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Philippines — Insurgents

5/12/2005:

After the Spanish sunk the American ship, The Maine, off the coast of Cuba in 1898, no North Dakota newspaper called for a retaliatory strike. Once the Spanish American War was actually launched, however, the papers responded with patriotic zeal. The First North Dakota Infantry assembled on May 8th and volunteered as a body to help fight Spain. By August 12th, they were in water-logged trenches south of Manila, and the following day, Spain surrendered their hold on the Philippines.

President McKinley was initially opposed to expansionism, so when the 1st ND liberated the Philippines from Spain, the troops felt they’d fulfilled their duties and expected to be sent home. That turned out to be a naive notion, as others saw the victory as an opportunity to annex the Philippines for American interests.

When the Filipinos realized their liberators were suddenly replacing the Spanish as dominators, their fight for independence shifted, and a tenacious Filipino insurgency took root. The 1st North Dakota Infantry now found themselves having to fight the people they’d just liberated,

and they weren’t happy about it. In fact, the subsequent quagmire in the Philippine led many North Dakotans to become isolationists who opposed entry into World War I.

In 1997, Dr. Richard Shafer of UND wrote that Americans knew almost nothing about the Philippines at that time. In fact, when Commodore George Dewey reported his fleet had defeated the Spanish naval force in Manila Bay, President McKinley asked, “Where are the Philippines?”

Dakota Territory was outside mainstream awareness, as well, so it’s note-worthy that North Dakotans were relatively well informed about colonialist expansion overseas. Some of this awareness was the result of letters from National Guardsmen. Following their swift victory, clumsy military planning left troops with no food, no medicine and no plan. Living in muddy tropical camps, soldiers began getting sick from disease and bad water.

Shafer says the Mandan Pioneer and the Dickinson Press ran quarter-page ads for Dr. Williams’ Pink Pills that stated, “thousands of (soldiers) are suffering from the lingering diseases induced by life in poisonous southern camps, the result of changes of climate, or of imperfect nutrition caused by improper and badly cooked food. Sleeping on the ground has doubtless developed rheumatism in hundreds who were predisposed to the disease.”

ND Governor Joseph Devine pressured the War Department to send North Dakota’s boys back to their families, but politics kept that from happening; soldiers were still in limbo when Spain signed a peace treaty in December. Demoralized, bored and confused, some began taking out their frustrations on the Filipinos who wanted them to leave.

By the time the 1st North Dakota actually engaged the insurgents in battle, the volunteers were far beyond mere disenchantment. In his diary entry of February 7, 1899, John Russater wrote they’d been given orders to burn every house where there was evidence of occupation by insurgents, as well as permission to shoot any insurgent who resisted being searched. They also started plundering civilian homes for food, even though they now had a plentiful supply of their own. Looting, burning and intimidation of all Filipinos – insurgents or civilian – escalated and later became a major source of contention when the Administration was negotiating peace.

Tune in tomorrow for part two of this story.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm