Balangiga Massacre, September 28, 1901

The Balangiga Massacre is a crucial event in Philippine-American history. On September 28, 1901, tensions between American soldiers and Filipino insurgents reached a tragic climax. This event left a lasting mark on both nations. It serves as a stark reminder of the brutal realities of war and the resilience of those who fight for their freedom.

Understanding the Balangiga Massacre helps us grasp the complexities of the Philippine-American War. It sheds light on the struggle for independence that defined this period. This article explores the context, events, and lasting impact of that fateful day.

Historical Context

Filipino soldiers outside Manila in 1899

Let us further learn about the background of the Philippine-American War, the rising tensions between American forces and Filipino insurgents, and the specific circumstances that led to the tragic events of September 28, 1901.

Background of the Philippine-American War

The Philippine-American War, which lasted from 1899 to 1902, was a conflict between the First Philippine Republic and the United States. It arose from the struggle of the Filipinos to gain independence after more than three centuries of Spanish colonial rule. The war began soon after the Spanish-American War, during which the United States acquired the Philippines from Spain through the Treaty of Paris in 1898. However, the Filipinos, who had already declared independence from Spain, did not recognize American sovereignty and fought to assert their autonomy.

Tensions Between American Forces and Filipino Insurgents

As American forces established their presence in the Philippines, tensions grew between the occupying troops and the local population. The Filipinos, under the leadership of Emilio Aguinaldo, launched a guerilla warfare campaign against the better-equipped American military. The Americans, in response, implemented harsh measures to quell the resistance, including punitive expeditions, scorched-earth policies, and the establishment of concentration camps.

These actions fueled animosity and resentment among the Filipino insurgents. In Samar, the situation was particularly volatile. The local guerrilla forces, led by General Vicente Lukbán, conducted raids and ambushes against American detachments. The Americans, in turn, imposed strict controls and reprisals on the local population, further escalating the conflict.

Specific Circumstances Leading Up to the Balangiga Massacre

In the town of Balangiga, on the island of Samar, the situation was especially tense. The 9th Infantry Regiment of the United States Army, commanded by Captain Thomas W. Connell, was stationed in the town. Relations between the soldiers and the local residents were strained, marked by distrust and occasional conflicts.

In September 1901, Captain Connell ordered the locals to clean up the town and remove any possible sources of disease, including cutting down coconut trees and confiscating food supplies. This directive was met with resistance and anger from the townspeople, who saw it as another oppressive measure by the occupying forces.

On the morning of September 28, 1901, the tension erupted into violence. Filipino insurgents, disguised as villagers and armed with bolos and machetes, launched a surprise attack on the American garrison. The assault was well-coordinated, involving the ringing of the church bells as a signal to begin the attack. The result was a devastating loss for the American forces, with many soldiers killed or wounded in the ambush.

The Event

Balangiga photo of Company C, 9th US Infantry Regiment with Valeriano Abanador

Let us take a look at the detailed account of the massacre, the key figures involved, and the immediate aftermath of the event.

Detailed Account of the Massacre on September 28, 1901

On the morning of September 28, 1901, the small town of Balangiga on the island of Samar seemed to be experiencing a normal day. American soldiers of Company C, 9th Infantry Regiment, commanded by Captain Thomas W. Connell, were going about their usual routines. Unbeknownst to them, Filipino insurgents, led by General Vicente Lukbán and Captain Eugenio Daza, had meticulously planned a surprise attack.

The attack began around 6:30 AM. Filipino insurgents, disguised as women and laborers, entered the town carrying coffins, ostensibly for a funeral, but actually hiding bolos and other weapons inside. At the signal of the church bells ringing, the insurgents launched their assault. They swiftly overwhelmed the unprepared American troops, who were mostly having breakfast and were caught off guard.

The ferocity of the attack left little time for the soldiers to mount an effective defense. Many were killed almost immediately, and others were seriously wounded. The Filipino insurgents used their bolos and machetes with lethal efficiency, taking advantage of the element of surprise. The massacre resulted in the deaths of 48 out of the 74 American soldiers stationed in Balangiga, with the remainder either wounded or managing to escape.

