February, 1899-July, 1902: Philippine Insurrection Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Philippine Insurrection, known as the War of Independence by Filipinos was an offshoot of the Spanish-American War. It is an early example of a country’s resisting the rise of the United States as an imperial power. It resulted from misunderstanding and indecision on both sides. U.S. and Filipino forces, which had worked together to end Spanish control of the Philippines, found themselves fighting as enemies in a long, brutal struggle for domination of the Philippine Islands.

The Philippine Insurrection, known as the War of Independence by Filipinos was an offshoot of the Spanish-American War. It is an early example of a country’s resisting the rise of the United States as an imperial power. It resulted from misunderstanding and indecision on both sides. U.S. and Filipino forces, which had worked together to end Spanish control of the Philippines, found themselves fighting as enemies in a long, brutal struggle for domination of the Philippine Islands.

United States involvement in the Philippines began during the Spanish-American War of 1898. U.S. naval strategists already had a plan for attacking the Spanish fleet at Manila Bay in the event of war with Spain. As relations between the United States and Spain worsened in 1897, Commodore George Dewey, commander of the U.S. Navy’s Asiatic Squadron, was ordered to move his fleet to Hong Kong, with instructions to attack Manila Bay in case of war. War was declared by Spain on April 24, 1898. On the morning of May 1, Dewey’s fleet steamed into Manila Bay. By noon, his ships had sunk or disabled every Spanish ship.

The U.S. government was slow to react to the victorious news. The quick defeat of the Spanish fleet was unexpected, and President William McKinley had not planned what to do with the Philippines once the war was ended. McKinley considered either taking the entire archipelago, establishing a naval base, or returning the islands to Spain. Complete independence for the islands was never seriously considered. While McKinley contemplated the fate of the Philippines, relations between the U.S. military occupation force at Manila Bay and the Filipino population deteriorated. At first, the Filipinos welcomed Dewey’s forces as liberators. The Filipinos soon realized that the Americans intended to control the islands at least until the end of the war, perhaps longer. In early May, McKinley dispatched an expeditionary force, under the command of General Arthur MacArthur, to Manila Bay. MacArthur arrived just in time to accept the Spanish garrison’s surrender at the end of the war, an honor Filipino forces had assumed would be theirs.

The Insurgents

Filipino insurgents had been fighting the Spanish since early 1896. Spanish efforts to destroy the infant revolution had failed, as rebel leaders fled to the hills of the islands to hide out and organize bases for guerrilla warfare against the Spanish. In 1897, both sides, weary of the increasingly bloody war, agreed to a cease-fire to discuss peace. The Spanish authorities refused to consider independence, forcing the Filipino insurgents to continue their rebellion. Under the military leadership of Emilio Aguinaldo and the intellectual direction of Apolinario Mabini, rebel leaders established a base of operations at Hong Kong, where they could purchase supplies and arms. It was at this time that the Spanish-American War began, bringing an unexpected opportunity for the rebels.

Filipino leaders first believed that the United States would assist them in expelling the Spanish and establishing an independent Philippine state. Aguinaldo accepted anticolonial statements by U.S. consular officers at face value. The Filipinos soon found, however, that Dewey was more cautious, speaking only of military cooperation to defeat Spain and saying nothing of independence. Aguinaldo organized an army of thirty thousand men and won notable victories; nevertheless, the United States held supreme authority, accepting the surrender of Manila Bay and refusing to allow Filipino forces into the city without permission. When the Spanish flag came down, the Stars and Stripes, not the Filipino revolutionary flag, replaced it.

A U.S. soldier signals the capture of Philippine rebel leader and provisional president Emilio Aguinaldo. After being released from captivity, Aguinaldo retired from public life and lived until 1964. He is now remembered as a national hero and the first president of the Philippines. (F. R. Niglutsch)

Faced with the realization that the United States was going to annex the islands, Aguinaldo moved to organize a new government. On June 12, 1898, he proclaimed independence for the Philippines. In September, a constituent assembly was convened, and on November 29, a constitution was adopted. The United States largely ignored this move toward independence. The McKinley administration, mainly because of racial prejudice, arbitrarily decided that the Filipinos were not ready for self-government. In addition, there was a fear that an independent Philippines might fall easy prey to an ambitious European power, such as Germany or Great Britain. Therefore, the United States proceeded to obtain full control by a provision for annexation of the Philippines in the peace treaty ending the war with Spain.

Members of the Eagle Troop of the Ninth Cavalry before going to the Philippines in 1900. One of the most distinguished predominantly African American units in U.S. Army history, E Troop was formed shortly after the Civil War. (U.S. Army War College)

Armed Clashes

While the United States Senate debated ratification of the peace treaty, a series of clashes between U.S. and Filipino forces beginning on February 4, 1899, soon escalated into large-scale fighting. The Philippine Insurrection against U.S. rule had begun. The United States, because of its decision to assume responsibility for “civilizing” the Filipinos, was forced to wage a bitter war, which would cost much more money and take many more human lives than the war with Spain.

The Philippine Insurrection was, in many ways, a prototype of modern guerrilla warfare. Filipino revolutionary leaders quickly lost the support of conservative Filipinos who accepted U.S. rule. As a result, Aguinaldo and his forces retreated to fight the U.S. troops in the jungles, as they had done earlier against Spanish forces. In early 1899, United States forces moved into central Luzon, where they captured and burned Malolos, the rebel capital. Rebel forces, however, escaped into the hills, where they were supplied by sympathetic villagers until spring rains forced U.S. troops to withdraw.

U.S. commanders finally admitted that Aguinaldo had extensive popular support and that total war was necessary to pacify the islands. The government responded by sending reinforcements, bringing the number of U.S. troops in the Philippines to seventy-four thousand. As the scale of the fighting rose, vicious tactics and brutality on both sides also increased. Both sides committed atrocities involving soldiers and civilians. U.S. forces systematically burned villages and took hostages in an effort to deny popular assistance to rebel forces. Gradually, the overwhelming strength of the United States prevailed, as U.S. forces took rebel strongholds in the hills and rural regions. By 1901, 639 U.S. garrisons dotted the islands, breaking Filipino resistance.

Collapse of the Insurrection

The insurrection finally collapsed with Aguinaldo’s capture in March, 1901. He was seized by Colonel Frederick Funston and three other U.S. officers pretending to be the prisoners of a group of Filipino defectors, who led the officers directly to Aguinaldo’s headquarters in northeastern Luzon. After his capture, Aguinaldo reluctantly took an oath of allegiance to the United States. By July 4, 1901, civil government, under United States auspices, was instituted everywhere in the Philippines, except in southern Mindanao and the Sulu Islands, where Moro tribesmen continued resistance.

On July 4, 1902, the Philippine Insurrection was formally declared over. The United States issued a proclamation of general peace and amnesty. As a result of the struggle, the United States suffered 4,200 dead and 2,800 wounded. While close to 20,000 rebels were killed in the war, another 200,000 Filipinos died from disease, famine, and other war-related causes.

William Howard Taft served as the first U.S. governor of the Philippines. Taft continued to be heavily involved in the administration of the islands as secretary of war and president of the United States. It was Taft who coined the phrase “little brown brothers,” which referred to his hope that the United States could somehow “Americanize” these native peoples. This phrase remained a strong racial force in U.S. relations with the states in the Pacific and Latin America. The Philippine Islands remained under U.S. jurisdiction until 1934, when Congress passed the Tydings-McDuffie Act, granting independence to the Philippines. World War II delayed complete independence for the islands until 1946.

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