White Americans may have dubbed him a traitor and buried his story. But to the Filipino people, David Fagen was an African-American hero whose legend lives on. A corporal of the 24th Infantry Regiment of the U.S. Army, Fagen was a trained soldier who swore allegiance to his country. He battled against the Filipinos during the Philippine-American War.
But after a few months, he turned his back on his own countrymen and joined the Filipinos to fight the very people he once fought alongside. And he perhaps had a good reason.
Growing up, he realized how difficult life was for a Black American. He was born in 1878 in Tampa, Florida, amid Jim Crow racial segregation laws. The son of former slaves, Fagen got involved in labor strikes and several brawls. At 20 years old, he was employed as a manual laborer for a phosphate company.
“They give him a sledge hammer very early in the morning, put him in the swamp waste deep and he’s wrecking phosphate off the banks,” according to author and historian Phillip Hoffman who tells the story of Fagen in his book, David Fagen: Turncoat Hero.
That was a tough job for Fagen but he soon found an opportunity to change his life. Black soldiers who were known as “Buffalo Soldiers” were at the time the most experienced combat troops in the U.S. Army. Thus, they were recruited to fight the Spanish in Cuba at Santiago. One of the Buffalo Soldiers’ regiments was based in Tampa. While Fagen was working at the phosphate company, he learned that the unit was recruiting African Americans to join the force amid the Spanish-American War.
“All of a sudden, there are 4,000 Black soldiers carrying rifles and pistols wandering around Tampa city proper and they come from the far West where they are admired and loved because they were protecting whites,” said Hoffman.
“David Fagen immediately recognizes ‘Oh my gosh, wherever these guys are from is better than where I am,’ and where can I sign up, and where can I sign up.”
Fagen signed up on June 4, 1898, at the age of 23. After combat in Cuba, Fagen was deployed to Manila to fight in the Philippine-American War (1899-1902).
The Philippine-American War
When the U.S. won the Spanish-American War in 1898, it bought the Philippines from Spain for $20 million, taking over the country without the knowledge of the Filipinos. The Filipinos had for 333 years been ruled by Spain. And when they thought they had finally gained their independence, they found themselves in 1898 being tyrannized again by another colonial master, the Americans. So they took up arms against the Americans. By 1898, the war between the Filipinos and Americans began.
During the war, the Buffalo Soldiers soon saw Filipinos as their fellow dark-skinned brothers who were being oppressed by the U.S. just as they (the Buffalo Soldiers) were treated back home in the U.S. They soon saw how the American forces, well-trained and well-armed, unleashed violence on Filipinos who had little training and firepower, according to Hoffman.
Fagen and the other Black soldiers had been told that their mission in the Philippines was to get rid of a tyrant and establish democracy and freedom for the Filipino people. But they soon realized otherwise.
“They had learned we weren’t there to help the Philippines establish a democracy. The United States was taking the Philippines. We were going to rule it by force,” Hoffman said.
Fagen and other Black soldiers soon began to identify more with the plight of the Filipinos. Fagen, after six months, that is on November 17, 1899, decided to leave.
“He had made up his mind that he could no longer conduct himself as an instrument of white racism or American imperialism; he just didn’t want to do it anymore,” Hoffman said of Fagen’s decision to defect from the U.S. Army. “And, having come to that conclusion, he stole four pistols and a horse and he rode off and he joined the Philippine Liberation Army under Aguinaldo, the president of the Philippines.”
Commissioned as an officer, Fagen trained Filipino soldiers, and not too long after, he was promoted to captain and given his own command. He earned praise from his Filipino comrades who referred to him as “General Fagen.” In the U.S., he made headlines in the papers. The New York Times, on October 29, 1900, described Fagen as a “cunning and highly skilled guerrilla officer who harassed and evaded large conventional American units.”
From August 30, 1900, to January 17, 1901, Fagen clashed with American troops about eight times, with his most famous action being the raid of a supply barge on the Pampanga River. American forces tried many times to capture Fagen but they failed.
“He became the most notorious and hated American traitor of the Philippine-American War and simultaneously a Philippine hero,” Hoffman said.
Around 1901, when American forces captured key Filipino leaders, Fagen refused to surrender and hid in the mountains of Nueva Ecija in Central Luzon. The American forces soon posted a $600 reward for the capture of Fagen, dead or alive.
On December 5, 1901, a hunter named Anastacio Bartolome brought a severed head to the American military outpost at Bongabon, Nueva Ecija. He claimed that was Fagen’s head even though it was decomposed beyond recognition. The U.S. forces saw it as proof enough to close Fagen’s case. They stopped the search against him. But some reports later said that the hunter, Bartolome, was a member of the guerilla forces who gave a fake head to the Americans so that they stop pursuing Fagen. To date, it is not clear what really became of Fagen.