Key Figures Involved: American Soldiers and Filipino Insurgents

  • Captain Thomas W. Connell: The commanding officer of Company C, 9th Infantry Regiment. He was killed during the initial moments of the attack. His strict measures and policies contributed to the escalating tensions with the local population.
  • General Vicente Lukbán: A key leader of the Filipino insurgency in Samar. He orchestrated the overall strategy and supported the local insurgents in their fight against the American forces.
  • Captain Eugenio Daza: He played a crucial role in planning and executing the attack. His leadership and strategic thinking were instrumental in the success of the surprise assault.

Immediate Consequences and Aftermath for Both Sides

The Balangiga Massacre had immediate and profound consequences for both the American and Filipino sides.

For the Americans:

  • The massacre was a severe blow to American forces, both in terms of morale and military strength. The loss of nearly an entire company was a stark reminder of the vulnerability of their position in the Philippines.
  • In response to the massacre, General Jacob H. Smith was tasked with pacifying Samar. He issued orders for a brutal retaliatory campaign, famously instructing his troops to turn the island into a “howling wilderness” and to kill anyone over the age of ten who was capable of bearing arms. This campaign led to widespread destruction and significant civilian casualties, further deepening the animosity between the American forces and the Filipino population.

For the Filipinos:

  • The successful attack at Balangiga served as a significant morale boost for the Filipino insurgents, demonstrating their capability to strike a powerful blow against the occupying forces.
  • However, the subsequent American reprisals brought severe hardship and suffering to the local population. Villages were burned, crops destroyed, and many civilians were killed or displaced. The harsh retaliation measures only intensified the struggle and prolonged the conflict.

Reactions and Responses

Gen. Jacob H. Smith's order "Kill Everyone Over Ten" became a caption in the New York Journal cartoon on May 5, 1902

The Balangiga Massacre evoked strong reactions and responses from both the American and Filipino sides. It also drew significant media attention and international scrutiny.

American Military and Governmental Response

The American military’s response to the Balangiga Massacre was swift and severe. Shocked by the unexpected and heavy losses, the U.S. military leadership decided to undertake drastic measures to subdue the insurgency in Samar.

  • General Jacob H. Smith’s Retaliation: General Jacob H. Smith was ordered to lead the pacification campaign in Samar. In response to the massacre, he issued orders to kill anyone over the age of ten who was capable of bearing arms and to turn the island into a “howling wilderness.” This brutal policy led to widespread destruction, indiscriminate killings, and significant suffering among the civilian population.
  • Court-Martial and Controversy: General Smith’s orders led to controversy and criticism both within the United States and internationally. He was later court-martialed for his conduct, found guilty of “conduct to the prejudice of good order and military discipline,” and was forced into retirement. The severity of his actions drew attention to the ethical and humanitarian implications of the American response.

Filipino Reaction and Subsequent Actions

The Filipino insurgents’ successful attack at Balangiga served as a significant morale booster and demonstrated their ability to strike effectively against the American forces.

  • Increased Insurgency Efforts: The massacre inspired other Filipino insurgents to continue their resistance against American rule. It became a symbol of Filipino resilience and determination to fight for independence.
  • Guerrilla Warfare: The Filipinos intensified their guerrilla tactics, leveraging the difficult terrain and local support to continue their resistance. The success of the Balangiga attack reinforced the effectiveness of surprise attacks and small-scale engagements against the larger and better-equipped American forces.

Media Coverage and International Reaction

The Balangiga Massacre and the subsequent American retaliation garnered significant media coverage and drew international attention.

  • American Media: In the United States, news of the massacre and the brutal retaliatory measures taken by General Smith were widely reported. While some media outlets supported the need for a strong response, others criticized the excessive violence and the humanitarian cost of the campaign. The controversy surrounding General Smith’s actions led to debates about the conduct of the American military and the ethics of colonial rule.
  • International Reaction: The international community also took notice of the events in Samar. Reports of the harsh American retaliation and the suffering of Filipino civilians drew condemnation from various quarters. Critics of American imperialism used the incident to highlight the negative aspects of U.S. colonial policy and the moral implications of its actions in the Philippines.

