The True Story of Jacob Smith, the 'Monster' of the Philippine-American War
Jacob Smith “is a small man, rather slim, and is very bald. He is a neat dresser and in his citizens clothes did not look like the fierce soldier who had carried terror to the hearts of the most savage tribes in the Philippine islands,” said one reporter for the Portsmouth Daily Times more than a century ago.
By all means, United States Army General Jacob H. Smith was not a physically intimidating man, nor was he among the high ranking officials of his time. Yet the same man managed to earn himself the nickname “The Monster” and “Howling Wilderness Smith” for his actions in Samar that would forever go down in Philippine history as one of the worst atrocities of the Philippine-American War.
Despite being a war veteran of the American Civil War, American Indian Wars, and Spanish-American War, Smith was embroiled with a number of lawsuits related to debt, bankruptcy, and fraud. When he was court-martialed for certain crimes, he was caught lying in his defense to military generals of higher rank, which was almost enough to have him thrown out of the military. Yet President Grover Cleveland interceded on his behalf and allowed him to stay with only a reprimand as a consequence.
But these are only petty incidents compared to what would follow. Once accused of “conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman,” Smith was called to duty during the Philippine-American War as the U.S. attempted to instate its control over its newly acquired territory. It was a war that changed the very fabric of Philippine society, and its scars are still visible and felt to this day—some of which were left by Smith.
He took no prisoners.
The Balangiga massacre and its ensuing retaliation from the outraged Americans is a chapter in our history books that’s impossible to skip. On September 28, 1901, the townspeople of Samar, enraged by the abuse they faced at the hands of the Americans, turned against the U.S. soldiers occupying their land. Fifty-one U.S. soldiers were killed in the surprise guerilla attack that would become known as the Balangiga massacre. Yet it would be the retaliation of the U.S. forces, directed by Smith, which would truly deserve the title of a massacre.
President Theodore Roosevelt instructed U.S. soldiers in the Philippines to “pacify” the matter in Samar, but he didn’t expect their methods, namely Smith’s, would be so bloody. What would ensue was unrestrained violence and carnage against the people, including women and children, led by Smith.
“I want no prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn, the more you kill and burn the better it will please me. I want all persons killed who are capable of bearing arms in actual hostilities against the United States," General Smith said. “The interior of Samar must be made a howling wilderness.”
And so it did. The U.S. and the Philippines have debated on the number of Filipinos that were actually killed in the retaliation. A U.S. soldier who was present claimed that 39 people were killed; Filipino historians place the number at around 50,000. An exhaustive 10-year study by British writer Bob Couttie concluded that the body count was approximately 2,500.
If that wasn’t enough, Smith then cut off food and trade to Samar, forcing the townspeople to beg the soldiers for food to survive. It was a blow to the pride of a proud people.
It could have been worse if not for the soldiers who practiced common sense and disobeyed Smith’s orders, like Major Littleton Waller. Waller would later reveal that he refused to carry out Smith’s orders and refused to kill women or children.
He almost got away with it—and then he kind of did.
When news finally broke of the atrocities that occurred in Samar, it was not Smith who was called before his superiors. It was Waller, one of Smith’s subordinates, who was tried for ordering the execution of 11 Filipino rebels.
Waller never mentioned Smith’s association to his case, and his counsel defended that Waller was merely carrying out the Lieber Code, which permitted the killing of prisoners of war. When Smith was called to witness the defense, he denied giving Waller the orders to carrying out the executions. Incensed at his lie under oath, Waller revealed the terrible truth: Smith ordered the murder of everyone over the age of 10.
Smith’s brutal actions in Samar did not gain him the honor he thought he deserved for pacifying people who he considered as “savages.” When other witnesses confirmed Smith’s order, he was court-martialed and found guilty—but not for murder or other war crimes. Instead, Smith was found guilty for “conduct to the prejudice of good order and military discipline” and was sentenced to be “admonished by the reviewing authority.”
When the public found out about Smith’s war crimes against Filipinos, Americans were outraged, urging President Theodore Roosevelt to push for Smith’s early retirement from the army to assuage the public. Aside from being forced to leave the military, not even under dishonorable discharge, Smith faced no other consequence from his government.
He received a hero’s welcome.
One would think that ordering the deaths of 1,000s would gain you nothing but dishonor, but this was not the case for Smith. When he returned to his hometown of Portsmouth after the entire scandal, he was given a hero’s homecoming welcome.
He defended his actions to the local press, saying that the Samar natives were “savages of the most degraded kind. They were nomads and had no fixed habitation. The childhood of the natives is a dream by the time they are 13 years of age. They are ready to take up the burden of life before that time. The natives of Samar are treacherous and barbarous. They mutilate the bodies of the dead in the most horrible manner.”
He went on to describe them as “savage tribes who do not recognize any rules of civilized warfare, but are treacherous and brutal to the lowest degree. Still, they must be brought into subjugation, and kept so until they learn that the purpose is to give them freedom and the blessings of that good government which we enjoy.”
Jacob Smith was met with applause and a standing ovation.