The Macabebe Scout
A wet postcard on the sidewalk, and an irregular gravestone
by Jack Neely
One day last week my friend Ian Blackburn saw a scrap of cardboard in a puddle on the sidewalk underneath the drive-by mailboxes on Walnut Avenue, near the post office. Not many people would stop to look at something like that, but Ian’s one of those who would. The neglected scrap was a postcard, curling in the rainwater, densely covered on front and back with handwriting in black ballpoint, unsmeared by rainwater. It was addressed to me.
Signed only “Walt M.,” much of the postcard was occupied by a transcription of a particular grave marker in the National Cemetery on Tyson Street, adjacent to Old Gray. I’d heard of the grave. Others had asked me about it over the years. I thought the postcard in the puddle was a sign that I should finally look into it.
The National Cemetery makes for a good lunchtime walk. Established during the Civil War by General Burnside, it was one of the first official National Cemeteries in America. Almost all of the markers, planted in concentric circles, are government-issue soldier’s graves, hardly two feet tall, with simple inscriptions in uniform white marble. They’re all the same, regardless of rank; a General Robert Neyland is buried there, his grave indistinguishable from the rest until you get close enough to read the inscription, which includes nothing about any particular athletic endeavor.
But a few of the older tombstones stick out: bigger, more expensive monuments that commemorate young men who died in battle a century or so ago. One belongs to Lt. Robert Rosecrans Bean. It’s a large granite marker, about four feet tall and wide, near the stone wall that separates this orderly cemetery from unorderly Old Gray—which from here looks unruly and almost animated, like a crazy marble party.
Born soon after the Civil War, Bean likely gained his middle name from General Rosecrans, the U.S. commander at Chattanooga who, despite some blunders, was admired by East Tennessee Unionists.
According to the inscription, Bean was a veteran of the battles of El Caney, San Juan, and Santiago. Those were battles in Cuba during the hot part of the Spanish-America War. But he survived all that.
The marker says Bean was “KILLED IN BATTLE NEAR LIPEY, P.I. / OCT. 8, 1901.” P.I. stands for Philippine Islands. Lipey, though, is a bit of a puzzle; there’s no place by that name in the Philippines, nor, if we can believe the gazetteers, anywhere in the world. It’s not obvious as a name of a battle; it may be an alternate spelling of Lipa , a town south of Manila that was near some action against insurgents in 1901.
The last line is the one that gets some visitors’ attention. “COMMISSIONED 2nd LIEUT. MACABEBE SCOUTS / JULY 1, 1901.”
That requires a footnote. The United States won their “splendid little war” of 1898 quickly, but it turned out the Philippines was a nation that didn’t much care to be occupied by anybody. A Filipino insurgency of surprising fury turned out to be much deadlier than the war itself.
The nationalist faction elected as its president Emilio Aguinaldo, the part-Tagalog, part-Chinese rebel leader. The U.S. did not recognize Aguinaldo’s power—President Roosevelt compared him to an Apache chief—and Aguinaldo declared war on the United States. The fact that the Americans regarded themselves to be better colonial rulers than the Spanish meant little to many Filipinos, who believed the Americans meant to repress their culture, and wanted the foreign troops out of their country. They killed Americans every way they knew how, more than 4,000 of them, far more than had died in combat in the official war. Americans fought back against the insurgents, killing perhaps 20,000 Filipino fighters, by U.S. estimates. Terrorist bands on both sides killed whole families because of their alliances. Some have estimated that as many as 200,000 Filipino civilians died during the early years of the U.S. occupation and insurgency. To the postcard writer, the relevance of that era is obvious.
As the postcard writer noted, “Macabebe was an unusual outfit.” Native Filipinos from the province of Pampanga, the Macabebes had a longstanding reputation as mercenaries. Fierce soldiers at their best, they were also regarded to be among the bloodthirsty of the Filipino tribes, known for torture and butchery of their enemies, especially the hated Tagalogs. They were, by any objective definition, terrorists.
During the nationalist insurrection, dominated by the Tagalogs, the occupying Americans made some dangerous bargains with the Macabebes. Captain Matthew Batson, who seemed awed by the Macabebes’ rapacious methods, was in charge of trying to direct the warriors toward American ends. He recruited young lieutenants—like Robert Rosecrans Bean of Tennessee—to deal with them.
When witnessing the Macabebe’s carnage, the unofficial U.S. policy was to look the other way. Batson wrote in a personal letter after the Macabebes’ destruction of a Filipino village, “Of course no official report will be made....”
In March, 1901, some 80 Macabebe guerrillas under the direction of U.S. commander Frederick Funston captured Aguinaldo by a ruse of posing as Filipino nationalist reinforcements who were delivering five American prisoners. The Americans somehow persuaded the captive to swear allegiance to the United States. It was the beginning of the end of Filipino hopes for independence for 40 years; many Filipinos thereafter regarded the Macabebes as traitors.
The insurgency survived Aguinaldo’s capitulation. In September, 1901, a company of U.S. soldiers on Samar Island was surrounded by rebels wielding swordlike bolo knives, and “cut to pieces.”
The U.S. was also having to deal with a separate insurgency, the remains of Aguinaldo’s group, under General Miguel Malvar, in the Batangas Province, south of Manila. That may have been where, days before his 32nd birthday, Lt. Robert Rosecrans Bean was killed.
I didn’t find the notice of Bean’s death in the papers of the time, and don’t know what series of events led to the installation of this unusually large stone that sticks out in a military cemetery. Unworn by a century of weather that has begun to melt some of Bean’s comrades’ government-issue markers, it doesn’t even look very old. On a cool, sunny afternoon in a Tennessee November, it offers no hint of what terrors he saw in his last months, more than a century ago on the opposite side of the world.