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How Racism Pushed This U.S. Soldier to Join Filipino Guerrillas

Meet David Fagen, the turncoat-turned-guerrilla of the Philippine-American War.
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December 5, 1901. A hunter named Anastacio Bartolome brought a severed head to the American military outpost at Bongabon, Nueva Ecija. The mutilated head was decomposed beyond recognition. The hunter insisted it was the head of the notorious insurrecto, David Fagen. The wanted posters called for his capture, dead or alive, and promised a reward of $600.

We cannot be certain whether that really was his head, but it was deemed evidence enough to close the official file on Fagen, the turncoat-turned-guerrilla of the Philippine-American War. A corporal of the 24th Infantry Regiment of the U.S. Army, Fagen was a trained soldier who swore allegiance to his country. Of African American descent, Fagen was shipped out to the Philippines in the summer of 1899 as part of the expeditionary force sent across the Pacific to wipe out the Philippine Revolutionary Army, who were fighting to set up its nascent republic.

But the tide turned for Fagen when, just after a few months of battling against the Filipinos, he turned his back on his own countrymen and joined the Filipinos and General Emilio Aguinaldo to kill the very people he once fought alongside. 

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During the Philippine-American War, there were whispers of a Black soldier wreaking havoc on American troops in Central Luzon, and so a legend emerged around the elusive figure of Fagen.

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Fagen, the Buffalo Soldier  

Fagen was a native of Tampa, Florida, where the Jim Crow racial segregation laws were in force. He worked as a manual laborer before enlisting in 1898. They assigned him to the 24th Infantry Regiment, a unit of the so-called “Buffalo Soldiers.”

Racial segregation in the military had been in practice since the birth of United States. White and Black servicemen remained divided into separate regiments until the 1950s. The U.S. Army had several units of all-Black soldiers stationed in the Wild West since the late-1860s, where they guarded frontier outposts and battled against Native Americans. These all-Black regiments came to be known as “Buffalo Soldiers,” one of which was the 24th Infantry.

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Just a few weeks after enlisting, the young recruit was deployed to Cuba and took part in the American military advance toward the Spanish stronghold of Santiago de Cuba. A year later, the 24th Infantry joined three other regiments of Buffalo Soldiers ready to embark on the invasion fleet bound for the Philippines.

A growing number of Buffalo Soldiers struggled to justify their mission to themselves. In diary entries and letters, they told of how racism was widespread in the U.S. military. They detailed the racist abuse suffered by both African Americans and Filipinos.    

24th Infantry in the Philippines

Photo by WIKIPEDIA.
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Opposition in the U.S. toward the Philippine-American War was growing. A group of politicians and intellectuals known as the American Anti-Imperialist League advocated against military interventions. Notable members, such as the writer Mark Twain, distributed political pamphlets and contributed articles in newspapers trying to spread the word of the unjust invasions.

There were fierce debates among African American communities on their role in these foreign wars. Many saw the invasion of the Philippines as a “race war,” through which White settlers would repeat in Asia the wave of enslavement and genocide they had inflicted upon the Native American peoples. Others thought Buffalo Soldiers taking part in the Cuban and Philippine campaigns would offer an opportunity for social advancement for Black men, who would gain recognition in the eyes of White Americans for their service to the nation.

For a young Black man in the late-19th century, a career in the military promised a stable job. Out in the Wild West, people regarded the Buffalo Soldiers with more admiration than they did most African American civilians in the Deep South.

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Many African American soldiers in the Philippines were treated as second-class citizens. The officers often ordered them to carry out the “dirty jobs” that no one wanted to do. Or they served as expendable shock troops in the frontline, where their lives were most at risk, while the White commanders stayed back at a safer distance from the enemy.

Fagen’s Ultimate Fate

Journalists in the Philippines and the U.S. became fascinated with the mysterious rebel leader. In a New York Times headline story on October 29, 1900, they described Fagen as a “cunning and highly skilled guerrilla officer who harassed and evaded large conventional American units.” There were eight reported incidents of Fagen-led operations, the most famous of which was the daring raid of a supply barge on the Pampanga River. Even after his presumed death, there were more alleged sightings of the feared renegade.       

The official military file on Fagen’s death was titled “The Supposed Killing of David Fagen.” It seems the American officers who had received the mutilated, decomposed head were not convinced but had ended the manhunt anyway.

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The mystery surrounding his alleged killing has produced all kinds of theories. Some have speculated Bartolome was a loyal insurrecto agent tasked with delivering a fake head to the Americans so they would think Fagen was dead and stop pursuing him. Others have claimed Fagen fell in love with a Filipina woman and ran away to the mountains to live a peaceful life with her.

We have few documented records about him, although several first-hand accounts mention his name. The American General Frederick Funston described Fagen in his memoirs as a “bandit pure and simple, and entitled to the same treatment as a mad dog.” The authorities condemned any Filipino soldier unwilling to surrender as nothing more than a bandit.  

General Frederick Funston

Photo by WIKIPEDIA.
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General Funston captured Aguinaldo in March 1901. A month later, Aguinaldo was forced to swear allegiance to the United States. But after the war ended, many Philippine commanders still carried out small-scale attacks on the occupying American forces.

Fagen was one leader who kept on fighting. Over the next few years, the remnants of the Philippine forces, veterans of the Katipunan movement who had risen against the Spanish Empire, scattered into bands of guerrilla fighters hiding in the jungles. They were systematically hunted by the American military. 

Following in Fagen’s Footsteps 

Fagen was not the only one to defect to the Filipinos. Historians studying the Philippine-American War estimate there were at least 20 other deserters. In February 1901, six Buffalo Soldiers from the 9th Cavalry Regiment joined the Philippine resistance, but the Americans would later re-capture them. Two of these deserters from the 9th Cavalry, Edmond DuBose and Lewis Russell, were hanged in front of a large crowd to teach a lesson to those who would follow Fagen’s example.

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The Philippine forces put up posters and distributed flyers with messages encouraging “colored” soldiers to join their cause, appealing to their common suffering at the hands of the White Americans. The supposed "turncoats" of the 24th Infantry only proved one thing: that the systematic racism and oppression of the White Americans was enough to unite even the unlikeliest of allies. 

This may have been the very reason Fagen turned his back on his own army, for his new life as a Filipino guerrilla began on November 17, 1899, when Corporal Fagen of the 24th Infantry Regiment snuck out of his barracks and met with a Philippine insurrecto officer, who had arranged for Fagen's escape. The rebel agent had a horse waiting for him outside the garrison, and together, they disappeared into the jungles around Mount Arayat, Pampanga. 

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Ira Lee
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