Eric Grynaviski

Associate Professor of Political Science and International Affairs

George Washington University
Department of Political Science
21115 G. St. NW, 440 Monroe Hall
Washington, DC 20052

ericgryn [at]

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The Formation of the Macabebe Scouts in the Philippines

April 1, 2016
After the Spanish-American War ended, the United States found itself embroiled in a costly war against rebels in the Philippines. The war would last for years, was controversial in the United States, and was extraordinarily violent.

To reduce the costs of the war and increase its legitimacy, the United States recruited local militias, religious groups, and other fighters to enlist in the Army. The first and most famous of these units was the Macabebe Scouts. The Macabebe Scouts were largely responsible for one of the most remarkable successes in the war: the capture of the rebel leader, Emilio Aguinaldo.

The story of how the Macabebe enlisted and the barriers that Major Batson, their recruiter, had to cross is really amazing. The image on the right is a picture of those involved in the mission; below are two depictions, one from the United States, trying to convey that if Americans were abusive during the war, it is because they learned to be from the Macabebe.

The primary debate about the Macabebe is not why they fought, but why the United States chose to ally with them. The Macabebe had served the Spanish before the war began, and were likely anxious to serve the United States in the same capacity. The problem was that the United States worried that arming Macabebes would lead to disastrous results. The United States had armed Aguinaldo's army in war against the Spanish, and now those arms were being used in a general insurrection against American occupation. In addition, the army at the time was marked by extraordinary racism (for the classic account)

There is a debate about why the U.S. decided to ally with the Macabebe. The conventional wisdom is that it was authorized by Henry Lawton. America's Middlemen, by contrast, traces it to the influence of a relationship between a junior officer and his Macabebe porter, Jacinto.

The document on the left is the original plan, authored by Matthew Batson, for enlisting and arming the Macabebes. As you can see from the image on the right, Otis thought it was a terrible idea.

The Macabebe undertook a large number of operations in the war. The one for which they became best known was the capture of Aguinaldo. Aguinaldo was the leader of the forces fighting against the United States in the Philippines.

Frederick Funston, a Brigadier General in the Volunteers, formulated the plan. He had the Macabebe Scouts impersonate reinforcements, headed to support Aguinaldo. With the Scouts with Funston, and a few other white officers, disguised as prisoners of war. When they entered Aguinaldo's camp, they broke disguise, capturing him.

The Macabebe on the mission on pictured on the left.

To read the original report of the naval operation in support of the missions, see
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(sorry about that light).

The capture of Aguinaldo was the most spectacular operation that the Macabebe engaged in. But, it was not the only one. The Company Records describe frequent patrolling. The Macabebe would often patrol by banca (canoe), allowing them to quietly come upon insurgent villages without being noticed.

On the left is a description of one of these patrol missions, reported in the Company Records for the scouts.

Their effectiveness can only be told by looking at the cumulative effects of these small missions. On the right is the summary of weapons captured in a single month.

Throughout the Macabebe Scout's tenure, they were accused of human rights abuses. The Company Records show that the Macabebe likely engaged in some abuses. Yet, the Company Records for many American units show much worse behavior.

One issue that merits reflection is that Matthew Batson, the author of the plan to organize the Macabebe, was in part motivated to do so because of the atrocities committed by the American military. The two images on the right are the final two pages of a letter he wrote to his wife, Florence, and about the war crimes committed by American troops.

In his later letters home, he described how the use of Filipino troops held out the possibility of winning the war, ending the barbarity committed by Americans against Filipinos.

All images housed on website for this post are from the National Archives, Washington DC or National Archives II, College Park MD.

Feel free to contact me for full references.