One of my pet peeves is the use of random photographs of American-American soldiers, some dating from the American Civil War, labelled as “David Fagen”. They appear on most Facebook posts about one of the few Buffalo Soldiers to desert to Philippine Republican forces during the Philippine-American War.
Buffalo soldiers served creditably in the American Civil War, the Apache Wars, Cuba, Mexico, and the Philippines, in both the Philippine-American and World War Two.
In the Philippine-American War not a single Buffalo soldier was implicated in committing atrocities despite serving in hot-spots like Samar. That is not to say they were perfect, one Buffalo soldier cut off the arm of a Filipina so he could take her bracelet, but in general their behaviour was exemplary.
Most saw their service as a way of demonstrating that they were Americans, despite the shoddy treatment handed out to them in their home country.
So, taking a random anonymized photograph and mislabelling it as someone else deprives the man pictured of his identity, his honour, his courage, his existence.
None of the photographs supposedly depicting him were identified as such contemporaneously with one exception, the sketch given above, from the Salt Lake City Herald of 30 October 1900, which may be derived from a photograph of him in civilian attire. The article is based on interviews with those who knew him, both civilians and military and gives a fascinating insight into the character of David Fagen.
Does it change our image of him?
When the 24th Infantry arrived in Manila on 30 July 1899 they were made to feel at home – bars, restaurants and even brothels were segregated.ma
After several engagements with Philippine Republican forces on Luzon, David Fagen suddenly defected to the Philippine side.
It is safe to say that his desertion was as a result of being brutalised in an America in which Blacks were badly treated, and thus identifying with the Filipino cause.
Yet, because it is accepted as a safe assumption it is one that should be examined more closely. ‘Safe’ assumptions may, at best, be only part of the explanation, and certainly worth questioning, as received wisdom always should be.
We’ll go into how Fagen came to be in the 24th Infantry, and his presumed death, later on but for now let us look at what people of colour, who knew him at Fort Douglas, Salt Lake City thought of him and what it tells us about David Fagen.
At the time of the report Fagen was still operating in Luzon. Some of those he had served with were already back in Salt Lake City.
The headline read s”They Knew Gen. Fagin- Salt Lake Colored People Talk About Filipino Officer – Was At Fort Douglas – Reckless But Lucky Gambler – Not Surprised At Him”
The report goes on:
David Fagen, the story of whose desertion from the Twenty-Fourth Infantry, his escapades as general in the Fiilipino army and subsequentent capture, was told in a dispatch from Mantla yesterday, was well known among the colored people of this city. He Joined the regiment while it was stationed at Fort Douglas, and during its stay there was a frequent visiter of the gambling resorts on on Commercial Street. where he was known as a jovial, reckless player with a penchant for Stud Poker and an exhaustless fund of luck.
Fagen , a Corporal in the Twenty-Fourth, was first given the rank of Lieutenant, then promoted to Captain in the Philippine Republican Army. A few days before this item was published, there were reports of an attack on a barge by 150 Filipinos led by Fagen, which was shortly recaptured on 23rd October. A competitor newspaper, The Salt Lake Tribune, had erroneously reported Fagen’s capture in its 29th October edition.
Among the reports is the claim that Fagen threatened harm to any of his former Black comrades should he capture them. If true, it would suggest that his ire was as much against Black soldiers as White Soldiers.
Soldiers gamble but the pointed reference to being both reckless and overly lucky is notable. It may explain some trouble he got into in the Philippines for which no precise information is available. Was he a card sharp? Whether he was or not, his recklessness certainly fits with his taunts and boasts throughout his two-year career in the Philippine Army.
Among his former comrades, many of whom are now residing in Salt Lake, lhe passsed for a very poor excuse for a soldier. Sergeant Williams of No.49 Franklin Avenue, a veteran of the Twenty-fourth regiment of more than twenty years service and recently returned from Manila, wore a very disgusted look yesterday wwas hile discussing his former companion in arms who had cajoled the Filipinos into making him a general.
