All but forgotten today, Major General Frederick Funston would almost certainly would have led the American Expeditionary Force in World War I if he had not died at age 51 of a heart attack on February 19, 1917. Nicknamed “Fearless Freddie” he was perhaps the most famous American soldier between the Civil War and World War I. He had a very unique career. Always in ill health, he was a physically small man, 5 foot, 5 inches, and throughout his life never weighed more than 120 pounds. After failing an admissions test to West Point in 1884 he pursued a career in botany. Tiring of the quiet life he enlisted in the Cuban Revolutionary Army fighting against Spain. Contracting malaria his weight fell to an alarming 95 pounds and he was granted medical leave in the United States.
After the declaration of war against Spain he was commissioned colonel of the 20th Kansas Infantry. Fighting against the Filipino Insurrection, he became a national hero by capturing the Filipino leader Emilio Aguinaldo. A separate action earned him a Medal of Honor. Playing a leading role in putting down the Insurrection, Funston came under attack by critics for the severe measures he took. The pen of Mark Twain was enlisted against him:
If this Funstonian boom continues, Funstonism will presently affect the army. In fact, this has already happened. There are weak-headed and weak-principled officers in all armies, and these
are always ready to imitate successful notoriety-breeding methods, let them be good or bad. The fact that Funston has achieved notoriety by paralyzing the universe with a fresh and hideous
idea, is sufficient for this kind—they will call that hand if they can, and go it one better when the chance offers. Funston’s example has bred many imitators, and many ghastly additions to
our history: the torturing of Filipinos by the awful “watercure,” for instance, to make them confess—^what? Truth? Or lies ? How can one know which it is they are telling ? For under
unendurable pain a man confesses anything that is required of him, true or false, and his evidence is worthless. Yet upon such evidence American officers have actually—but you know about
those atrocities which the War Office has been hiding a year or two; and about General Smith’s now world-celebrated order of massacre—thus summarized by the press from Major Waller’s
“Kill and burn—this is no time to take prisoners—the more you kill and burn, the better—Kill all above the age of ten—make Samar a howling
Funston was completely unrepentant:
I personally strung up thirty-five Filipinos without trial, so what was all the fuss over Waller’s ‘dispatching’ a few ‘treacherous savages’? If there had been more Smiths and Wallers, the war would have been over long ago. Impromptu domestic hanging might also hasten the end of the war. For starters, all Americans who had recently petitioned Congress to sue for peace in the Philippines should be dragged out of their homes and lynched.
President Theodore Roosevelt was pretty tough minded, but he eventually ordered Funston silenced and reprimanded.
In 1906 he was in command of the Presidio at San Francisco. In the aftermath of the great earthquake he ordered his troops to shoot looters on sight, a move that was criticized from afar but was largely applauded in San Francisco.
In charge of the Army’s Southern Department he commanded the Army’s occupation of Veracruz in 1914 and the troops in Texas fighting against Mexican raids 1910-1915.
President Wilson named Funston to command the force to be sent to Europe if the US intervened. The enormous amount of work involved helped breakdown Funston’s always precarious health. Taking a rare break from his labors, Funston was listening to an orchestra play The Blue Danube on February 19, 1917 in the lobby of the Saint Anthony hotel in San Antonio. He remarked, “How beautiful it all is!” when he had his fatal heart attack. Major Douglas MacArthur had the duty of informing President Wilson of Funston’s death. He recalled it in his memoirs:
“Had the voice of doom spoken, the result could not have been different. The silence seemed like that of death itself. You could hear your own breathing.”