attitude were notions of racial superiority and the inherent superiority of white America over primitive people of color.

The ugly reality of Americans colonial mission was laid bare by Dean Worcester, an American colonial official, who wrote in his memoirs that the Filipinos were “treacherous, arrogant, stupid and vindictive, impervious to gratitude, incapable of recognizing obligations. Centuries of barbarism have made them cunning and dishonest. We cannot safely treat them as equals, for the simple and sufficient reason that they could not understand it. They do not know the meaning of justice and good faith. They do not know the difference between liberty and license…. These Filipinos must be taught obedience and be forced to observe, even if they cannot comprehend, the practices of civilization.”

One popular defense of the U.S. conquest of the Philippines was to say that the U.S. didn’t really want this role – they were stuck with the responsibility, as poet Rudyard Kipling put it, this “White Man’s Burden,” to help the poor, benighted Filipinos.  Never mind that the Filipinos didn’t seem to want the “help” that was being offered.

On February 11, 1899—only one week after the first shots of the war were fired—American naval forces destroyed the city of Iloilo with bombardment by the USS Petrel and the USS Baltimore. The city was then captured by ground forces led by Brigadier General Marcus Miller, with no loss of American lives.

Gregorio del Pilar, only 24 years old at the time of his death in 1899, belonged to a whole generation of high school and college graduates who, despite their youth, were pressed into leadership roles during the revolution.  Sent to negotiate an honorable peace with American General Otis, he was rebuffed and told peace could be achieved only though the “complete submission” of the Filipino people.  Angered, he set about defending a mountain pass, stalling American troops in hot pursuit of President Aguinaldo.  He succeeded, but died, hit in the neck by an American sharpshooter. (Diorama in the Ayala Museum, Makati, Philippines, 2018.)

Months later, after finally securing Manila from Filipino control, American forces moved northwards, engaging in combat at the brigade and battalion level in pursuit of the fleeing insurgent forces and their commanders. In response to the use of guerilla warfare tactics by Filipino forces beginning in September 1899, American military strategy shifted to a suppression footing. Tactics became focused on the control of key areas with internment and segregation of the civilian population in “zones of protection” from the guerrilla population (foreshadowing the Strategic Hamlet Program that would be utilized decades later, during the Vietnam War). Due to unsanitary conditions, many of the interned civilians died from dysentery.

General Otis gained notoriety for some of his actions in the Philippines. Although multiple orders were given to Otis from Washington to avoid military conflict, he did very little to prevent the breakout of war. Otis refused to accept anything but unconditional surrender from the Philippine Army. He often made major military decisions without first consulting leadership in Washington. He acted aggressively in dealing with the Filipinos under the assumption that their resistance would collapse quickly. 

A member of the American colonial government offered an alternative theory on what Bell was achieving, noting in his official report that far from breaking the spirit of the Filipino people, the blanket policy of violence and destruction was:

… sowing the seeds for a perpetual revolution. If these things need be done, they had best be done by native troops so that the people of the U.S.. will not be credited therewith.
American Soldiers Inspect Insurgent Casualties
American soldiers survey the bodies of fallen Filipino soldiers.

Otis also played a large role in suppressing information about American military tactics from the media. When letters describing American atrocities reached the American media, the War Department became involved and demanded that Otis investigate their authenticity. Each press clipping was forwarded to the original writer’s commanding officer, who would then convince or force the soldier to write a retraction of the original statements.

Meanwhile, Otis claimed that Filipino insurgents tortured American prisoners in “fiendish fashion.” During the closing months of 1899, Aguinaldo attempted to counter Otis’ account by suggesting that neutral parties—foreign journalists or representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross—inspect his military operations. Otis refused, but Aguinaldo managed to smuggle four reporters—two English, one Canadian, and one Japanese—into the Philippines. The correspondents returned to Manila to report that American captives were “treated more like guests than prisoners,” were “fed the best that the country affords, and everything is done to gain their favor.” The story went on to say that American prisoners were offered commissions in the Filipino army and that three had accepted. The four reporters were expelled from the Philippines as soon as their stories were printed.