“That man Fagin was no soldier,” exclaimed the grey-haired veteran. “He would make a soldier. He was just naturally too lazy and had too much book learning in his head. He had been through the university at Nashville when he joined the regiment here he wanted to be giving orders, and didn’t like to take them. That’s what made him join the Filipinos. He wanted a chance to be a high boss.”
This same Sergeant, Alexander Williams of Company A, 24th Infantry, who returned from Manila in April 1900, told the Salt Lake Tribune that Fagen was “A bright fellow, and was a graduate of Wilberforce College, near Cincinnati. Fagin’s downfall came from his lack of discipline. He was unruly and disobedient and for that reason he could not obtain the promotion that his qualifications would otherwise have obtained for him”
Setting aside some confusion between Nashville and Cincinnati, the reference to Fagen having a respectable education goes against the image of an, at best, semi-literate son of former slaves. Wilberforce College is an educational establishment for Black-Americans, set up with the help of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, AME.
As it happens, Fagen’s father knew a Samuel Bryant, a carpenter who built the AME church in Fagen’s birthplace, called The Scrubs in the Black area of Tampa, Florida, and who was a character witness for Fagen’s enlistment papers in the US Army. Bryant’s mother donated the land on which the church was built.
So, could Fagen have studied, at least for a while at Wilberforce University? It is not impossible. On the other hand, he signed his first enlistment papers in June 1898, with an ‘X’, yet those same enlistment papers record that he spoke and read English ‘satisfactorily’. After the Spanish-American War ended, he returned with the 24th to Fort Douglas at Salt Lake City and then to Fort DA Russell, where the seized bells of Balangiga were held for more than a century. The army allowed him to leave and he returned home, only to re-enlist in February 1899, this time signing his name, albeit with an uncertain hand.
It is notable that his enlistment papers were signed by a schoolteacher, Anthony Marrow, and John Calloway, a printer, who had joined the army. It may be that these two men were, at least in part, responsible for the ‘book-learning’ that Sergeant Williams complained about. It may even be that Calloway had a deeper influence on Fagen – As Sergeant Major he was dishonourably discharged after writing a letter to a Filipino friend and wealthy planter, Tomas Consunji in 1900.
In it he wrote: “What you young men must do is Educate, Educate, Educate! Not alone in the sense knowing what others have written, but what the Filipino is capable of doing. Bring up the masses, teach them. The capacity of a people is measured by its masses, not its exceptionals. “.
How could he not apply the same philosophy to men of his own colour, like David Fagen?
After his dishonourable discharge, Calloway made his way back to Manila where he married a lady called Mamerta. (We’ll be looking at Calloway in a future post).
“Looks Like Filipino” says a crosshead in the article followed by a description from those who knew him.
According to Williams’ description, Fagen is a man of medium height, and 1n complexion, “halfway between mulatto and gingerbread He added that the man looked enough like a Filipino to pass for one if he donned the native costume. When the sergeantnt was retired last March Fagen was still with the regiment, but Williams heard, before the boat left, of the desertion and the threats made by the deserter to spare none of the men of the Twenty-Fourth regiment should he capture any.
So, to use a phrase, Fagen was not as Black as he is often painted. Leon Wolff, in Little Brown Brother says that Fagen was 5’6″, 168 centimetres, but his second enlistment papers record him as 5′ 10″,178 centimetres. While the heights of black males at the time varied considerably a typical average was “5” 7′,172 centimetres. It would appear that Fagen was above average height, though not remarkably so, but significantly taller than the average Filipino of the time.
To muddy the waters further, Jose M. Alejandrino, one of Fagen’s superiors in the Philippine Republican forces, describes him as a “Negro giant of more than six feet in height”. Alejandrino may have had an exagerrated memory of Fagen’s height.
Alejandrino tells us that Fagen could not be trusted to guard white prisoners because he had a habit of killing them without the approval of senior officers. His ‘outstanding hatred of American whites’, as described by Alejandrino, would seem also to extend to his former comrades in arms.
