Willy Grayson – The Man Who Missed

For many years a plaque was placed at San Juan Bridge in Manila announcing that this was where the first shot of the Philippine-American War was fired on the evening of 4 February 1899. Further, in textbooks and in received popular history, the man who fired that shot, Private Willy Grayson of D Company, 1st Nebraska regiment, killed the first Filipino of the conflict, sometimes named as Anistacio Felix.

The few things correct in that scenario are the date and the name of the American soldier who fired the first shot. Anistacio Felix gave evidence at an investigation the next day initiated by Emilio Aguinaldo, President and Commander-In-Chief of the still-born Philippine Republic.

War is a violent, complex, confusing process. That further muddies the waters when we add the unreliability of memories, which are dynamic and creative, not fixed or permanent.

In addition to recall, there are the problems of accurate perception under poor conditions. At the time of the incident there no Moon, it would not rise until after midnight that evening6.

Who was William Grayson

William Walter Grayson was born in England in 1876 to William and Sarah Grayson. The family moved to Sioux City, to Nebraska where he worked as a hostler7. Not yet a US Citizen, he enlisted in the 1st Nebraska in May, 1898.

Described by a compatriot as “A man of little character”8 He was given no medals, commendations or promotion for the events of 4 February but did get a positive mention in dispatches for proving covering fire for hospital corpsmen rescuing injured soldiers in an encounter about three weeks later9.

On 31 March, 1899 he was invalided to the rear, suffering from exhaustion and shoulder rheumatism. He was diagnosed with malaria, exhaustion, stomach upset, and overexertion. He was released from the hospital and served as a cook during June, his last month in the island10.

Other than the usual campaign medal given to all who served in the Philippines, he received no special recognition.

The regiment returned to the US from the Philippines in August, 1899, mustered out, and Grayson settled in San Francisco, California.

He married Clara Francesca Peters on 10 October 1899, became naturalised in December 1900, and had one child, Marguerite, born in 1909. He worked as a house painter or an undertaker until ill health forced his retirement in 1920.

He died in the San Francisco Veterans Administration Hospital on March 20, 1941.

The Inevitable Road To War

In truth, it did not matter whether an American or a Filipino fired that first shot. It was going to come from one side or the other. War became inevitable when the Spanish formally surrendered to Commodore Dewey on 13 August, 1898.

It was, perhaps, bad timing to begin with. Dewey had cut the telegraph lines between Manila and the outside world because the Spanish would not be kind enough to let him use them, His only means of communicating with Washington was to send a ship to Hong Kong and use the telegraph there.

This also meant that Washington could not communicate directly with him. Which is why he did not know that Spain was suing for peace and hostilities ceased on 12 August. Nor did the Spanish in Manila so they could not tell Dewey, either.

Under the Protocol of Peace, Spain ceded Cuba, Puerto Rico and an island in the Ladrones but not the Philippines. Under Article III, however, American forces were to occupy the city, bay and harbours of Manila pending “the conclusion of a treaty of peace which shall determine the control, dispositionand government of the Philippines.”

So, other than the mock battle of Manila, which cost lives, to appropriately satisfy Spanish honour, the outcome would have remained the same whether Dewey and the Spanish under Jaudenes were aware of the cessation of hostilities.

Although the US Congress had set independence for Cuba as a condition of going to war with Spain, there was no such condition with regard to the Philippines.

Cuban revolutionaries had spent many years building influence and consensus in the United States. The Philippines had not, limiting itself to promising control of the Manila Customs House in return for arms in November 1897.

Filipino revolutionaries did nothing with regard to getting a promise of independence from the US until after the opening shots of the Spanish-American War were fired and later efforts to do so were fruitless.

Persons whom Aguinaldo spoke to, the US consul in Singapore and Dewey, did not have the authority to promise independence and what really transpired between the latter and Aguinaldo aboard the Olympia remain uncertain.

Expatriate Filipinos in Hong Kong muddied the waters by appealing to the US to annex the Philippines.

With Manila now occupied by US forces headed by General Elwell S. Otis, talks ensured between Aguinaldo and the city’s American administration. Otis reported little of the Filipino demands and expectations to Washington. He seems to have been particularly obtuse.