U.S. Navy Lieutenant J.C. Gilmore, whose release was forced by American cavalry pursuing Aguinaldo into the mountains, insisted that he had received “considerable treatment” and that he was no more starved than were his captors. Otis responded to publication of two articles concerning this by ordering the “capture” of the two authors, and that they be “investigated,” therefore questioning their loyalty.

When F.A. Blake of the International Committee of the Red Cross arrived at Aguinaldo’s request, Otis kept him confined to Manila, where Otis’ staff explained all of the violations of international humanitarian law perpetrated by Filipino soldiers. Blake managed to slip away from an escort and venture into the field. Blake never made it past American lines, but even within American lines he saw burned out villages and “horribly mutilated bodies, with stomachs slit open and occasionally decapitated.” Blake waited to return to San Francisco, where he told one reporter that “American soldiers are determined to kill every Filipino in sight.”

H.L. Wells, a staunch imperialist writing in the New York Evening Post, excused the troubling American racial theories that contributed to the often callous violence that characterized the Philippine-American War “There is no question that our men do ‘shoot niggers’ somewhat in the sporting spirit, but that is because war and their environments have rubbed off the thin veneer of civilization…Undoubtedly, they do not regard the shooting of Filipinos just as they would the shooting of white troops. This is partly because they are “only niggers,” and partly because they despise them for their treacherous servility…The soldiers feel they are fighting with savages, not with soldiers.”

Manila In Ruins
A burned district of Manila following combat between American and Filipino troops, 1899.

Waging the Filipino War

  1. How was the class structure of Filipino society a challenge to carrying out the war against the Americans?
  2. What was strategy of the Filipino war effort before the U.S. election of 1900?  How and why did it change after the election?
Philippine-American War
Filipino insurgents pose with their weapons, including bolo knives, circa 1900.

Estimates of the Filipino forces vary between 80,000 and 100,000, with tens of thousands of auxiliaries. Most of the forces were armed only with bolo knives, bows and arrows, spears and other primitive weapons which were vastly inferior to those of the American forces.

A fairly rigid caste system existed in the Philippines during the Spanish colonial era. The goal, or end-state, sought by the First Philippine Republic was a sovereign, independent, stable nation led by an oligarchy composed of members of the educated class (known as the ilustrado class). Local chieftains, landowners, businessmen and cabezas de barangay were the principales who controlled local politics. The war was at its peak when ilustradosprincipales, and peasants were unified in opposition to annexation by the United States. The peasants, who represented the majority of the fighting forces, had interests different from their ilustrado leaders and the principales of their villages – they were more likely to favor redistribution of land, tax reforms, and greater democracy, whereas the Filipino elites were more likely to favor a plan in which they replaced the Spanish elites, leaving the broader social order intact. Coupled with the ethnic and geographic fragmentation, aligning the interests of people from different social castes was a daunting task. The challenge for Aguinaldo and his generals was to sustain unified Filipino public opposition; this was the revolutionaries’ strategic center of gravity.

Filipino Officers And Leaders
Several Filipino leaders, including President Emilio Aguinaldo (bottom row, third from right), pose for a photo. Cavite. 1898.  The Filipino leadership was clearly wealthier and more educated than the average villager or soldier.
Image result for filipino concentration camps
American media tended to print photos that emphasized the primitive nature of Filipinos and the impoverished, backwards nature of the Philippines.  This better suited the narrative that the United States was “saving” the Philippines out of some sense of duty.

The Filipino operational center of gravity was the ability to sustain its force of 100,000 irregulars in the field. The Filipino general Francisco Macabulos described the Filipinos’ war aim as, “not to vanquish the U.S. Army but to inflict on them constant losses.” In the early stages of the war, the Philippine Revolutionary Army employed the conventional military tactics characteristic of an organized armed resistance. The hope was to inflict enough American casualties to result in McKinley’s defeat by William Jennings Bryan in the 1900 presidential election. Bryan, who held strong anti-imperialist views, would then hopefully withdraw the American forces from the Philippines.

