A Brief History of Filipino-American War

Being a superpower of the world and one of the largest economies, the USA has stayed strategically important for decades. It has participated in some of the toughest wars and ensured that it remained as the superpower. Being exceptional in technology and armed forces training, the USA has been relied on by many of its allies too. 

The Filipino American War is one of the important ones which went on for over 3 years. However, it led to the deaths of more than 200,000 civilians as well as 20,000 armed personnel. The war had some of the most interesting events. 

Overview of the Filipino American War

The Filipino-American War lasted for 3 years and 5 months between 1899 and 1902. It was an armed conflict between the two nations solely because both wanted control of the Philippines. With the Philippine revolution starting in 1896, the United States foresaw that they will soon lose control if they don’t use force and regarded it as an Insurrection. 

There were several causes of the war but the Treaty of Paris was the most significant one. For all we know, the war was a big loss to the Philippines as they lost in the battles one after another. It is considered very harsh and terrible that the Filipinos had to undergo so much in order to gain independence. 

Background to the War 

Prior to the USA gaining any control of the Philippines, it was Spain that had held its authority in the country. The Philippines was considered a part of Spain since 1521. However, it was a state with completely different people as compared to the Spanish. In 1896, it was found out that many of the secret organizations were working and influencing the locals to overthrow the Spaniards and gain independence. The organization was named The Katipunan and was headed by Andres Bonifacio who had a crucial control in influencing the Filipinos. 

In August of 1896, members of The Katipunan announced a nation-wide attack to gain independence from the Spaniards. The leader called in for an attack on the capital city named Manila but the attack failed. However, it was considered highly symbolic as it gave the direction to the Filipinos that they had to attack and go violent to get freedom from Spain. Surrounding provinces soon started to begin the revolt. Another key figurehead during this time was Emilio Aguinaldo who was also a member of The Katipunan. 

In 1897, Bonifacio died due to arguments among the revolutionaries in exchange of power and authority. Therefore, the power was then shifted to Emilio Aguinaldo who was actively working against the Spanish forces. However, soon after he came into power, he signed a pact with Spanish forces which was called the Pact of Biak na Bato. According to this Pact, The Philippine Revolution and revolts had to be ended. On the other hand, Aguinaldo and others had to exile to other countries and in return, they were offered large sums of money and amnesties. However, the Philippine revolution never ended completely. 

As Aguinaldo and others were exiled to the Hong Kong, the control of the Philippines was regained by Spanish forces. However, it was not long before the problem actually started again for Spaniards. The USS Marine exploded and sank at Havana Harbor in Cuba on April 21, 1898. Therefore, the US forces intervened in the war of independence of Cuba and got involved with Spanish forces as well. The result was the US having a faceoff with Spain and its territories including the Philippines. 

Within the next 9 days, the Spanish forces were defeated in the Battle of Manila Bay and lost control momentarily as well. On the other hand, Aguinaldo, who had been in touch with the US and as an unofficial ally, returned to Spain and started to continue the campaign against Spanish rule. On the other hand, the huge Spanish empire was already collapsing under the hands of the American forces.

During this time, Aguinaldo took the opportunity of a troubled Spanish force and a US war against Spain to declare independence. On June 12, he issued the Philippine Declaration of Independence but troubles were coming soon ahead with the Treaty of Paris between Spain and America.  The US Forces sent more Infantry right after Aguinaldo took charge.

The US forces tried to trap Aguinaldo so as to stop him from taking more control over the Philippines but failed. Learn more here – Trapping Aguinaldo, 1899

The Treaty of Paris 1898

One of the main reasons why the Filipino-American war started was The Treaty of Paris which took place in 1898. With the US aggression increasing against Spain, there was a weakening strategic position of Spain which had to be avoided. To resolve conflicts and proceed peacefully, the US and Spain came upon a unanimous decision of The Treaty of Paris. This agreement was the key to ending the war between Spain and America. 

As the Spanish empire was quite big, America was interested in the different areas under the control of Spain. According to The Treaty of Paris, the US-Spain conflict would be resolved with Spain giving the claim of sovereignty and title of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines to the United States. On the other hand, the US had to give $20 million to Spain for the cession of the Philippines. For more information on the expansion and decline of the Spanish Empire, read our article, A Brief History of the Spanish Empire.

With the Phillipines and other states being handed over to the US, the long hope of independence was once again lost. The treaty was enforced on April 11 1899 after the documentation was complete. The Treaty of Paris was a great shock to the Spanish empire which disintegrated as several islands and territories were now under the control of the US. It also marked the end of the Spanish-American war and the entry of the US as a superpower of the world with major holdings. 

With Spain exiting and the US entering, the Philippine revolution once again took importance. Emilio Aguinaldo, who had already declared himself as the President of the Country, officially took charge on the 1st January 1899. The Philippine forces had already captured most of the country with the exception of the capital city named Manila.

