THIS week, December 19 to be specific, is the 110th anniversary of the death of Henry Ware Lawton, an American general after whom a landmark plaza in Manila, Philippines was named--Plaza Lawton.
During my college years, I gave the etymology of the plaza some thought but didn't exactly bother to do real research. Back then, I just presumed that "Lawton" must be another of the numerous vestiges of pathetic (what else could it be?) colonial heritage. Lawton must be some American official who served in the Philippines. Perhaps a governor-general, military officer, or commissioner of some entity during the era of United States occupation of its former Southeast Asian colony.
It's interesting to note that the name "Geronimo" was destined to play an important part of his military record--of Lawton's fame and death. Lawton was to be the bane of the Apache American Indian tribe and its leader Geronimo during the Geronimo Campaign of 1886.*
More than a later, during yet another mission of subjugation (US translation: pacification)--this time thousands of miles of land and ocean waters away from American soil--he would face another Geronimo in the person of Filipino general (US translation: "insurgent" leader) Licerio Geronimo.
Lawton's Military Exploits
Gen. Henry Ware Lawton is said to be one of the most celebrated American wartime heroes of his time. He was so respected and admired such that Fort Lawton in Washington and the city of Lawton in Oklahoma were named after him. He was "boy hero" of the American Civil War, earning the Medal of Honor for his leadership of a skirmish attack at Atlanta, Georgia.
Lawton is best remembered, however, for his pursuit of the near-mythical figure that was Geronimo and his American Indian band. While Lawton was not actually able to capture Geronimo, his relentless search operations that included the use of Apache "scouts" (translation: Indian traitors) are credited for the Indian leader's eventual surrender to the US Army.
Promotions came easy for him after the 1886 Geronimo Campaign, rising to become brigadier general of volunteers during his stint in Cuba and later, as Major General. His military exploits covering four decades--the Civil War, American Indian Wars, Spanish-American War, and Philippine-American War--supposedly approached the level of fantastic such that his life has been a popular subject of contemporary journalism. While he is now faulted for certain flawed judgments during the war against the Spaniards and in Cuba, his trademark traits--dogged determination and fearlessness came in handy for the US missions.
The Philippine-American War was set in the context of the Filipino revolutionary energies being part-spent during the Revolution against Spanish colonial rule and of the voracious, newfound US appetite for imperial possessions in the Pacific (apart from Puerto Rico). The US had prevailed in the Spanish-American War, resulting to the December 1898 Treaty of Paris that, among other things, "ceded" the Philippines to the US for $20 million.
At that time, the American public was becoming divided over the morality and wisdom of President William McKinley’s policy of colonization. The Anti-Imperialist League was formed and business baron Andrew Carnegie even offered $20 million to buy back the independence of the Filipinos, but was promptly rejected.
The denial apparently also arose from the need of the US military to be in accord with the acquisition-via-Spanish-sale-of-the-Southeast-Asian-archipelago official policy for the Philippines. The Fil-Am War denial precludes a rather important point behind the outcome of the Spanish-American War--that the Filipino revolutionaries actually helped the US defeat Spain. This is a fact acknowledged no less by Senator William Jennings Bryan:
There can be no doubt that we accepted and utilized the services of the Filipinos [in the war against Spain], and that when we did so we had full knowledge that they were fighting for their own independence, and I submit that history furnishes no example of turpitude baser than ours if we now substitute our yoke for the Spanish yoke.
Lawton in the Philippines
Gen. Lawton was among the Civil War and American Indian war veterans assigned to secure US expansionist interest in the Philippines. He headed the 3,850-strong First Division consisting of two maneuver brigades, each of which was further composed of four or so battalions. He was responsible for the capture of the Filipino stronghold in Santa Cruz (April 9-10, 1899); Paete (April 12, 1899); and Zapote (June 13, 1899) in the war's second largest battle.
The American general was boldly pacing the firing line on the San Mateo River’s west bank almost unmindful of the warnings given him by his soldiers when a bullet of a sharpshooting Filipino revolutionary pierced through his chest. Lawton died instantly. The US military's biggest single loss in the war.
Responsible for his death was the guerilla troop Tiradores de la Muerte (Marksmen of Death), which was ironically led by another "Geronimo"--Gen. Licerio Geronimo. The exact spot of the conflict, or at least part of it, is now within the jurisdiction of Quezon City in Metro Manila. A marker commemorating the Battle of San Mateo, which can be found at Brgy. Bagong Silangan, when translated into English reads:
On this spot on the morning of December 19, 1899 occurred a historic battle during the Filipino-American War between the forces of Licerio Geronimo, Division General of the Revolutionary Army of Rizal together with his band of marksmen called Tiradores de la Muerte and American forces led by Commanding General Henry W. Lawton that consisted of battalions from the 29th Infantry, 27th Infantry, and a cavalry and foot squadron from the 11th Cavalry. Killed during this battle faced by the forces of General Geronimo was General Lawton, one of the highest ranking American military officials during the Filipino-American War.