The Filipinos were desperate to have their future clarified but at that time, the US did not have formal authority to decide the country’s fate. Almost any agreement that included eventual independence, including under a protectorate, would have sufficed to keep the peace.

Manila was encircled by Filipino trenches, Filipinos controlled the islands with the sole exception of Manila. They had beaten the Spanish in the Philippines.

More and more American troops poured into the city and, with Aguinaldo’s agreement, moved in to occupy Filipino trenches while Philippine Republican forces moved back.

Only practical two options remained on the table: Handing the country back to Spain or taking it as a colony. In November, Aquinaldo prepared for war in event of a return to Spanish control while still hoping for a positive outcome with the Americans.

Aguinaldo was aware that Philippine Independence would not survive without foreign assistance such as a protectorate. It was a need recognised as early as 1896 when members of the Katipunan lobbied Japan for assistance with the offer of protectorate status.

Possibly they were influenced by the visit of King Norodum I of Cambodia in 1872. Cambodia had successfully requested French protectorate status to defend it against invasion by Vietnam and Thailand.

Without that protectorate status Cambodia, which had long-standing ties with the Philippines, would have ceased to exist as a notionally independent entity so such an arrangement may have made sense to those seeking independence for the Philippines..

On 10 December 1898, Spain and the United States signed the Treaty of Paris. Under Article III, Spain would cede control of the Philippines and the United States would pay $20 million dollars for the privilege. The treaty would not be entered into force until it had been ratified by the legislatures of both countries.

It settled the issue of whether the islands would be returned to Spain, they would not, and gave the sole right of disposition and control to to the US Congress.

Until both sides ratified the treaty a formal state of war existed. The Spanish Cortes refused to ratify the treaty so the Queen Regent, Cristina, stepped in and unilaterally ratified the treaty in March 189911.

A vote in the US Congress was scheduled for 6 February which would require a two-thirds vote in favour of ratification. There was vigorous opposition to the acquisition of the Philippines.

With the signing of the treaty tensions increased dramatically.

On 16 December, American soldiers were ordered to stay in their quarters and their officers required to sleep in their offices. Next day, US forces went on high alert, with every man under arms with 150 rounds issued. 20 December saw the soldiers confined to quarters in expectation of war. 144

That day marked the beginning of Simbang Gabi, when Filipinos rise for morning mass each day in the build up to Christmas.

Dewey wrote to Washington:

“It is strongly urged that the President issue a proclamation defining the position of the United States Government in the Philippine Islands and showing the inhabitants that it is our intention to interfere in the internal affairs of the Philippines as little as possible; that as they develop their capabilities of government their powers and privileges will be increased. That will allay the spirit of unrest. The Spanish soldiers should be expatriated as soon as possible; they are a source of discord and danger.” 145

President McKinley threw gasoline on the glowing embers of suspicion and distrust in the Philippines with the issue of the Benevolent Assimilation Proclamation of 21 December, 1898. It was an executive order that did not have the approval of the US Congress. He instructed Otis to issue the proclamation, which announced the supremacy of the United States in the Philippines and the occupation of the islands12.

Otis suddenly became aware that Filipinos had fought for and wanted independence and had assisted United States forces with that in mind. He may possibly have wished that he’d paid more attention and had reported the situation in the Philippines more accurately.

Now it was too late.

Faced with the incendiary proclamation, Otis did what any man of his intellect and grasp of realities would do: He censored the proclamation to conceal its essential character as a formal announcement of colonisation and had it posted around the city and sent a copy to Aguinaldo.

He sent one uncensored copy to General Marcus Miller anchored off Iloilo, then occupied by Filipino forces who had declared the Federal Republic of the Visayas. Miller translated the proclamation to Spanish and sent it ashore from where the full copy made its way back to Aguinaldo at Malolos.

In the first week of January, telegrams were sent to local officials ordering them to prepare for war with the Americans and to prepare food stocks. There was an audit of weapons and ammunition held by Republican forces.

Aguinaldo issued his own proclamation rejecting US sovereignty and making it clear Filipinos were willing to fight.

Already, there had been numerous confrontations between the Americans and the Filipinos. Over the next few weeks Filipinos became more assertive, attempting to pass through American lines with their arms but being pushed back. One such incident took place on San Juan bridge, which may have later been confused with the 4 February incident.