Learn more about the Treaty of Paris here – Treaty of Paris.

The Tables Change

 With the situation between Spain and the US deescalating, a major change was seen in the partnerships. Aguinaldo, who had come to the Philippines as an ally of the US, was now being opposed by the US. On the other hand, the Spanish forces improved relations with the US. The Treaty of Paris had clearly indicated that the Philippines would be handed over to the US but Aguinaldo was not ready for it.  

The situation between the Philippines and the US was escalating quickly. American Generals and Commanders were not siding with Aguinaldo despite favoring him previously to help the US fight against Spain. As a result, the problems were increasing as the Philippines wanted to gain complete control including the capital city of Manila.

The Filipino American War Begins

With things worsening between the Philippines and America, the forces of both countries were increased and many places were being heavily guarded. The outbreak of war is considered to be on 4th February 1899, just a month after Emilio Aguinaldo took charge as the President of the country. 

On 4th February, a Filipino lieutenant and another Filipino soldier were killed by the American forces. The news soon broke out which started the historic Battle of Manilla. Although there were initial attempts by Americans and Filipinos to revoke the fighting, General Otis of the Philippines and General Arthur MacArthur of Americans was keen to advance out and begin a full-scale clash. 

The Battle of Manila

Also known as the Manilla Campaign, this was one of the most serious battles of the entire Filipino-American war and created extreme hostilities between the two nations. In the Battle of Manilla, the Philippines were 15,000 which later turned into 40,000 while the American soldiers were 12,000 later becoming 19,000. It is also known as the largest battle of the campaign with most men involved. 

American forces rushed in various directions which was one of the main strategies that led to the winning of America in the end. Multiple small towns and cities were soon captured by the American forces because they were well organized while the Filipino forces were not proceeding in any particular manner. The division and chaos were quite apparent in the case of Filipino forces which is why Filipinos started losing control despite being outnumbered. 

In multiple battles and skirmishes that followed, the US forces emerged successful making it a big blow for the Philippines as the once captured areas by Philipines were once again under the control of the US. Major battles of the campaign also include the two Battles of Caloocan. 

More information on US Forces arriving at Manila here – US Infantry To Manila.

US Forces Advance Control

Prior to the fight between the two countries, American forces saw that Philippine forces had control of the major areas and did not dare to advance out. However, once the US forces saw that Filipinos were not having any particular strategy rather it was a disorganized fight, they decided to advance. General MacArthur was the one who wanted to proceed to other areas right after The Battle of Manila was over.

To establish control once again, the Malolos campaign was initiated by the US Generals. Heavy Cavalry and armed forces proceeded to Manila Dagupan Railroad that led them to North Malolos. This was the area where Aguinaldo had lived for a long time. It started from the Battle of Tullahan which was in favor of America. From time to time, it was becoming more obvious and eminent that the US was more powerful and the Philippines would soon have to surrender to the US. 

Read a more detailed account of the war events between 1900 and 1901 – The War in 1900-1901.

Philippine Forces Change Strategy

With directions being given by Emilio Aguinaldo to Philippine forces, the strategy was changed that was initially successful for them but later failed yet again. American forces proceeded to the Town of Malinta on March 26, 1899. Surprisingly, the main areas were not being defended or guarded by the Filipinos which was odd. Right after they entered the town, the Philippine forces came over to Americans from all sides. The US forces were panic-stricken and reinforcements were called to assist. 

Although the American forces initially faced loss in terms of men and weaponry, Captain John Ballance headed the campaign fiercely with reinforcements also joining that led to the American success. 

However, under the direction of Captain John Ballance, this battle became a success for America. With the change in strategy, US Colonel John Stotsenberg was killed in the Battle of Quingua

The War Continues

The Filipino strategy was very short-lived and the war continued between the two. The US forces kept advancing on to other areas such as San Isidro, Bustos, San Rafael, and many others as well. Angat, Bulacan, and Norzagaray also fell under the hands of the US forces. 

As they gained more control, General Lawton decided that the war should be put to an end by creating a local government under American forces. The citizens had to elect a Mayor and other members of the council all of which were Americans. However, this act was not appreciated by Filipinos with the Insurgencies increasing. 

Multiple attacks were made by Filipino forces and small to large fights kept taking place. During this time, Emilio Aguinaldo and his partners fled to Tarlac, which was later taken over by the US with the Battle of Tarlac.  

Filipino casualties at the hands of US Forces.

Guerilla Warfare Strategy

Seeing the losses in the war, the Philippine forces once again changed their strategy by the end of 1899. Emilio Aguinaldo declared on 13th November 1899 that a guerilla warfare strategy was the final recourse. The Guerilla Warfare strategy meant that small skirmishes took place between American forces and Filipinos and large wars were avoided. Strategies such as ambushes, sabotage, raids, petty warfare, hit-and-run tactics, and mobility were used by the Philippine forces. 

