Black Soldiers and the Philippine-American War

Philippines Asia

The final years of the 19th century saw the United States involved in many international conflicts as it began to rise as a global power. The Spanish-American War of 1898 ended in a decisive victory for the United States. Spain’s capitulation led to the end of Spanish colonial rule in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. The Treaty of Paris, which officially ended the war, guaranteed the independence of Cuba, and ceded Puerto Rico and Guam to the US. Additionally, Spain agreed to sell the Philippines to the United States for $20 million dollars.

The Treaty of Paris was viewed unfavorably from the perspective of Filipino nationalists and pro-independence fighters, who believed that the US would support an independent Filipino state. Two days before the US Congress ratified the Treaty of Paris on February 4, 1899, Filipino nationalists led by Emilio Aguinaldo clashed with American soldiers, marking the beginning of the Philippine-American War.

While the Spanish-American war only lasted around four months, the Philippine-American war spanned over three years from 1899 to 1902, and claimed the lives of over 4,200 American soldiers and over 20,000 Filipino soldiers. For Filipinos, the war served as a continuation of the fight for complete independence from centuries of foreign colonial rule. For Black Americans deployed to fight the Filipino pro-independence fighters, the war seemed to reflect the fractured dynamics of race relations at home.

The United States claimed that the takeover of the Philippines was a necessity, for the country’s own good. President William McKinley stated that the annexation of the Philippines would be “benevolent assimilation” for the Filipinos, and that the “racial inferiority of the Filipinos [would be] a primary justification” for countering the pro-independence movement and seizing control of the strategically important archipelago.

For many Black Americans serving during those tumultuous four years, the treatment and rhetoric towards Filipinos echoed the treatment of Black Americans at home in the United States. Even within the armed forces, mistreatment and inequality were rampant. The 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments and the 24th and 25th Infantry Regiments, better known as the Buffalo Soldiers, were all-Black units led by white officers. They were only allowed to serve west of the Mississippi River, as white Americans did not want to see armed Black soldiers in their communities; and they were deployed to Cuba during the Spanish-American War to fight on the erroneous and racist belief that they were more immune to tropical weather and diseases than white soldiers.

In total, 6000 Black Americans—including 2,100 Buffalo soldiers—were deployed to the Philippines. Solidarity eventually emerged between some Black soldiers and local Filipinos. In one case, Sergeant Major John W. Calloway wrote to a Filipino acquaintance that he was “constantly haunted by the feeling of [the moral wrongs]” that the United States was perpetrating. He stated that it was “wrong to crush every hope and opportunity of a youth of a race of which [the Filipino] form such brilliant examples.” He did, however, end the letter with an optimistic and hopeful tone, stating that “[the] moral sensibilities of all America are not dead yet,” and that “righteousness...will awaken the country to its senses...” As a result of his actions, Calloway was stripped of his rank and dishonorably discharged.

Approximately 30 Buffalo soldiers deserted the US Army, with up to 15 defecting and joining the Filipino nationalist movement. This is important because Black regiments historically held the lowest desertion rate in the Army. The fact that these soldiers abandonded the Army or defected to work with Filipino nationalists shows how conflicted they were. One of these soldiers was Private David Fagen, who became a captain of the Philippine Revolution Army and assisted the Filipino nationalists in guerilla warfare until his alleged death in 1901. The Indianapolis Freeman, a Black newspaper, stated, “[he] was a traitor and died a traitor's death, but he was a man no doubt prompted by honest motives to help a weakened side, and one he felt allied by bonds that bind.”

The Philippine-American War laid bare the many racial tensions still present in the United States. Even though the Civil War and the Reconstruction-era started a slow and gradual process towards creating a better society for all Americans, the treatment of Black soldiers in the Philippine-American War revealed a powerful dynamic. It revealed the solidarity between two groups countering a racist system that transcended borders and nationalities—a dynamic which has continued to create powerful changes, towards a more just society, throughout the history of the United States.

This article is the second in a series leading up to Memorial Day, seeking to highlight the contributions of Black Americans to US military engagement in the Indo-Pacific region and how these experiences shaped their life in the region and at home. The final addition to this series will cover the Vietnam War, which will commemorate its 50th anniversary this year. 

Ramil Mercado is a participant in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington. He is a graduate student at American University’s School of International Service, studying International Affairs with a focus on the Indo-Pacific region.