Californians and the Military
Major-General Frederick Funston, U.S.V.
Medal of Honor Recipient
By Mark J. Denger
California Center for Military History
Today, there are but a few outside the National Guard community who are familiar with the feats of Major-General Frederick Funston. California recognizes this former member of the Kansas National Guard who made a significant contribution to the history, tradition and achievements of the National Guard. There was a time when hardly a Californian didn't know the name. Many a military historian has viewed this Medal of Honor recipient from Kansas as simply the hero of the Philippine insurrection. But to the citizens of San Francisco, during the 1906 earthquake and fire, he was more than just a military hero, but a savor of a city left in utter destruction.

Born on November 9, 1865 in New Carlisle, Ohio, some seven months after the assassination of President Lincoln, Frederick Funston grew up in a time of rapid expansion and exploration in the United States. Frederick Funston's life was filled with adventure. The Civil War was now over and he grew up with his father's stories of the war. During his boyhood Alaska was purchased, the Wyoming Territory was organized, Nebraska and Colorado were admitted to the union, and railroads were expanding into these areas rapidly.

In 1868, at the age of four, the Funston family moved to Allen County, Kansas, where young Frederick would attend high school. After high school, Frederick, the son of Edward H. Funston, tried to get into West Point and start a military career. His grades and admission test score, much to his disappointment, were not good enough to be admitted. Even his father, who was a United States Congressman, could not get him accepted into West Point. So he entered the state university at Lawrence, Kansas, in 1886, where he joined Phi Delta Theta. It was here that he met William Allen White and Vernon L. Kellogg who he would become lifelong friends with. However, after two semesters Funston ran out of money and was forced to drop out. For a brief period, he became a reporter for a newspaper in Fort Smith, Arkansas. After a number of odd jobs he would again return to college in 1889 but would never graduate.

In 1890, he joined the Department of Agriculture in 1890 where he was part of an expedition to the Dakota badlands and in the following year served as a botanist on a similar expedition to Death Valley, California, where he worked for eight months collecting different flora and fauna and helping the expedition discover 150 new species of plant life. Funston's love of California was proven next as he spent time opening up a new trail in the Yosemite Valley, living with the Panamint Indians in California. After returning home in the fall of 1891 Funston again found work on a newspaper in Kansas City, Missouri. In 1892 he was off to Alaska to study the flora of Alaska, and in 1893-1894 he wintered alone on the banks of the Klondike. In the spring he built a boat and paddled some 1,500 miles down the Yukon river into the open sea, where he boarded a ship and was transported to California. Two years later, in 1894, Funston tried to establish a coffee plantation in Central America, but when it failed he moved to New York where he became a deputy comptroller for the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad.

It was purely by chance that he was in New York City in 1896 during a month long political rally and exhibition presented by the Cuban Revolutionists in Madison Square Garden. The Cuban were then fighting for their independence from Spain. Upon hearing a speech by Civil War General Daniel E. Sickles, Funston was stirred to enlist in the Cuban Army, and like his father had been in the Civil War, became captain of artillery, even though he had never fired a cannon. He was able to get his hands on a 12-pound Hotchkiss Cannon and an instruction manual and spent several weeks training himself.

During his time in Cuba, Funston had fought in 22 individual battles, had 17 horses shot out from under him. He rose in rank to lieutenant-colonel and was shot through both lungs and an arm, and finally, in a cavalry charge, had large shards of wood thrust into his hip from the roots of an upturned tree when his horse rolled over. Twenty-three months later, he weighed only 80 pounds and was coughing up blood. Extremely ill, he was forced home in 1898 with a near fatal case of malaria.

Hardly had Funston recovered when the Spanish-American war broke out. Kansas Governor John W. Leedy, after hearing one of Funston's speeches, appointed him colonel of the 20th Kansas Regiment, a Kansas National Guard unit, on May 13, 1898. The 20th was one of four Kansas regiments which enlisted for the war.

While the 20th was waiting to get into the war, Spain had signed a peace treaty with the United States giving it possession of Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines. However, many Filipinos followed Aquinaldo in the insurrection against the United States. President William McKinley followed by sending U.S. forces to put down the rebellion.

