In the Philippines, the U.S. forces found a people determined to defend their hard-won independence from Spain against a new master. General Wesley Merritt, commander of the U.S. expeditionary forces, had accepted a staged Spanish surrender and declared a military government in August 1898 to the consternation of the Filipinos. Nebraska volunteers on February 6, 1899 fired the first shots that sparked a three-year conflagration that consumed the lives of 25,000 Filipino fighters, at least 600,000 civilians and 4,000 Americans.
The U.S. Army predicted an early and decisive victory, until Aguinaldo shifted from conventional trench fighting to hit-and-run guerilla warfare, inflicting heavier American casualties. Fresh U.S. reinforcements had to be brought in, including blacks in segregated units.
The Colored Regiments consisted of men in their early twenties and older non-commissioned officers. While many have never heard of the Philippines, their deployment set the stage for an often forgotten historical encounter between Filipinos and African Americans.
Fagen and his colleagues sailed to the front in the shadow of a political firestorm in the black community. Black conservatives believed that immoral and tainted by “color prejudice” as it was, the war was still a golden opportunity for blacks to improve their social condition through a display of courage and patriotism. Liberals such as W.E.B. Dubois strongly disagreed, suggesting instead that the place of the black soldier was in the South, defending black civilians from the white mob violence of the post-Civil War period. More than a hundred black-owned newspapers expressed an “ideological” alliance with the Filipinos, the “colored cousins in the Philippines.”
The black soldiers’ dilemma only deepened as they arrived in the islands. Just days before he was killed in action in Corregidor, Sgt. Patrick Mason of the 24th wrote home to a black newspaper: “I feel sorry for these people and all those that have come under the control of the U.S. The first thing in the morning is ‘nigger’ and the last thing at night is ‘nigger.’ You have no idea the way these people are treated by the Americans here, I must not say much, as I am a soldier. The natives are a patient, burden-bearing people.”
Fagen, who was of average build and height and “given to slang and profanity,” enlisted on June 4, 1898. He fought against Spanish forces in Cuba, where he was among the hundreds of soldiers stricken by yellow fever. His father, a widower, passed away shortly before his departure for the Philippines.
The private was first assigned to guard strategic positions around Manila, where the Colored Regiments suffered their first losses, not to insurgent gunfire, but to the opening fury of the monsoon season. On August 21, ten men on the reconnaissance drowned when their boat capsized in the churning waters of the Marikina River.
When Fagen’s guard duty ended in early October, he marched to Nueva Ecija under the command of Gen. Henry Lawton, part of a massive pincer movement to intercept the retreating Aguinaldo. Fagen could not get along with the U.S. Army. A white officer characterized him as “a good for nothing whelp.” Another stated that were it not for the fighting at hand, he would have had Fagen court-martialed, but he neglected to specify the latter’s offense. Fagen’s subsequent actions would suggest that the disagreement was of an ideological nature, the stirrings of an individual discontent over the conduct of the war.
Disciplinary action was swift. A black noncom observed that Fagen “was made to do all sorts of dirty jobs,” and that he couldn’t blame him for “clearing out.” Fagen’s troubles perhaps made him receptive to recruitment appeals from guerilla propagandists, one of whose flyers read:
“To the Colored American Soldier: It is without honor that you shed your precious blood. Your masters have thrown you in the most iniquitous fight with double purpose—to make you the instrument of their ambition, and also your hard work will soon make the extinction of your race. Your friends, the Filipinos, give you this good warning. You must consider your situation and your history, and take charge that the blood of… Sam Hose [a young farm hand lynched in Newton, Georgia earlier that year] proclaims vengeance.”
The Richmond Planet quoted a Nueva Ejica physician named Teodorico Santos thus: “The white troops… began to tell of the inferiority of the American blacks–of your brutal natures, your cannibal tendencies, how you would rape our señoritas, etc. Of course, we were a little shy of you… but we studied you, as results have shown. The affinity of complexion between you and me tells, and you exercise your duty much more kindly in dealing with us. Between you and him, we look upon you as the angel and him as the devil.”
On November 17, Company I packed up for its new post in Cabanatuan. Using the confusion of the move as cover, Fagen gathered as many pistols as he could safely conceal and calmly walked out of his barracks. He had somehow sent word to the guerillas a few days before; a saddled horse was waiting for him. Fagen’s escape was effortless. He rode into the jungle, toward the headquarters of the rebels in the densely foliaged slopes of Mt. Arayat to his new life as an “insurrecto.”
Fagen led the way for more than 20 other black deserters to what military historian Anthony Powell calls a “higher morality.” About 12 of them joined Fagen in active service with the Filipinos, an unprecedented episode in black military history. “It was the first time that a large number of black soldiers defected to fight on the other side,” Powell explains. The young private would become one of Aguinaldo’s most valued officers, becoming a media sensation and a fugitive with a $600 bounty on his head.