As the date for ratification of the Treaty of Paris can closer, with no sign of independence in the offing, incidents increased. On 28 January Filipino forces under the command of a lieuitenant occupied Santol village within American lines but the commander of the 1st Nebraska, Colonel Stotsenburg negotiated a forceful but peaceful resolution and the Filipinos withdrew. Thereafter, it was reported, Filipinos shouted insults at Stotsenberg.

On 2 February, the men of 1st Nebraska were each issued with 100 rounds of ammunition and ordered to sleep in their clothes. US authorities had received intelligence that Filipinos would mount an all-out assault. Grayson had that day been given orders to shoot to kill 157, One of Grayson’s fellow soldiers wrote: “The sergeant, a Dutch man (Sgt. Joseph De Vriendt), told the guard (Pvt. William Grayson)… not to stand any monkey work13”.

Rarely mentioned is Grayson’s comment to Senator Richard F. Pettigrew. while aboard the Hancock returning to the US, blaming the “ ‘… damned bullheadedness of the officers in invading insurgent territory’ for that shot.14

Both sides were prepared for war. Although it is possible to make a case that the Americans intended to attack, one can also make the case that Aquinaldo planned an attack. As JRM Taylor does in his gossip-filled second volume of The Philippine Insurrection Against the United States15.

Demolishing The Bridge

Exactly how and when that first shot came to be placed on San Juan Bridge has not been determined. None of the official reports on either side place the incident on the bridge, nor do any of the newspaper interviews with Grayson and re-enactment photos of Grayson firing show him somewhere other than the bridge. There was initial ambiguity on the American side about whether a Filipino officer really that been killed which later was accepted as a certainty, although the Filipinos reported no casualties in that incident.

Earlier that evening there had been an incident involving a Filipino Lieutenant with a detail of six men on that same bridge but were driven back by a sentinel at the west end of the bridge.16,17. Given the fog of war and the inaccuracies of gossip and memory, this may be the seed for the story of a shot fired on the bridge.

A particularly colourful account is given by OW Coursey who creates a ‘strong outpost’ of the Republican forces at one end of the San Juan bridge and an American sentinel at the other. After mentioning that it was a moonless night and the darkness was exceedingly dense, Coursey proceeds to describe details that would have been invisible on such a night18.

Further support that the earlier attempt to cross the bridge has been added to the Grayson incident is that in the former, the Filipino patrol was led by a lieutenant while in the latter incident they were led by a corporal.

Interviewed by a journalist in San Francisco after disembarking the Hancock with Senator Pettigrew, Grayson said that he ‘had a talk’ with a Filipino lieutenant earlier in the day who had told him to move back. That incident, says Grayson, made them more alert that evening19.

That confrontation is also mentioned by Payne: “There was a lieut. on the Filipino side who had about as much sense as the afore mentioned (Grayson) who had been getting drunk and causing trouble before. He came down and ordered a post of ours moved back which had been moved up to hold one in check which had been pushed up by the Filipinos.20

This particular lieutenant had become well-known to the American soldiers.

To this day, no-one has determined the exact position of Grayson and his compatriots when the shot was fired despite anaylses using Geospatial Information System software and satellite imagery21. It did not, however, happen on a bridge.

Finding Private Grayson

Where was Grayson when he fired if he wasn’t on the bridge?

He was based at Outpost No. 2, about 100 yards, one can use yards as metres for these purposes, from the town of Santol and 20 yards from the pipeline from the waterworks feeding into Manila. It was a cossack post22, which are typically positioned between 150 and 250 metres apart, with patrols scouting for about half the distance between them.

Outpost No, 2 was at the intersection of three roads leading to Santol, Blockhouse No. 6, and Blockhouse 7. Only one point meets the necessary conditions.

Second Lieutenant Burt D Wheedon took command of Outpost 2 at 7pm with eight men, including Grayson. The men were to patrol down each road for 100 yards every thirty minutes.

At about 8pm a three-man patrol, including Grayson, went a supposed 100 yards on the road leading to Blockhouse 7 and stopped by a fence to see what the Filipinos were doing. The only fence that fits the description is, in fact, about 130 yards towards the blockhouse.

They were on what is today called Sociego Street, although the exact position can no longer be determined.