While the 20th was being formed in Topeka, Funston had been called to Washington and then to Florida to help plan for the war.

One story tells how Funston had bought a book on military tactics which he read as he traveled west to join his command at San Francisco. When his father asked: "What do you know about military tactics Fred?" the son answered: "Not much, but I am halfway through this book and by the time I reach San Francisco, I will have mastered it."

When Funston arrived in San Francisco he found his men in poor condition. He immediately started drilling them in maneuvers and shooting practice. He also did his best to improve their living conditions. Due to his leadership and his presence, the soldiers' morale skyrocketed. After five months of intensive training in San Francisco, the 20th Kansas Regiment was sent to the Philippines.

The 20th Kansas had drilled at Presidio in San Francisco until October 27, 1898, when they left for the Philippines, two days after Colonel Funston had married the former Miss Eda Blankart. "It was the smartest thing I ever did in my life." remarked Funston.

At that time, Funston didn't think that he would see any fighting in the Philippines, however, on February 4, 1899 the Philippine Insurrection began when the Filipinos, whose declaration of independence was not recognized by the United States, attacked the American outposts around Manilla.

The Twentieth Kansas was one of the first units committed to battle. In their first attack the Kansas carried far beyond their assigned objective, an occurrence which was to be repeated several times before the war was over. For several weeks Colonel Funston and his Twentieth Kansas were engaged in the drive to take Caloocan and the rebel capital at Malolos. While fighting in the Philippines, Frederick Funston was shot in his left hand. After Malolos fell the Associated Press reported that: "Colonel Funston, always at the front, was the first man in Malolos, followed by a group of dashing Kansans." On his way to Manila to recuperate, he received a telegram informing him of his promotion to brigadier general of volunteers.

Late in April, 1899, the American advance was brought to a standstill by the partial destruction of the bridge spanning the Rio Grande de la Pampanga at Calumpit. According to Funston, the "position was by all means the strongest that we had yet been brought against, the river being about four hundred feet wide, deep, and swift, while to opposite bank was defended by fully four thousand men occupying elaborate trenches." After several attempts of crossing the river had failed a small raft was discovered which Funston undertook to use as a ferry. Two Kansas privates, William B. Trembley and Edward White, volunteered to swim the river and attach a tow rope on the opposite shore. Under the protective fire of their own comrades they accomplished their mission and the raft made its first trip carrying Funston and seven others. When enough men had been ferried to the little beachhead on the other side of the River the Filipinos were driven from their trenches. The damaged portion of the bridge was then repaired and infantry troops began making the crossing.

For their heroism in action, Funston, along with White and Trembley, was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
The President of the United States
in the name of
The Congress
takes pleasure in presenting the
Medal of Honor

Rank and Organization: Colonel, 20th Kansas Volunteer Infantry.
Place and Date: At Rio Grande de la Pampanga, Luzon, Philippine Islands, 27 April 1899.
Entered Service At: Iola, Kans. Birth: Springfield, Ohio. Date of Issue: 14 February 1900.


Crossed the river on a raft and by his skill and daring enabled the general commanding to carry the enemy's entrenched position on the north bank of the river and to drive him with great loss from the important strategic position of Calumpit.

A week later, at the age of 35, Funston was promoted to the rank of brigadier-general of volunteers and given command of a brigade composed of the First Montana and the Twentieth Kansas. These troops were soon replaced by fresh units and the veterans were ordered home for discharge. General Funston was instructed to report to San Francisco for mustering out and so, though no longer officially connected with his Kansas regiment, he accompanied them back to San Francisco.

Funston was recommended by Major-General Arthur MacArthur for brevet of Major-General of Volunteers for gallant and meritorious services throughout the campaign against Filipino insurgents from February 4 to July 1, 1899.

Upon arriving at San Francisco, on October 10, 1899 his orders were changed and he was sent back to service in the islands. By this time the fighting had changed to guerilla warfare which continued for the next year and a half.