McKinley’s election victory in 1900 was demoralizing for the insurgents, and convinced many Filipinos that the United States would not depart soon – after all, the war was McKinley’s and the American people had just reelected him, thereby approving his actions. This, coupled with a series of devastating losses on the battlefield against American forces equipped with superior technology and training, convinced Aguinaldo that he needed to change his approach. Beginning on September 14, 1899, Aguinaldo accepted the advice of General Gregorio del Pilar and authorized the use of guerilla warfare tactics in subsequent military operations in Bulacan.

For most of 1899, the revolutionary leadership had viewed guerrilla warfare strategically only as a tactical option of final recourse, not as a means of operation which better suited their disadvantaged situation. On November 13, 1899, Emilio Aguinaldo decreed that guerrilla war would henceforth be the strategy. This made American occupation of the Philippine archipelago all the more difficult over the next few years. In fact, during just the first four months of the guerrilla war, the Americans had nearly 500 casualties.  The Philippine Army began staging bloody ambushes and raids, such as the guerrilla victories at PayeCatubigMakahambusPulang LupaBalangiga and Mabitac. At first, it even seemed as if the Filipinos would fight the Americans to a stalemate and force them to withdraw.

American Atrocities

  1. Describe the actions of the Americans that might be labeled atrocities.
  2. Imagine that an invading force was doing this sort of thing in your town – would this make you more or less likely to cooperate with them?
  3. Imagine you are a soldier and your commanding officer has ordered you to burn down a village, then administer the water cure to anyone you capture in the process.  What do you do?
  4. If the goal of a war is to win, should there be rules in war?  What should those rules be?  How should captured enemy soldiers be captured?  Should it matter if they wear a uniform?  Should civilians be harmed?
  5. What should happen to commanders or soldiers who break any rules you established in the previous question?
Image result for filipino concentration camps
In an effort to curb guerrilla warfare, Filipino civilians were moved into concentrations camps.

Following Aguinaldo’s capture by the Americans on March 23, 1901, Miguel Malvar assumed command of the Philippine revolutionary forces. Batangas and Laguna provinces were the main focus of Malvar’s forces at this point in the war, and they continued to employ guerrilla warfare tactics.

In late 1901, Brigadier General J. Franklin Bell took command of American operations in Batangas and Laguna provinces.  Writing about his approach to the war, Bell said, “All consideration and regard for the inhabitants of this place cease from the day I become commander.  I have the force and authority to do whatever seems to me good and especially to humiliate all those in this Province who have any pride….”

In response to Malvar’s guerrilla warfare tactics, Bell employed counterinsurgency tactics (described by some as a scorched earth campaign) that took a heavy toll on guerrilla fighters and civilians alike. “Zones of protection” were established, and civilians were given identification papers and forced into concentration camps (called reconcentrados) which were surrounded by free-fire zones. At the Lodge Committee, in an attempt to counter the negative reception in America to General Bell’s camps, Colonel Arthur Wagner, the US Army’s chief public relations office, insisted that the camps were to “protect friendly natives from the insurgents, and assure them an adequate food supply” while teaching them “proper sanitary standards.” Wagner’s assertion was undermined by a letter from a commander of one of the camps, who described them as “suburbs of Hell.”

On December 13, Bell announced that the killing of American troops would be paid back in kind. Whenever such an event occurred, Bell proposed to select a prisoner “by lot from among the officers or prominent citizens” and have him executed. On December 15, Bell announced that “acts of hostility or sabotage” would result in the “starving of unarmed hostile belligerents.” The warning to Malvar was clear: he either had to give up the struggle or the “detainees” would face mass starvation. To show that he meant it, on December 20 Bell ordered all rice and other food lying outside the camps to be confiscated or destroyed. Wells were poisoned and all farm animals were slaughtered.

