Fagen: An African-American Renegade in the Philippine-American War, by Michael Morey, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 2019, $36.95

Between 1899 and 1902 the U.S. military fought a nasty counterinsurgency against the Philippine Republic. Some sources claim the war continued until 1913, when American forces put the final nail in the coffin of the Muslim Sulu sultanate and its army of Moro warriors fired up by the call to jihad. The war resembled the later counterinsurgency in Vietnam, though in the Philippines the U.S. plans and tactics worked and culminated in a victory. That victory came at a brutal coast—hundreds of thousands of Filipino civilians died, American interrogators resorted to such torture methods as the “water cure,” and the U.S. military government in the Philippines provided a blueprint for domestic spying operations stateside.

Fagen, by independent scholar Michael Morey, shines a light on yet another bleak aspect of the Philippine-American War through the extraordinary story of David Fagen (sometimes spelled Fagin), a 20-year-old black private from Tampa, Fla., who volunteered to fight with the legendary “Buffalo Soldiers” of the 24th Infantry Regiment in the prior Spanish-American War. He didn’t see combat during that conflict, instead serving as an orderly for U.S. troops stricken with yellow fever. After riding out the disease himself, Fagen returned with the 24th to Fort Douglas, Utah. According to those who served with him, Fagen was a poor soldier, “always lighthearted, careless and full of jokes, gambling or drinking when he could get the money.” Morey also suggests Fagen bore a deep hatred of whites due to injustices he experienced as a young man. When the 24th redeployed to the Philippines, Fagen deserted and took up arms alongside Filipino revolutionaries. He soon became a master of guerrilla warfare and a symbol of anti-colonial and anti-white resistance. 

Fagen presents a balanced narrative, moving between its protagonist and the broader conflict in which he engaged. This is not standard military history by any means. Morey devotes many pages to the U.S. racial tensions in the 1890s, when Southern Democrats introduced Jim Crow laws, and lynchings were common. At the time President William McKinley had embarked on a great age of American imperialism, and Morey asserts the acquisition of the Philippines was McKinley’s plan all along, even if the American military bumbled its way toward conquest. Morey also believes imperialism is the reason the Philippine-American War has been scrubbed from national memory.

The biggest problem with Fagen is one to which Morey readily admits: Very little is known for certain about Fagen. For example, there is no conclusive proof Fagen joined the Filipino insurgency due to any racism on the part of white Army officers. Indeed, a fellow soldier with the 24th suggested Fagen deserted because the rebels promised to make him a general. Given the dearth of sources, Morey relies on suggestion and supposition.

Despite that central flaw, Fagen is a readable volume written in clean, sharp prose. Fagen proves as interesting as he was elusive, while such supporting figures as Brig. Gen. Frederick “Fighting Fred” Funston are equally captivating. The result is an engrossing read that imparts lessons from the U.S. counterinsurgency in the Philippines and reminds readers that racial animosity is nothing new.

—Benjamin Welton


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