Who was the Filipino "Geronimo"? Gen. Geronimo was among the most valiant Filipino generals in the Philippine-American War. According to a National Historical Institute article:
Geronimo joined the Katipunan when [Andres] Bonifacio established a chapter in Montalban. When revolution [against Spain] broke out in 1896, Geronimo went to Balintawak on request of Bonifacio. On August 30 that same year, he was with the group that attacked San Juan del Monte...
“General Cerio” as he was fondly called became popular among the revolutionists because of his skills in combat. He triumphantly defended his post from the Spaniards and augmented ammunitions and supplies of the revolutionists by ambushing Spanish carts...
When the Philippine-American War broke out, Geronimo defended Marikina. He helped build trenches and reorganized the Filipino troops in San Juan and Mandaluyong. Antonio Luna appointed him commanding general of the third military zone with operations in Manila and Rizal...
Geronimo was a great disturbance to the Americans for his damaging guerrilla tactics against them. In July 1900, General Trias named him jefe superior [Chief Commader] of the joint forces of the second and third zones of Manila. In August, he took command of the district of Morong.
Gen. Geronimo continued to fight the American imperialists for over a year after his troops killed the highest-ranking American casualty of the war. Subsequently, however, he caved in to the pressures wrought by America military might and a double-faced "pacification campaign" (translation: at times, ruthless scorched-earth tactics were used). On March 29, 2001, the valiant Gen. Geronimo surrendered to the colonizers. He even became a Philippine Constabulary inspector and, later, officer.
US Colonial Propaganda
Within two years, however, the noted Filipino veteran of the Revolution and the Philippine-American War would be dismissed from the colonial-era Philippine Constabulary, supposedly on grounds of gambling. At this point, a student of history may wonder whether gambling was indeed the only reason behind Geronimo's dismissal. After all, his guerilla troop was responsible for the killing of heroic-to-the-Americans-but-fallen-colonizing-agent-to-the-Filipinos Gen. Lawton.
By any measure, Geronimo's association with the death of an American general presented an embarrassment for a (emerging) world power claiming that the inhabitants of its colonial possession were not waging, or in no position to wage, any war. Moreover, Gen. Geronimo demolished no less an illustrious American military hero whose persona the colonial government would forcibly inculcate into the Filipino psyche by naming an important Manila plaza after him, Plaza Lawton.
Lawton's Views of the Philippine-American War
Gen. Lawton, in his stint during the Phil-Am War and in his death while in action, was to be surrounded with, or involved in, propaganda issues relating to the military conflict in the Philippines. For one, in a conversation with a reporter-friend over his non-promotion to the rank of Regular Army officer, he expressed his apprehensions over the possible consequence of his public pronouncement of the need for 100,000 US troops in the Philippines.
Another would be a controversial letter--published only after his death--in which he seemed to downgrade Filipino resistance and military capability. In the letter he wrote before his death to former ambassador to Siam (Thailand) John Barrett, Lawton supposedly stated that “If I am shot by a Filipino bullet, it might as well come from one of my own men, because I know from observation, confirmed by captured prisoners, that the continuance of fighting is chiefly due to reports that are sent out from America.”
As for the letter to the ambassador, it was apparently crafted in response to the Anti-Imperialist League's criticisms of the annexation of the Philippines. It certainly appeared incongruent with his publicly stated view that the containment of Filipino resistance needed 100,000 US troops.
Moreover the Barrett letter seemed to squarely conflict with the contents of a formal correspondence also attributed to him. In that other letter, Lawton was all praises for the resolve of the Filipino soldiers:
Taking into account the disadvantages they have to fight against in terms of arms, equipment and military discipline, without artillery, short of ammunition, powder inferior, shells reloaded until they are defective, they are the bravest men I have ever seen...
His admiration for the under-equipped soldiers must surely not have been directed at the traitorous indigenous scouts that they were arming. Clearly, the Filipino soldiers earned Lawton's respect--and, apparently, the recognition that they were fighting a valiant war for freedom.
Phil-Am War as Historical Reality
The United States combined tactics of pacification and social improvement with brutal military strikes. Aguinaldo was captured in 1901, and then in 1902 President Roosevelt officially declared an end to the conflict. However a Filipino-American War continued on until 1915. In years to come, Americans remained divided over the nation’s actions and imperial ambitions.