By December 25, 1901, nearly the entire populations of Batangas and Laguna provinces had gathered into the reconcentrados. Families had to bring everything they could carry because anything left behind—including houses, gardens, carts, poultry and animals—was subject to confiscation or destruction by the U.S. Army. The reconcentrados were overcrowded, which led to disease and death. Between January and April 1902, 8,350 prisoners of approximately 298,000 died, and some camps experienced mortality rates as high as 20 percent.

Civilians became subject to a curfew, after which all persons found outside of camps without identification could be shot on sight. Men were rounded up for questioning, tortured, and summarily executed.” Methods of torture such as the water cure were frequently employed during interrogation, and entire villages were burned or otherwise destroyed.

Throughout the war, American soldiers and other witnesses sent letters home which described some of the atrocities committed by American forces. For example, In November 1901, the Manila correspondent of the Philadelphia Ledger wrote:

“The present war is no bloodless, opera bouffe engagement; our men have been relentless, have killed to exterminate men, women, children, prisoners and captives, active insurgents and suspected people from lads of ten up, the idea prevailing that the Filipino as such was little better than a dog… Our soldiers have pumped salt water into men to make them talk, and have taken prisoners people who held up their hands and peacefully surrendered, and an hour later, without an atom of evidence to show that they were even insurrectos, stood them on a bridge and shot them down one by one, to drop into the water below and float down, as examples to those who found their bullet-loaded corpses.”

Reports were received from soldiers returning from the Philippines that, upon entering a village, American soldiers would ransack every house and church and rob the inhabitants of everything of value, while those who approached the battle line waving a flag of truce were fired upon.

Some of the authors were critical of leaders such as General Otis and the overall conduct of the war. When some of these letters were published in newspapers, they would become national news, which would force the War Department to investigate. Two such letters included:

  • A soldier from New York: “The town of Titatia was surrendered to us a few days ago, and two companies occupy the same. Last night one of our boys was found shot and his stomach cut open. Immediately orders were received from General Wheaton to burn the town and kill every native in sight; which was done to a finish. About 1,000 men, women and children were reported killed. I am probably growing hard-hearted, for I am in my glory when I can sight my gun on some dark skin and pull the trigger.”
  • Corporal Sam Gillis: “We make everyone get into his house by seven p.m., and we only tell a man once. If he refuses we shoot him. We killed over 300 natives the first night. They tried to set the town on fire. If they fire a shot from the house we burn the house down and every house near it, and shoot the natives, so they are pretty quiet in town now.”

General Otis’ investigation of the content of these letters often consisted of sending a copy of them to the author’s superior and having him force the author to write a retraction. When a soldier refused to do so, as Private Charles Brenner of the Kansas regiment did, he was court-martialed. In the case of Private Brenner, the charge was “for writing and conniving at the publication of an article which…contains willful falsehoods concerning himself and a false charge against Captain Bishop.” Not all such letters that discussed atrocities were intended to criticize General Otis or American actions. Many portrayed U.S. actions as the result of Filipino provocation and thus entirely justified.

Image result for filipino water cure
Soldiers from the 35th US Volunteer Infantry subject a Filipino to the ‘water cure’ – the victim has the mouth forced or wedged open, the nose closed with pincers and a funnel or strip of cloth forced down the throat into which tremendous amounts of water are poured. The stomach fills until near bursting and is sometimes beaten until the victim vomits and the torture begins again.

Filipino atrocities

  1. Why is it important for the Americans to claim that Filipinos were at least as brutal as they were?
  2. There was surely violence on both sides of this conflict.  Is the American violence, carried out by a more powerful invading force, different from that carried out by Filipinos? 
  3. Examine the cover of Life Magazine from May 22, 1902.  It appears to be a realistic drawing at first, but it is actually a political cartoon.  What does it mean?
Enraged by a guerrilla massacre of U.S. troops on the Island of Samar, General Jacob H. Smith retaliated by carrying out an indiscriminate attack upon its inhabitants. His order “KILL EVERY ONE OVER TEN” became a caption in the New York Journal cartoon on May 5, 1902. The Old Glory draped an American shield on which a vulture replaced the bald eagle. The bottom caption exclaimed, “Criminals Because They Were Born Ten Years Before We Took the Philippines.” Published in the New York Journal-American, May 5, 1902. Smith was eventually court-martialed by the American military and forced to retire.