In February, 1901, Funston learned that the elusive rebel leader's official courier had been captured. He immediately ordered the courier brought to him. The courier's name was Cecilio Segismundo and he had documents from Aguinaldo himself. He revealed Aguinaldo's location to the Funston. After decoding the documents that Segismundo was carrying, and being convinced that he was telling the truth, Funston came up with a brilliant plan to capture Aguinaldo.

For years, the Americans had tried to capture the leader of Filipino resistance, Emilio Aguinaldo. All of these attempts had failed, and had resulted only in Aguinaldo fleeing farther north. By March 1901, Aguinaldo had established his headquarters in remote northern Luzon, in the village of Palanan. The isolation and mountainous terrain of this new headquarters destroyed any hopes the Americans had of taking the Filipino leader, until Colonel Funston hit upon a brilliant plan.

The captured messages revealed that Aguinaldo had requested reinforcements. Funston's plan called for several loyal Macabebes to be sent along with five American "prisoners" acting as these reinforcements. It was a dangerous plan but it was the only way to get past the Filipino scouts in the area. After clearing his plan with General Arthur MacArthur, who was skeptical but desperately wanted to put an end the war, Funston assembled 81 Macabebe scouts to pretend to be the men Aguinaldo had requested. Funston and four other Americans then posed as prisoners held by the Macabebes.

On March 6, 1901 the group sailed to Casiguran Bay, where they were dropped off 50 miles from Aguinaldo's camp by the U.S.S. VICKSBURG. During their trek to Aguinaldo's headquarters, the Macabebes told the villagers they ran across that they were taking the five Americans, who they had captured making maps, to Aguinaldo. The villagers were fooled by the story, and treated the Filipinos and Americans with hospitality, even giving them directions to Aguinaldo's camp. Five miles from the headquarters, the party stopped and sent a message ahead. They received a message back from Aguinaldo telling the Filipinos to come ahead, but to leave the Americans behind in care of Aguinaldo's troops. This represented a setback to Funston's plan, but was solved when Hilario Placido, the leader of the Macabebes, forged a note saying the Americans could come to the camp after all.

The march up the coast took ten days. The insurgents led the supposed Tagalos directly to Aguinaldo's house. Funston and the other Americans were not with them, for Aguinaldo, to keep his whereabouts secret, had forbidden prisoners to be brought into the town. The Americans, however, were able to elude the small guard placed over them and were only minutes behind the main column when it entered Palanan. So suddenly was the capture accomplished that Aguinaldo was already a prisoner when Funston arrived.

Aguinaldo was held for three weeks in Manila. During this time, he capitulated to the Americans and a proclamation was issued declaring his allegiance to the United States and asking other generals to surrender. As a result, generals Alejandrino, Tinio, Mescardo, Lucon, and Cailles, as well as Sandiko, Father Aglipay, and Aguinaldo's brother Baldermo soon surrendered. However, resistance survived in isolated pockets such as Batangas and Samar.

Even though Aguinaldo's seizure failed to crush the rebellion, it did shorten the insurrection materially. The administration at Washington called it "the most important single military event of the year in the Philippines." for his part in the capture Funston was commissioned a brigadier-general in the regular army.

Returning to San Francisco, Brigadier-General Funston was hailed as a national hero.

General MacArthur on March 28, 1901 cabled Washington describing the capture of Aguinaldo on March 23, 1901.

"The transaction was brilliant in conception and faultless in execution, all credit must go to Funston who, under supervision of General Wheaton, organized and conducted expedition from start to finish. His reward should be signal and immediate."

But Funston became ill and was hospitalized and placed on sick leave until April 10, 1902. But not everyone thought of Funston as a hero. Funston soon fell under criticism for his methods used to capture Aguinaldo. A editorial in the Boston Post made the following comments:

"When the capture of Aguinaldo by Funston was announced by cable, it was hailed as a great exploit. President McKinley lost no time in making him a brigadier-general. But, as the details have come to light, contempt and disgust have taken the place of admiration. The American people accepted, though not without some qualms of conscience, the forgery, treachery and disguise with which Funston prepared his expedition. But until recently the full infamy of his conduct has not been understood. The historian of his expedition, Edwin Wildman, thus describes the last stage of Funston's march: Over the stony declivities and through the thick jungle, across bridgeless streams and up narrow passes, the footsore and bone-racked adventurers tramped, until their food was exhausted and they were too weak to move, though but eight miles from Aguinaldo's rendezvous. A messenger was sent forward to inform Aguinaldo of their position and to beg for food. The rebel chieftain promptly replied by dispatching rice and a letter to the officer in command, instructing him to ‘treat the American prisoners well.'

