May 14, 2019 — One month after the Spanish-American War began, American troops sailed from San Francisco to battle the Spanish at their Pacific stronghold, the Philippines. Most of the Regular Army was fighting in Cuba and Puerto Rico, so three-fourths of the 10,000 men who went to the Philippines were members of volunteer state militias – the National Guard. The 1st North Dakota Volunteer Infantry – with 36 officers and 401 men – was among them.
When Spain surrendered on August 13, Filipinos celebrated their independence. But they were in for a surprise; while negotiating the Treaty of Paris, the U.S. bought the Philippine Islands, as well as Guam and Puerto Rico, from Spain. Philippine insurgents under General Aguinaldo refused to accept the deal. They proclaimed independence, ratified a constitution, and prepared to battle the U.S. American citizens had been lead to believe that Filipinos wanted to be part of the U.S. and were stunned by the Philippine reaction. But by then, it was too late. From February 1899 until July 1902, 126,000 American troops were committed to a war that many consider America’s “first Vietnam.”
Meanwhile, the 1st North Dakota Infantry thought they were finished and were going home. After six months of waiting, they were instead ordered to start fighting the people they’d just liberated. Two months later, Thomas Sletteland of Grafton earned the first Medal of Honor awarded to a North Dakotan when he carried a wounded soldier to safety and then single-handedly defended three (of eight) dead comrades against a greatly superior enemy force.
Shortly after, Henry Young, a Connecticut citizen soldier, organized an elite reconnaissance force of 25 men; 16 of them were North Dakotans. They would soon win fame as “Young’s Scouts.”
By May 12 – their numbers now reduced to 18 – they came upon a band of about 300 rebels near San Miguel. In the ensuing clash, Young was mortally wounded. Medals of Honor were earned by Private Gotfred Jensen of Devils Lake, Colonel Frank Anders of Fargo, and Private Willis Downs of Jamestown, whose citations for valor read: With 11 other scouts, without waiting for the supporting battalion to aid them or to get into a position to do so, charged over a distance of about 150 yards and completely routed about 300 of the enemy who were in line and in a position that could only be carried by a frontal attack.
Three days later, the Scouts clashed with rebels defending a strategic bridge. The river below couldn’t be crossed without it, so the Filipinos set fire to it. Under heavy enemy fire, the Scouts charged across the flaming bridge, routed 600 strongly fortified insurgents, and saved the bridge. Medals of Honor were awarded to Private Otto Boehle of Wahpeton; Private Charles Davis of Valley City; Private John Kinne of Fargo, Private Frank Ross of Langdon, and Private Richard Longfellow of Mandan. Six months later, Artificer Sterling Galt of Valley City earned one more for distinguished bravery and conspicuous gallantry in action against insurgents.
Though the war “ended” July 4, 1902, men continued to die in skirmishes that followed. Casualties included 4,234 U.S. and 16,000 Filipino soldiers. Estimates of civilian deaths range from 200,000 to a million; famine and disease claimed a great many. Atrocities were committed on both sides.
“Dakota Datebook” is a radio series from Prairie Public in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota and with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council. See all the Dakota Datebooks at prairiepublic.org, or subscribe to the “Dakota Datebook” podcast.