In the rebel camp, Fagen fought “like a wildcat” as a first lieutenant in the Brigada Lacuña, the feared battalion under the command of General Urbano Lacuña. His first year with the Filipino forces went by largely unrecorded until September 6, 1900, when he was promoted to captain.
Accounts of Fagen’s exploits began to appear in the Manila Times, an American-owned newspaper, depicting him as a gifted military tactician, waylaying American patrols at will and then evading large forces sent in pursuit. The other defectors were also reported to have strengthened the Filipino cause as marksmanship instructors. White officers warned of the added danger in confronting native riflemen trained by the black soldiers.
Much of the attention, however, was on the defector from Tampa. Just days after Fagen’s promotion, a force under his command surrounded a unit of 15 men and after a brief firefight, captured the highest ranking American POW in the war, a Lt. F.W. Alstaetter. Lacuña would later exchange the West Point graduate for a dozen of his imprisoned men. In another impressive mission, Fagen led 150 fighters in seizing a military barge laden with equipment, along with 20 American servicemen. Fagen’s notoriety now attracted U.S.-based newspapers, and he became “news fit to print.”
“American Deserter, a Filipino General… Is Active in the field… Recently Captured Twenty Americans,” read the Oct. 9, 1900 headline of the New York Times.
As a result of the black defector’s erroneous promotion to general, guerilla fighters now addressed him as “Heneral” Fagen. In the following months, reports on the elusive American proliferated. An unsubstantiated story portrayed Fagen as a cold-blooded executioner. But several released POWs later challenged such characterizations and testified to Fagen’s kindness while they were in his custody.
The U.S. Army’s famed “guerilla catcher,” Col. Frederick Funston, became obsessed with the capture of the renegade and decried a missed opportunity: “I got a fairly good look at the notorious Fagen at a distance of 100 yards, but unfortunately, had already emptied my carbine. This wretched man had on two occasions written me impudent and badly spelled letters. Fagen is ‘entitled to the same treatment as a mad dog’.”
Funston captured Aguinaldo instead—through an elaborate ploy—on March 23. Two weeks later, the Filipino leader swore allegiance to the United States and ordered his forces to surrender immediately. In Nueva Ecija, General Lacuña and other guerilla leaders obeyed their leader. Lacuña, however, refused to surrender Fagen, and came down from the hills with his officers after releasing the American from his command. Funston now embarked on an all-out hunt for “the head of the American Negro.”
On the afternoon of December 6, 1901, it appeared that the wily Funston finally bagged his quarry. Anastacio Bartolome, a former guerilla, who now earned a living as a deer hunter, entered the Army barracks in Bongabong, Nueva Ecija, under Lt. R.C. Corliss. He laid a canvas sack on the floor and recited certain events of the previous days, which the American officer recorded as an affidavit.
The hunter claimed he was fishing with two companions in the Umiray River one morning, when Fagen arrived with two Negrito friends and his native wife. He invited Fagen and his party to share a lunch of fish and rice. The affidavit reads: “While all were eating, Anastacio and his party suddenly turned on Fagen and his men with bolos. Fagen was mortally wounded and ran about 100 yards and dropped dead. The two Negritos escaped badly wounded. Fagen’s wife ran for the ocean, jumped in and drowned herself.”
Bartolome said he buried Fagen’s body on the riverbank, after cutting off his head. He opened his sack to reveal the evidence, a “badly decomposed head, with Negroid characteristics.” As further proof, Bartolome submitted a worn photograph of Urbano Lacuña found in Fagen’s breast pocket and Lt. Alstaetter’s West Point class ring. The U.S. Army closed the book on Pvt. David Fagen.
While this has remained the official account, historians Michael Robinson and David Schubert published in 1974 an article questioning its veracity. In a war where every dime, nickel and mule was meticulously accounted for by the U.S. Army, there remains no record of a $600 bounty awarded to Bartolome. The historians also discovered several credible reported sightings of Fagen by Army soldiers months after his reported demise.
Could the deer hunter’s account have been a well-conceived plot hatched by Lacuña and Bartolome to keep the black defector alive? Could he have lived in the jungles of Luzon free from Jim Crow and Frederick Funston, long after the cessation of hostilities?
As for the rest of Fagen’s comrades who remained loyal to the American flag, more than a thousand opted to remain in the islands upon their discharge at the war’s official end on July 4, 1902. Citing their “racial affinity” with the natives, many intermarried with Filipino women and settled all over Central Luzon. They became clerks, teachers, small farmers and storeowners.
Captain Frank Steward became the provost judge of San Pablo, Laguna, while W.C. Warmsley, a military surgeon, amassed a small fortune in tobacco in Cagayan. Almost a hundred years later, their African American descendants can be found all across the Philippine diaspora, from Pangsinan to Pennsylvania—and San Francisco, where they began their historic journey and where a young black man sailed toward his unique place in Philippine history.
Rene G. Ontal is a writer and community organizer based in New York City. Article originally published in Filipinas Magazine, August 1994.