"This incident was passed over lightly in the earlier reports. Its full significance has just begun to dawn upon the American people."

In April 1902, Brigadier-General Funston was placed in command of the Department of the Colorado until March 1903, when he was placed in command of the Department of the Columbia. He was then placed in command of the Department of California.

Brigadier General Funston was the ranking officer at the Presidio in 1906 when one of the greatest natural disasters in California history, the San Francisco Earthquake, occurred on April 18, 1906. The shift in the San Andreas fault wrought havoc to the city, but the fires, fueled by debris and gas escaping from broken lines, sprang up in various sections of the city. Unfortunately, the quake also damaged water mains and to halt the spreading fires city officials decided to dynamite buildings to create fire lanes. The city fire chief sent an urgent request to the Presidio, an Army post on the edge of the stricken city, for dynamite.

At the time, Brigadier-General Funston, now commanding the Department of California and a resident of San Francisco had already decided the situation required the use of troops. He sent word to the Mayor offering assistance to civilian authorities.

During the first few days approximately 1,400 Army soldiers were ordered to the streets where they were joined by Navy sailors from nearby Mare Island Naval Shipyard, California Naval Militia and National Guardsmen in providing valuable services patrolling streets to discourage looting and guarding buildings such as the U.S. Mint, post office, and county jail. They aided the fire department in dynamiting to demolish buildings in the path of the fires.

The Army also became responsible for feeding, sheltering, and clothing the tens of thousands of displaced residents of the city. This support prompted many citizens to exclaim, "Thank God for the soldiers!"

Brigadier-General Frederick Funston, as the ranking officer at the Presidio, Funston assumed command of the city's military forces following the quake. Under the command of Major-General Adolphus Greely, Commanding Officer, Pacific Division, Funston's superior, who was in Washington, over 4,000 U.S. Army troops saw service during the emergency. There are conflicting reports as to whether he actually declared marshal law in order to contain looting and lawlessness. However, he offered troops and supplies to the city authorities and through this assistance much damage from fire and looting was prevented in the devastated area. On 1 July 1906 civil authorities assumed responsibility for relief efforts and the U.S. Army withdrew from the city. General Funston's actions were praised 11 years later by President Woodrow Wilson when he wrote: "His genius and manhood brought order out of confusion, confidence out of fear and much comfort in distress."

The general's next moment in the spotlight happened during the Mexican Border Conflict of 1914. The 49-year-old combat veteran had been sent to the area to take command of U.S. forces massing on the Texas border. This action was in response to the instability caused by the presidency of newly elected Mexican President Victoriano Huerta and the capture of several U.S. Marines. The city of Vera Cruz was ordered taken by President Wilson after a German merchant ship carrying munitions for Huerta was reported heading for the port. After a brief fight in which 17 Americans and 200 Mexicans were killed, Brigadier-General Funston was ordered to take 5,000 troops to the city to relieve the Navy and Marine personnel who had secured the city. He was then appointed military governor of the city.

Frederick Funston eventually earned the rank of major-general in 1916, making him the highest-ranking US Army officer.

The General was found again on the border of Mexico in 1916 following the slaying of unarmed Americans in Mexico and the raids of Francisco "Pancho" Villa north of the border had increased the tensions between the United States and Mexico. On March 9, 1916, Pancho Villa and 1,500 guerrillas attacked the New Mexico town of Columbus, killing 17 Americans. Funston recommended a pursuit of the outlaw, which was approved, however, his orders instructed him to send his subordinate, Brigadier-General John J. Pershing instead of going himself.

