The “American century” began with the Spanish-American War. In that conflict’s aftermath, the United States claimed the Philippines in its bid for world power. Before the ink on the treaty with Spain had dried, the war in the Philippines turned into a violent rebellion. After two years of fighting, U.S. forces launched an audacious mission to capture Philippine president and rebel commander-in-chief Emilio Aguinaldo. Using an elaborate ruse, U.S. Army legend Frederick “Fighting Fred” Funston orchestrated Aguinaldo’s seizure in 1901. Capturing Aguinaldo is the story of Funston, his gambit to catch Emilio Aguinaldo, and the United States’ conflicted rise to power in the early twentieth century.
The United States’ war with Spain in 1898 had been quick and, for the Americans in the Philippines, virtually bloodless. But by early 1899, Filipino nationalists, who had been fighting the Spaniards for three years and expected Spain’s defeat to produce their independence, were fighting a new imperial power: the United States. The Filipinos eventually abandoned conventional warfare, switching to guerilla tactics in an ongoing conflict rife with atrocities on both sides. By March 1901, the United States was looking for a bold strike against the nationalists. Brigadier General Frederick Funston, who had already earned a Medal of Honor, and four other officers posing as prisoners were escorted by loyal Filipino soldiers impersonating rebels. After a ninety-mile forced march, the fake insurgents were welcomed into the enemy’s headquarters where, after a brief firefight, they captured President Aguinaldo. At long last, the rebellion neared collapse.
More than a swashbuckling tale, Capturing Aguinaldo is a character study of Frederick Funston and Emilio Aguinaldo and a look at the United States’ rise to global power as it unfolded at ground level. It tells the thrilling but nearly forgotten story of this daring operation and its polarizing aftermath, highlighting themes of U.S. history that have reverberated for more than a century, through World War II to Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
Dwight Sullivan, a retired Marine Corps Reserve officer, is a civilian lawyer at the Pentagon and an adjunct faculty member at George Washington University Law School. He lives on Maryland’s Broadneck Peninsula.