A low whistle was heared, and a red light flashed from Blockhouse 7, then four Filipino soldiers appeared out of the darkness between 15 and 30 yards away, it was too dark to see them clearly.. Grayson challenged them three times, heard them cock their guns and he fired. Then the three man-patrol retreated towards Santol, to find two Filipino soldiers in their way. Grayson and Miller fired again and ran on, Grayson losing his hat in the process.

Reaching Santol they were faced with firing from the Filipino forces nearby. The American soldiers from Outpost No 2 withdrew along the road leading to the pipeline and used the latter for cover23.

Who did Grayson Shoot?

In such low-light conditions and little more than silhouettes in the darkness to fire at, with heart-thumping and adrenaline pumping, one is entitled to question the accuracy of Grayson’s shooting.

Grayson himself is reported to have said that he could not seen the Filipinos plainly24.

No-one checked for dead bodies, and the Filipino soldiers withdrew to Blockhouse 7 taking their entire patrol with them.

Even Grayson seems uncertain, saying: “If I did not kill him I

guess he died of fright.”

Payne comments “…our sentenel(sic) fired upon him and it is stated killed him but he was taken back by the native soldiers with him.”

A history of operations of the 1st Nebraska says: “Grayson and the entire regiment were pleased, because they had ” winged ” the native who had insulted the Colonel(Stotsenburg)25”.

So, it seems there were doubts about Grayson’s ‘kill’ at the time.

Various texts identify Grayson’s target as a Filipino lieutenant, a Corporal Anistacio Felix and, an outlier, an unarmed civilian26.

Since Grayson could not identify who he was shooting at, how far away they were, or whether he hit, missed, or injured his target, let us look at the Filipino accounts reproduced in Taylor, Volume 427.

The Filipino side

The first report from the Filipino side came from Sergeant Serapio Narvaez, Infantry Battalion, Morong, Expeditionary, based at the Powderhouse in San Juan del Monte on 5 February:

At about 9 p.m. yesterday, while Corporal Anistacio Felix of the fourth Company, with two soldiers, was at the door of Blockhouse No. 7, they were fired upon by the sentinel of the American sentinel who were passing on the road near barrio Santol close to the Blockhouse28

On 6 March, Captain Fernando E Grey gave a deposition to an inquiry ordered by Emilio Aguinaldo in which he claims that his men noted that the Americans seemed closer than usual.

Two soldiers from Blockhouse No 7 went on patrol to meet soldiers from Blockhouse No. 6. When the soldiers were opposite the American sentinel they were fired upon and retreated to Blockhouse 7.

Grey also noted the launch of a red rocket around Tondo, which he assumed came from the Americans29. A red rocket was also noted by the Americans and assumed to have come from the Filipinos.

Since it would have suited the Filipino agenda to not only have the Americans fire first, but to kill or injure a Filipino, yet reported none, one must dismiss the claim that anyone was killed or hurt in the encounter with Grayson. It would have been of no advantage for the Filipinos to hide it and very advantageous to say that the Americans had harmed a Filipino in that encounter.

Putting together what we know, and what we can safely assume, we have a workable scenario:

Filipino patrols set out from Blockhouses 6 and 7 as normal. The patrols see each other in the darkness and hunker down until they have confirmed each others identity. They give signal whistles that confirm who they are and stand up to great each other.

Suddenly, as they meet, a voice calls out from nearby, challenging them. They respond to the challenge with “Halto”. Not getting an appropriate response from the unseen challenger, they cock their weapons. A shot is fired.

Unable to see the assailant the Filipino patrols rush back to their respective Blockhouses and the firing begins in earnest.

Both sides were prepared to fight, neither side wanted a shooting war. It is in the nature of warfare that it is easier to start shooting than to stop.

Aguinaldo sought out Otis and urged a ceasefire. Otis refused. Otis later told the Committee on Affairs in the Philippine Islands that Aguinaldo precipitated the conflict on 4 February, hoping that the fight would cause the Senate to reject the treaty. 159

Having fought the three-and-a-half century-old dominance of Spain to a standstill and then, after Dewey’s destruction of the Spanish fleet, destroyed Spanish power throughout the archipelago, having ended the dominance of the friars over the Philippines, having created, if nascently, the first independent democratic republic in Asia, on 4 February 1901, General Emilio Aguinaldo, President of the Philippines, former town mayor, and school drop-out, declared war against the United States of

America with the words: “Upon their heads be all the blood which may be shed.” 160


2McNally, Richard J. 2005. ‘Debunking Myths about Trauma and Memory’. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry 50 (13): 817–22. https://doi.org/10.1177/070674370505001302.