Instead Funston, supervised Pershing's "Punitive Expedition" from his headquarters in Texas, maintained security along the entire length of the Mexican border from the Gulf of Mexico to the California line. Although Pershing gained the headlines, Funston pioneered what was to become a future pattern of high level military command [and oversaw the federalization of 150,000 National Guardsmen]. In addition to General Pershing, Funston's subordinates during this time included future generals, then Captain Douglas MacArthur, Lieutenant George S. Patton, Jr., and Lieuteant Dwight D. Eisenhower.

On February 19, 1917, Major-General Funston was having dinner with friends at the St. Anthony Hotel in San Antonio, Texas, close to his headquarters at Fort Sam Houston. He had just finished dinner and was listening to the hotel orchestra play when a moment later he was dead. A heart attack took the life of the 51 year old major-general. The people of Texas showed their sincere respect by opening their most sacred shrine, the Alamo, so that he could lie in state there. He was the first person ever so honored. Ten thousand people paid their last respects to him during the three hours of public visitation. His body was then taken to the San Francisco City Hall Rotunda, where he laid in state for two days.

The nation had lost one of its greatest soldiers and California had lost one of its most celebrated heros. "Fearless Freddie," as the 5 foot 4 inch, 120-pound redhead was called after leading a charge through rifle fire during the Spanish-American War, who had endeared himself to the citizens of San Francisco by his policing of the city at the time of the 1906 earthquake and fire, was laid to rest at the Presidio (San Francisco National Cemetery) in full dress uniform on a hill overlooking the city he had saved.

Had he not died in early 1917 at the age of 52, evidence shows that President Woodrow Wilson would have picked him, not General John J. "Black Jack" Pershing, to command the American forces in World War I. But Funston died just months before the United States declared war, paving the way for General Pershing's ascension to high command.

Major-General Frederick Funston was a controversial figure, even in death. The Coast Artillery post on Rockaway Beach, New York, was originally named "Fort Funston" after General Frederick Funston. However, at the time of Funston's death in 1917, the name "Fort Funston" was already planned for the military reservation at Lake Merced, California. On June 26, 1917, the Lake Merced Military Reservation was named Fort Funston and on August 1, 1917, by order of General Order No.100 of the War Department, the name of the post in New York was officially changed to Fort Tilden in honor of Samuel Jones Tilden, a former Governor of New York, and the 1876 Democratic nominee for the Presidency of the United States.

Fort Funston, part of the U.S. coastal defense system for over 50 years, is now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, named for General Frederick Funston, along with a street – "Funston Street" – at Fort Bragg.

Even after his death, the name Funston surfaced in another war – World War II. As a final tribute, the USS FREDERICK FUNSTON (APA-89) was launched on September 27, 1941, and was sponsored by Miss Barbara E. Funston. After serving with the Army Transportation Corps Fleet out of Seattle, the FREDERICK FUNSTON received six battle stars for her World War II service. She was turned to naval custody when the Military Sea Transportation Service was formed in 1950.

Additional Reading

Bain, David H., Sitting in Darkness: Americans in the Philippines, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, Mass., 1984.

Crouch, Thomas W., A Yankee Guerrillero: Frederick Funston and the Cuban insurrection, 1896-1897, Memphis State University Press, 1975.

Crouch, Thomas W., A Leader of Volunteers : Frederick Funston and the 20th Kansas in the Philippines, 1898-1899, Coronado Press, Lawrence, Kansas, 1984.

Faust, Karl Irving, Campaigning in the Philippines, Hicks-Judd Company, San Francisco, 1899.

Funston, Frederick. "How the Army Worked to Save San Francisco." Cosmopolitian Magazine, July 1906.

Funston, Frederick, Memories of Two Wars; Cuban and Philippine Experiences, 1865-1917, C. Scribner's Sons, New York, 1911.

Halstead, Murat, Aguinaldo and his Captor, Halstead Publishing Company, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1901.

Tomlinson, Everett T., Scouting with General Funston, 1859-, Doubleday, Page & Company, New York, 1917.

To learn more about Major-General Frederick Funston visit the following web sites:

California Military History Online - Fort Funston

Museum of the City of San Francisco
Museum of the Kansas National Guard
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Updated 8 February 2016