Help from the locals was also taken and large groups of the Philippines started attacking small American groups. The strategy was quite beneficial for Filipinos as they were able to bring up 500 casualties for the Americans. Bloody ambushes and raids became common and many of the towns including Paye, Catubig, Makahambus, and Mabitac were under the control of the Phillipines again. The guerrillas did not wear any kind of uniform and were often dressed as peasants making it difficult for forces to understand when an attack was coming. Moreover, these Guerrillas also collected revolutionary taxes from the locals. 

Being a strategic mover, the American forces saw the trouble that was coming due to the Guerilla fights. President McKinley considered withdrawing when the raids became more common and the news of Americans dying every day reached home. However, General MacArthur, who had recently succeeded General Otis as the US Military Governor, decided on some other plans. 

Read more on the Guerilla Warfare tactics used by the Filipinos – Guerilla Warfare, 1899.

The imposition of The Martial Law

On December 20, 1900, about one year later than the first Guerilla Warfare strategy, General MacArthur placed the Philippines under martial law. He stated that guerilla raids shall not be tolerated any longer and that the basic human rights fulfillment will be ensured. Guerillas were to be considered war rebels. If any Filipino leader was found to be working with Guerrillas, he would be deported to Guam while punishments were announced for Guerrillas. 

Arthur MacArhuer, the 3rd Military Governor of the US.

Emilio Aguinaldo Captured – The War Ends

With the martial law put to practice and American forces being more vigilant and searching for different rebels, the Philippine army was once again under trouble. Multiple defeats were seen in the coming two months. To save himself, Emilio Aguinaldo was continuously changing the base of operations so that the Americans were not sure of his exact location. This was a time of The Last Holdouts.

However, things changed for Aguinaldo who got captured on 23rd March 1901. General Frederick Funston and a few other American soldiers pretended to be captors under the Filipinos. However, the American forces had already created a Filipino force on their side which would help them. These Filipinos presented the captors to Aguinaldo. Once these Americans came upon Aguinaldo, they were set free and captured the guards and later took hold of Aguinaldo as well. The long-drawn Philippine-American war had just come to an end.  

Aguinaldo stated that he had seen a lot of blood flow, a lot of tears, and much desolation and he wanted to end it. He stated that lasting peace is the only possible solution for the betterment of the Philippines. Within the next 7 days, Aguinaldo swore an oath accepting the authority of the US over the Philippines and pledged allegiance to the American government as well.

Although the capture of Aguinaldo was a severe blow to the Filipino Cause, it later paved the way towards the independence of the Phillipines. General Miguel Malvar of the Filipino forces took charge and stood defensive against the Americans. War continued for a few more battles until Malvar and his forces surrendered on April 16, 1902. It was seen as quite disappointing that after 3 years of tireless warfare and major loss of lives, the Filipinos had not gained their independence and instead came back to where they started from. 

On July 1, 1902, the war was officially ended. An act was passed which stipulated that a set of legislatures would be passed to elect the lower house and an upper house of the country. It also provided the US Bill of Rights to Filipinos. The newly elected President Theodore Roosevelt now proclaimed an amnesty to those who had participated in the conflict. The US-Philippine relations started to improve which now set a road for the Philippines to demand its independence. 

Why Americans Kept Winning and the Phillipines Kept Losing?

There are several reasons why American forces emerged victorious in multiple battles against the Filipinos. Mainly, it was due to differences in the capability of the two armed forces. While the Americans held guns and heavy arms with them, the Filipinos did not have much of them. It was foreseen that the majority of Filipinos were using bolo knives, bows and arrows, spears, and other such weapons. Guns were way superior to these primitive weapons. 

Another reason for the American win was the persistent strategic movements and organized campaigns. If the American forces gave time to Filipinos to prepare, they might have not emerged successful. However, it was General Otis, Governor of the US Military, who kept advancing to other states and passed orders. General Otis was told by the superiors to not go for a military conflict but he did not follow these instructions in the intended manner. Otis demanded that either the Philippines accept unconditional surrender or the war will go on. 

His actions were not appreciated because he was controlling the war by himself in many ways without discussing leadership in Washington. He acted quite aggressively which was one main reason why American forces kept winning. Otis also forced the press to change the statements being made thereby misrepresenting the facts. Even when the International Committee of Red Cross sent their representative to the Philippines, Otis kept him confined to Manila stating all about violations by Filipinos in the International Humanitarian Law. 


The Filipino-American war is surely considered as one of the most terrible events in the history of the Phillipines while it also does not hold a good record for the US interfering in the operations of other countries and colonizing countries as its own. With hundreds of thousands of casualties of the Filipinos, these can be regarded as the “Years of Massacre” for the Philippines. 

After the war, several small battles suddenly erupted in small towns between Americans and Filipinos but were soon won by the US forces. The Philippines stayed as the colony of the US up until 1946. After about 50 years from the official start of the American Filipino war, the Filipinos had finally got what they wanted.