The Balangiga Massacre

One of the events that defined the nature of the Philippine-American War was the Balangiga Massacre on September 28, 1901, which served to drive the American leadership into committing more and more forces into the war in order to avenge their fallen comrades. Although several recorded (and many more unrecorded) atrocities have been perpetrated by both sides, Balangiga stands out as the most famous, due to the number of US casualties incurred.

The Philippine-American War

While the leader of the Filipino rebellion and president of the fledgling Malolos Republic, General Emilio Aguinaldo was captured on March 25, 1901 and exiled to Hong Kong (some say paid off with P20,000 in gold), the rest of the revolutionary hierarchy of the Katipunan did not follow suit. Several provinces were still contested, including Batangas, Tarlac, Pampanga, the various mountainous Ilocos provinces, and almost all the island provinces in the Visayas.

One of these Visayan provinces was the island of Samar, where the rebel forces were commanded by Brigadier General Vicente Lukban, operating out of the provincial capital of Catbalogan. With a core force of 100 riflemen and numerous willing bolo-armed townsfolk, Lukban conducted hit-and-run raids against the entrenched US Army units, following earlier orders from Aguinaldo to resort to guerilla tactics due to the ineffectivity of stand-up combat against Gatling guns and Krag repeating rifles.


In early September 1901, Lt. Wallace of the US 9th Infantry and his platoon were ambushed in the Gandara Valley by a small bolo-wielding rebel force; twenty of the rebels were killed, at the cost of ten dead and six wounded Americans. This was typical of most skirmishes prior to Balangiga; small hit-and-run attacks aimed at grabbing rifles or keeping the enemy off-balance.

Balangiga was a small seaside barrio, where Company C of the 9th was stationed; under the command of Captain Thomas Connell. On September 25, the town mayor and his police chief received permission to bring in 100 convicted prisoners from the town jail to clean up the town plaza. He was told to "bring as many as you can". Eighty more laborers were brought in over the course of the next two days.

On September 27, Friday, Captain Connell returned from a sortie; the news later that afternoon of President William McKinley's assassination a few days earlier, drew the officers' attention away from the natives. He ordered the flag to be lowered to half-mast, and all soldiers wear black armbands to mourn their commander-in-chief.

That evening, the sentries remarked on the number of women entering the church, many carrying small coffins. Upon opening one coffin, a sentry found the body of a small child; "cholera", explained the woman. The sentry let the women pass.

The rebels attack

At 6:20 on Saturday1 morning, most of the soldiers were on their way to breakfast; the police chief, Pedro Sanchez, was lining up the prisoners in the town square for work, as he had done on the previous days. Only three sentries were armed; the rest of the Americans were sleeping or in the mess tent.

Without warning, Sanchez grabbed a rifle off one of the sentries, cracked him over the head with it, and fired a shot. At this signal, the church bells started ringing, and the "prisoners" suddenly charged, screaming, at the troops. More men streamed out of the church, where they had been hiding, carrying weapons for their comrades.

General Lukban had sprung his trap; the "women" of the previous night were actually men in drag, and the coffins were filled with bolos and axes, underneath the bodies. All of the "prisoners" Sanchez had been bringing in were also part of Lukban's attacking force.

The Americans were easily overrun by the superior numbers of the enemy; the mess tent was sent crashing down on them, and the workers hacked at the struggling forms under the canvas with pickaxes and shovels.

The survivors, around 36 men, fought their way through the rebels and made it to the beach, where they boarded barotos (small boats) and headed for the main garrison at Basey, about 12 hours away. All in all, 48 soldiers of the 75-man garrison were killed or went missing, and about 22 were injured2. Some sources claim that they had killed over 2503 rebels during their flight, but it is more likely that this is the total number of men in the attacking force.

Captain Bookmiller, the Basey garrison commander, returned in a gunboat two days later, raking the shore with gatling gun fire and killing a few natives. Once they grounded, they caught about twenty more men, who they immediately executed. The town of Balangiga was then burnt to the ground (no structures remained standing by October 1901).


The Balangiga massacre would be reported by US papers as "the worst US military disaster since Custer", and sparked the Burning of Samar, one of the largest atrocities of the Philippine American War, where General Jacob "Howling" Smith attempted to reduce the entire island of Samar to a "howling wilderness".

The church bells of Balangiga were taken by Bookmiller, and were sent to the US in 1904, to be displayed as trophies of war at F. E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming. The Philippine government has repeatedly tried to return the bells to Balangiga; although President Clinton promised to "look into it" in 1994, the church bells still remain in Wyoming to this day.

Most of the following websites quote The Ordeal of Samar (1964) by Joseph L. Schott, but some of the facts from this book are still subject to controversy.
  • The Burning of Samar by Reynaldo S. Galang,
  • The Awful Tragedy of Balangiga by Helen H. Taft,
  • The Balangiga Massacre: Getting Even by Victor Nebrida
1Some sources claim the attack took place on a Sunday morning, perhaps for propaganda purposes, but Sept. 28, 1901 was a Saturday.
2I've seen some sources that give 75 American deaths, but the 47-48 fatal casualties are taken from official US military records.
3Unconfirmed kills, as Bookmiller's reinforcements returned over two days later, but widely quoted by several (possibly biased) historians.

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