Long-Term Impact

The signal bell displayed in the Madison Barracks at Sackets Harbor, New York station of the 9th US Infantry Regiment at the turn of the 20th century. This bell was later moved to Camp Red Cloud in Korea

The Balangiga Massacre had profound and lasting effects on Philippine-American relations, leaving a legacy that persists in both Philippine history and collective memory. The return of the Balangiga bells, a significant event in recent history, symbolizes a step toward reconciliation and healing.

Effects on Philippine-American Relations

The Balangiga Massacre and the brutal American retaliation profoundly affected the relationship between the Philippines and the United States.

  • Deepened Resentment: The massacre and the subsequent harsh measures taken by the American military deepened Filipino resentment towards American colonial rule. The violent suppression of the insurrection and the suffering inflicted on the civilian population fueled anti-American sentiments.
  • Strained Relations: The events of Balangiga contributed to a legacy of mistrust and animosity that complicated Philippine-American relations for years. While the Philippines eventually became a Commonwealth under American control and later gained full independence in 1946, the memories of the conflict and the massacre lingered, influencing diplomatic and cultural interactions between the two nations.

Legacy in Philippine History and Collective Memory

The Balangiga Massacre holds a significant place in Philippine history and collective memory, symbolizing the struggle for independence and the resilience of the Filipino people.

  • Symbol of Resistance: The massacre is often remembered as a symbol of Filipino resistance against colonial oppression. It exemplifies the courage and determination of the Filipino insurgents who fought for their country’s freedom despite overwhelming odds.
  • Historical Narratives: In Philippine history, the Balangiga Massacre is taught as a pivotal event during the Philippine-American War. It highlights the complexities of the conflict and the sacrifices made by those who fought for independence. The event is commemorated in various forms, including memorials and educational programs, ensuring that future generations remember this chapter of their history.

The Return of the Balangiga Bells and Its Significance

The Balangiga bells on display during a repatriation ceremony at Villamor Air Base. The left bell had been kept by the Army's 9th Infantry Regiment at Camp Red Cloud in South Korea; it is the smallest of the three. The bell in the center is the largest; it and the right-most bell had been displayed at the F.E Warren Air Force Base's Trophy Park in Cheyenne, Wyoming

The Balangiga bells, which were taken by American forces as war trophies after the massacre, became a symbol of the conflict and its enduring legacy. Their return marked a significant moment in the history of Philippine-American relations.

  • Historical Context: After the massacre, American troops took the church bells of Balangiga as trophies, symbolizing their victory and dominance. For many Filipinos, the bells were a painful reminder of the loss and suffering experienced during the war.
  • Efforts for Repatriation: For decades, efforts were made by the Philippine government and various advocacy groups to secure the return of the bells. The bells’ repatriation was seen as a step towards addressing historical grievances and honoring the memory of those who died in the conflict.
  • Return and Reconciliation: In December 2018, after more than a century, the Balangiga bells were returned to the Philippines. This event was celebrated as a gesture of goodwill and reconciliation between the two nations. The return of the bells was seen as an acknowledgment of the shared history and a commitment to moving forward with mutual respect and understanding.


The Balangiga Massacre is a tragic chapter in the history of the Philippine-American War. It reveals the intense struggles and sacrifices made during the fight for independence. The massacre and its aftermath had lasting effects on Philippine-American relations, creating a legacy of resistance and resilience that endures in Philippine memory.

The return of the Balangiga bells symbolizes a step towards healing and reconciliation. It acknowledges the pain of the past and the shared history between the Philippines and the United States. Remembering the Balangiga Massacre is vital. It honors those who fought and suffered, reminding us of the cost of conflict and the value of peace. We hope this article helped you learn more about the Balangiga Massacre.