It used to be safe to assume that Fagen aimed his anger at white soldiers because of abuse he had suffered in Tampa and in Manila, that assumption is no longer safe.
At least two American soldiers taken captive by Fagen say they were actually treated well and other than Alejandrino there seems little evidence that he did, in fact, kill prisoners of war.
Philippine President and Commander-In-Chief was well aware of the circumstances regarding Blacks in America and urged Buffalo Soldiers to desert their units. White deserters called upon their own comrades to join them, too. However, Fagen, despite his other messages, does not seem to have followed suit.
Before quitting his regiment to don the epaulettes of a native general Fagen took advantage of a lay-off last March, and his usual run of luck at stud poker to take about $200 from his comrades. This was only one of his regular winnings every time there was payday. He was similarly s uccessful while in Salt Lake on Commercial Street, but the money slipped through his fingers as fast as he won it, and he seldom had any in his pocket .
W. D Robertson, a colored milkman who used to cater to the. He says it was like coining money men of the fTwenty-Fourth when they were stationed at Fort Douglas, resmembers Fagin well ass one of his of his best-paying customers. Robertson says it was like coining money to lend Fagen a few dollars to stake him in a game of Stud Poker.
$200 is the equivalent of a little more than $6,000 today, an appreciable amount of money for men earning around $30 a month. Whenever he needed money, he could take to the poker tables and win remarkably consistently. Robertson goes on to say, under a crosshead saying “Was Always Good Pay“:
“In five minutes he’d give me back twice as much as I let him have,” said the milk vendor. “He was always good pay when he had money and he could borrow from almost anybody because he was so lucky.”
Whether he was just a good player, or assisted his luck with a little judicious cheating, he certainly was a gambler. Possibly, the card tables gave him the opportunity to show how smart he was.
Fagen did not like rules. The report goes on:
“When off-duty Fagen seemed to be always light-hearted, careless and full of jokes, gambling or drinking when he could get the money. In the restraint of camp life, though, he was sullen and had the reputation for shirking drill for a bed in the hospital everytime he could impose on the surgeon. During the encampment near Manila he got into several scrapes which brought him into the guardhouse and, finally, when his company was sent some ten miles from the city, he took the opportunity to slip through the lines and win favor in the camp of the enemy, from which point of vantage he would take every occasion to send threatening messages to the men of the regiment he had deserted.”
It will take more digging to find out what those scrapes were but he underwent seven courts-martial for what were termed minor offences in the few months he was in Manila and argued with his senior officers. He had applied for transfer to another regiment three times but was refused.On 17 November, according to an official report, Fagen left his own lines to meet with a Philippine Republican Army officer who had a horse waiting, and vanished into the night.
Some of those interviewed by the Salt Lake City Herald doubted that Fagen had deserted and thought that he might have become separated from his unit, captured by Filipinos and forced to fight.
One ex-member of Fagen’s regiment doubted that the deserter could be as successful as he apparently was:
“Fagin would sho’ make a wild general. Why that boy didn’t know a column of fo’s from a box of hardtack. That’s right; He didn’t know nuthin’ about soldiering., and he was too blame lazy to learn. But I reckon his soldierin’ days are about over now, for when the go’t Marshall gets after him , he’ll sho’ take the elevator”
Fagen certainly became an effective guerilla leader, both despised and feared, and a thorn in the side of Frederick Funston, whom he took great delight in taunting. He never ‘took the elevator’, but did he die beside in lake in the mountains of Luzon at the hands of a bounty hunter?
We’ll be looking at the end of Fagen in our next post, for now, his motives for desertion remain an enigma. We can speculate according to our biases on why he became a traitor not only to his own country but also to his fellow persons of colour, to become a hero in the Philippine struggle for independence, we may paint him with all the noble intentions we desire, but the fact is that we really don’t know.
Next Episode: David Fagen’s Last Hand