Military historian John M. Gates notes how the US forces became atrocious as they increasingly became frustrated in their missions. He writes that "The more frustrating the campaign became, the more frequently the Americans crossed the line separating the harsh reprisals sanctioned by General Order 100 from such crimes of war as torture and wanton destruction."
Clearly, why the US soldiers reached frustration level reflected the war intensity level that the Filipino patriots gave them in the turn-of-the-century conflict. Commenting on the casualty figures of the Philippine-American War (his count being actually very conservative compared to American author Gore Vidal's), Gates writes: "This war about which one hears so little was not a minor skirmish."
Plaza Lawton Place-Naming
Despite his having been killed by a Filipino bullet, however, the US colonial government was to have the temerity to name a plaza in the capital, Manila, after the fallen American general. Actually, "Plaza Lawton" was probably expected, given that imperialist periods always reflect the viewpoints of the dominant state.
During the early American era, colonial policy included an education (or miseducation?) policy of Americanizing the Filipino psyche. Under the so-called 1908 pensionado program, young Filipinos sent to the mother country for education became "sellers of American institutions and way of life" upon their return back home. Similarly, the introduced educational system in the Philippines taught the natives American presidents and figures, government system, etc.
More visible was the pattern of naming streets and places after American governor-generals, military officials, important American who served in the islands, etc. Thus, today's Roxas Blvd. in Metro Manila was formerly named after Commodore Dewey who demolished the Spanish naval forces during the Battle of Manila Bay; A.H. Lacson St. in Sampaloc, Manila used to be named after Gov.-Gen. William Forbes. Burnham Park in Baguio City was named after American architect Daniel Burnham. Taft Avenue in Manila has also retained the name taken after the country's first American civil governor, William Howard Taft (later became US president).
Plaza Lawton was not the only case of propaganda/Americanization type of place naming instituted by the colonial government. Streets built right after the Fil-Am War in Malate were named after US states that sent volunteer soldiers to fight the Filipino army (later renamed after the patriots who played key roles in the First Philippine Republic).
From Lawton to Katipunan founder Bonifacio
In the early 1900s, Plaza Lawton became an important part of the so-called Burnham Plan for the capital city. The plaza fronts the facade of the Manila Central Post Office, a neo-classical but beautiful structure that still stands today (rebuilt after World War II). While it appears lost in the present time, it simply looked so grand during the early part of the 20th century. The plaza itself, without today's numerous jeepneys, cars, and development clutters, was a pleasant sight to behold.
... to Plaza Geronimo?
Would it not be more fitting and historically meaningful to rename the plaza christened after the highest ranking imperialist military leader killed during the Filipino-American war to the (sur)name of the Filipino general responsible for the wartime feat? If only the Philippine government was probably not so sensitive to what its former colonial master would feel, naming that part of Manila "Plaza Geronimo" would actually constitute a logical choice.
However, from the viewpoint of Philippine memory, it simply sounds more symbolic to change Plaza Lawton to the name of the nemesis of the fallen American general. Such an ironic name change will highlight the great, valiant struggle that ill-equipped Philippine eagle soldiers put up with against the colonizing American bald eagle forces.
To put it bluntly but honestly, Lawton was Geronimo's prized Filipino-American War trophy. America's biggest loss was the Philippines’s biggest prey catch. No matter that the killing of Lawton ultimately proved to be more of a fleeting victory, a consolation prize amidst the eventual US subjugation of the whole islands. From Plaza Lawton to Plaza Geronimo--a symbolic, if ironic, historical, anti-colonial sweet revenge.
Then again, maybe Gen. Geronimo does not deserve that accolade. After all, he surrendered to the American forces some 15 months after his guerilla force wondrously killed Gen. Lawton. I mean, real heroes fight to death, right?
In fairness to Gen. Cerio, as he was actually fondly called, his surrender came in the context of the successive captures or surrenders of other revolutionary leaders which, in turn, was apparently the effect of the cowardly stance of Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo, the President of the newly proclaimed (translation: fledging) Philippine Republic.
Lawton from an Objective View
Really. The phrase attributed to him, "If I am shot by a Filipino bullet, it might was well be from one of my own men," came only in Gen. Lawton's wildest dreams. Or, speculatively perhaps, was a propaganda concoction of the US military to try to disprove the Anti-Imperialist League's criticisms of "voice of God"-in- "Benevolent Assimilation" policy of President William McKinley.
Gen. Lawton. White American hero. Conqueror of American Indians. Trophy of Filipino Gen. Geronimo. Plaza Lawton. Change what you know.
*Some accounts state that Lawton either captured Geronimo; others claim the Apache leader surrendered—either to Lawton or another US military official.
Sumaquel Macky Hosalla (photo of Gen. Licerio)
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