3Southwick, S. M., C. A. Morgan, A. L. Nicolaou, and D. S. Charney. 1997. ‘Consistency of Memory for Combat-Related Traumatic Events in Veterans of Operation Desert Storm’. The American Journal of Psychiatry 154 (2): 173–77. https://doi.org/10.1176/ajp.154.2.173.

4‘Trauma, PTSD, and Memory Distortion’. n.d. Psychology Today. Accessed 12 December 2019. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/beastly-behavior/201605/trauma-ptsd-and-memory-distortion.

5Nathan and Strange

6 Moon calculator https://www.timeanddate.com/moon/philippines/manila?month=2&year=1899

7History of the Operations of the First Nebraska Infantry, U.S.V. in the Campaign in the Philippine Islands. 1899. [n.p. http://archive.org/details/historyofoperati00np.

8 Payne. Robert Bruce, http://philippinediaryproject.com/1899/02/07/febr-7-1899/

9Captain Nelson M Black, covering fire for rescue of injured under attack Annual Report of Maj. Gen. E.S. Otis: Commanding Department of the …, Volume 1 483 to Stotsenburg, feb 22 1899.

10 Donald Chaput, “Private William W Grayson’s War in the Philippines, 1899,” Nebraska History 61 (1980): 355-366. http://www.nebraskahistory.org/publish/publicat/history/full-text/NH1980GraysonWar1899.pdf

11 Bautista, Lowell B. n.d. ‘The Historical Context and Legal Basis of the Philippine Treaty Limits’ 10: 31.

12 ‘Philippine History — McKinley’s Benevolent Assimilation Proclamation’. n.d. Accessed 15 December 2019. http://www.msc.edu.ph/centennial/benevolent.html.

13 Payne

14 Pettigrew, Richard F. (Richard Franklin). 2005. The Course of Empire, an Offical Record by Senator R. F. Pettigrew. Introduction by Scott Nearing. Page 270 http://name.umdl.umich.edu/abz4072.0001.001.

15 Taylor volume 2

16 Worcester, Dean C. (Dean Conant). 2005. Some Aspects of the Philippine Question, by Professor Dean C. Worcester … An Address Delivered under the Auspices of the Club, at Central Music Hall, Chicago, November 15, 1899. P14http://name.umdl.umich.edu/aba4525.0001.001.

17 Commission (1899-1900), United States Philippine. 2005. Report of the Philippine Commission to the President. : January 31, 1900[-December 20, 1900]  [Vol. 1, No. 1]. PP174-175 http://name.umdl.umich.edu/aex9637.0001.001.

18 ‘The Philippines and Filipinos; a Treatise on the History, the Civics, and the Mathematical, Physical and Political Geography of the Philippine Archipelago, by O. W. Coursey.’ n.d. Accessed 11 December 2019. PP 72-74 https://quod.lib.umich.edu/p/philamer/abh1047.0001.001/83?page=root;rgn=full+text;size=100;view=image;q1=Grayson.

19 Buckland County Journal.

20 Payne.

21 Blanco, Ariel C, Rene R Escalante, and Emmanuel N Encarnacion. n.d. ‘Geospatial Analysis of the First Shot of the Philippine-American War’, 27.

22 Reeves, Ira L. 2005. Bamboo Tales,Kansas City [Mo.]: Hudson-Kimerly [!] publishing co, [c1900] http://name.umdl.umich.edu/afy8930.0001.001.

p127 http://name.umdl.umich.edu/afy8930.0001.001.

23 Blackland Country Journal.

24 Glennwood

25 History of the Operations of the First Nebraska Infantry, U.S.V. in the Campaign in the Philippine Islands. 1899. page 15[n.p. http://archive.org/details/historyofoperati00np.

26America at War: The Philippines, 1898–1913. By A. B. Feuer. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2002. ISBN 0-275-96821- page XV


28 Taylor Exhibit 813, P540

29Taylor, page 559.

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