U.S. Army General Otis alleged that Filipino insurgents tortured American prisoners in “fiendish fashion.” According to Otis, many were buried alive or were placed up to their necks in ant hills. He claimed others had their genitals removed and stuffed into their mouths and were then executed by suffocation or bleeding to death. It was also reported that Spanish priests were horribly mutilated before their congregations, and natives who refused to support Emilio Aguinaldo were slaughtered by the thousands. American newspaper headlines announced the “Murder and Rapine” by the “Fiendish Filipinos.” General “Fighting Joe” Wheeler insisted that it was the Filipinos who had mutilated their own dead, murdered women and children, and burned down villages, solely to discredit American soldiers.

In January 1899, the New York World published a story by an anonymous writer about an American soldier, Private William Lapeer, who had allegedly been deliberately infected with leprosy. The story has no basis in fact however, and the name Lapeer itself is probably a punStories in other newspapers described deliberate attacks by Filipino sharpshooters upon American surgeons, chaplains, ambulances, hospitals, and wounded soldiers. An incident was described in the San Francisco Call that occurred in Escalante, Negros Occidental, where several crewmen of a landing party from the CS Recorder were fired upon and later cut into pieces by Filipino insurgents, while the insurgents were displaying a flag of truce.

Other events dubbed atrocities included those attributed by the Americans to General Vicente Lukban, the Filipino commander who allegedly masterminded the Balangiga massacre in Samar province, a surprise Filipino attack that killed almost fifty American soldiers. Media reports stated that many of the bodies were mutilated. The attack itself triggered American reprisals in Samar, ordered by General Jacob Hurd Smith, who reportedly ordered his men to kill everyone over ten years old. To his credit, Major Littleton Waller countermanded it to his own men. Smith was court-martialed for this order and found guilty in 1902, which ended his career in the U.S. Army. Waller was acquitted of killing eleven Filipino guides.

Sergeant Hallock testified in the Lodge Committee that natives were given the water cure, “… in order to secure information of the murder of Private O’Herne of Company I, who had been not only killed, but roasted and otherwise tortured before death ensued.”

1902 Life magazine cover, depicting water curing by U.S. Army troops in the Philippines

On the Filipino side, information regarding atrocities comes from the eyewitnesses and the participants themselves. In his History of the Filipino People Teodoro Agoncillo writes that the Filipino troops could match and even exceed American brutality on some prisoners of war. Kicking, slapping, and spitting at faces were common. In some cases, ears and noses were cut off and salt applied to the wounds. In other cases, captives were buried alive. These atrocities occurred regardless of Aguinaldo’s orders and circulars concerning the good treatment of prisoners.

Dean Worcester, an official in the American colonial government, recounts two specific Filipino atrocities as follows:

A detachment, marching through Leyte, found an American who had disappeared a short time before crucified, head down. His abdominal wall had been carefully opened so that his intestines might hang down in his face. Another American prisoner, found on the same trip, had been buried in the ground with only his head projecting. His mouth had been propped open with a stick, a trail of sugar laid to it through the forest, and a handful thrown into it. Millions of ants had done the rest.


  1. Why is there so much debate over the number of Filipinos dead?
  2. Why is there reason to be skeptical over numbers provided by the U.S. government?
  3. Should famine and disease caused by the conduct of a war be considered a form of violence?  Is this kind of death different from one that occurs during a shooting or a bombing?

The total number of Filipino who died remains a matter of debate. Some modern sources cite a figure of 200,000 total Filipino civilians dead with most losses attributable to famine, and disease.  Some estimates reach 1,000,000 million dead. In 1908 Manuel Arellano Remondo, in General Geography of the Philippine Islands, wrote: “The population decreased due to the wars, in the five-year period from 1895 to 1900, since, at the start of the first insurrection, the population was estimated at 9,000,000, and at present (1908), the inhabitants of the Archipelago do not exceed 8,000,000 in number.” Another expert estimates that at least 16,000~20,000 Filipino soldiers and 34,000 civilians were killed directly, with up to an additional 200,000 civilian deaths, mostly from a cholera epidemic. Filipino historian E. San Juan, Jr. argues that 1.4 million Filipinos died during the war, and that constitutes an act of genocide on the part of the United States. The United States Department of State states that the war “resulted in the death of over 4,200 American and over 20,000 Filipino combatants,” and that “as many as 200,000 Filipino civilians died from violence, famine, and disease.”

That story is told in The Philippines in the American Empire


  1. There is a long tradition of resistance to colonial rule in the Philippines. 
    Juan Sumuory is celebrated in the Gallery of Heroes. (Manila, Philippines, 2018.)

    Couple of this with the country’s strong Catholicism – with its tradition of sainthood and martyrdom – and you have nation that is very aware of those who have sacrificed to advance the cause of the Filipino.  Manila’s Rizal Park features the Gallery of Heroes, a row of bust sculpture monuments of historical Philippine heroes.  These include:  Andres Bonifacio, Juan Sumuroy, Aman Dangat, Marcelo H. Del Pilar, Gregorio Aglipay, Sultan Kudarat,  Juan Luna, Melchora Aquino, Rajah Sulayman, and Gabriela Silang.  Choose one of these personalities to commemorate in your own classroom.  Write a brief description of their accomplishments to accompany a piece of artwork that celebrates their life for those who aren’t aware.

  2. Jose Rizal never specifically advocated violence or even open revolt against
    Jose Rizal famously declined the Spanish offer of a carriage ride to his execution site. Instead, he walked, and today, bronze footprints mark his path from Fort Santiago to today’s Rizal Park, a memorial that literally allows one to walk in the footsteps of a national hero.

    the Spanish, pushing instead for political reforms within the colonial structure.  He wrote with such clarity and passion, however, that he become a symbol to revolutionaries – and this is why the colonial authorities decided he needed to die, in a plan that ultimately backfired, transforming him into a martyr.  Debate with your class – “Does a national hero need to be a warrior – a violent figure?  If not, why are so many warriors celebrated the world over as national heroes?”

  3. Rudyard Kipling wrote a famous poem about the U.S. and its conquest of the Philippines.  It is called “The White Man’s Burden.”  The poem became so famous that it became the subject of parody as well.  Read both the poem and one of its parodies and discuss it with your classmates using the included questions to help guide you.
  4. Stereoscopic Visions of War and Empire – This exhibit juxtaposes the visual message presented by the stereoscopic images with excerpts from the letters written by U.S. soldiers that were first published in local newspapers and later collected in the Anti-Imperialist League’s pamphlet, allowing us to get a glimpse of the Philippine-American War as it was presented to Americans at home, reading the news or entertaining friends in their parlors.
  5. In The Trenches: Harper’s Weekly Covers the Philippine-American War – How did the American media cover the war in the Philippines?  An excerpt from “In The Trenches” by John F. Bass, originally published in Harper’s Weekly.

Read more on this subject -> The Origins of the Philippine-American War  ◦  The Brutality of the Philippine-American War  ◦  The Philippines in the American Empire  ◦  “The White Man’s Burden”: Kipling’s Hymn to U.S. Imperialism  ◦  Stereoscopic Visions of War and Empire  ◦  In The Trenches: Harper’s Weekly Covers the Philippine-American War Ninoy and Marcos – “A Pact with the Devil is No Pact at All.”


History of the Philippines: From Indios Bravos to Filipinos by Luis Francia.

The Philippine-American War ended more than a century ago, but much of the nation is still gripped by the poverty and dramatic income inequality that characterizes many former colonies around the world. Why do you think the effects of colonization tend to linger long after the empire itself has crumbled? (Pasig River, Manila, Philippines, 2018.)


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