America’s Forgotten Wars

Strangely for a nation born in battle and built by war, America loves to ignore some of its wars.

America’s history books ignore several of the country’s most important wars. Even many American history buffs are unaware of some of their nation’s most important conflicts.

Thus, you do not be ashamed if you have never heard of some of these conflicts. Your high school and college textbooks; and the cartoon version of American history pop culture presents, ignore these wars.

American’s Most important Forgotten Wars Include:

The Northwest Indian War

The most important forgotten American war is the Northwest Indian War or the Ohio War.

The term Northwest refers to the Old Northwest, a 19th Century name for the modern Midwest. To elaborate before the Louisiana Purchase the Midwest was the Northwestern part of the United States.

The Northwest Indian War is important for several reasons. First, The Northwest Indian War was Native Americans’ last, and possibly best, opportunity to contain the United States to the East Coast. Second, the Northwest Indian War determined who owns the Midwest and West.

Had America lost the Northwest Indian War, most of the Midwest, and the West could be part of Canada. To explain, the Northwest Indian War; or Little Turtle’s War, was Britain’s best chance to seize most of North America.

Third, the Northwest Indian War was the conflict that gave birth to the Regular United States Army. In fact, the Northwest Indian War was the first conflict in which professional United States soldiers fought under the Stars and Stripes.

Ironically, the 1783 Treaty of Paris; which ended the Revolutionary War, set the stage for the Ohio War. To elaborate, the Treaty of Paris set the Great Lakes as Canada’s Southern Border.

The British; however, ignored the Treaty and maintained forts and garrisons South of the Great Lakes. Moreover, the British backed the formation of the Western Confederacy among indigenous peoples. The Western Confederacy was a defensive alliance designed to resit American expansion.

The first U.S. government; the dysfunctional Continental Congress, was too disorganized to fight a war against the Western Confederacy. The new government President George Washington organized after the Constitutional Convention was another matter.

The “most decisive defeat in the history of the American military”

In 1791 Washington sent Major General Arthur St. Clair, a fellow revolutionary war hero, to stop The Western Confederacy’s attacks on American settlers. On 4 November, 1791, St. Clair’s rag-tag army of 1,000 militiamen and others suffered the “most decisive defeat in the history of the American military.”

Only 24 American soldiers escaped the killing field known as the Battle of the Wabash. At the Wabash, the Western Confederacy achieved the greatest Native American victory over the U.S. military.

The Wabash or Battle of the 1,000 slain, convinced Washington that America needed a Regular Army. Poorly-trained militiamen were no match for the Native American warriors.

In March 1792 Congress established a regular army; the Legion of the United States, and offered additional pay and three-year enlistments to recruits. Washington put another Revolutionary War Hero: General “Mad Anthony” Wayne in charge of the Legion.

Before, the Northwest Indian War, American leaders thought the United States did not need a regular army. Instead, patriots believed the militia could defend the country and fight the Indians. The Battle of the Wabash showed the militia was useless.

On 20 August 1794, the Legion proved its worth by defeating Western Confederacy forces at the Battle of Fallen Timbers near Toledo, Ohio. At Fallen Timbers, American Regulars defeated the Confederacy’s forces in hand to hand combat.

To elaborate, the American Regulars were well-trained in the use of the bayonet and musketry which gave them a decisive advantage over untrained Indians. In addition, Native forces lacked the numbers or training to fight in formation or in the open.

The Legion inflicted a decisive defeat on the Western Confederacy and ended Native American resistance in the Midwest. Without their indigenous clients the British had to withdraw north of the Great Lakes.

In 1795, several indigenous tribes relinquished their rights to Midwestern lands in the Treaty of Greenville. Similarly, the British abandoned their rights to the Midwest in the Jay Treaty.

Hence, after the Revolution and the Civil War, the Northwest Indian War could be most important conflict in American history. Yet we forget the Ohio War today.

King Philip’s War

The Great Narragansett War or King Philip’s War was one of the first major conflicts between Native Americans and British settlers. King Philip was the American nickname for Metacom, a Wampanoag chief who commanded the indigenous forces.

The Puritans were able to colonize large areas of New England in the 17th Century because smallpox killed most of the region’s indigenous people. However, by 1675 the Wampanoag, Nipmuck, Pocumtuck, and Narragansett peoples had recovered. Moreover, the natives found a leader in Metacom, a second-generation chief.

In 1675, Metacom was planning a sneak attack on the Puritans. Ironically, John Sassamon a native Christian tried to warn the colonists. The colonists ignored Sassamon until somebody killed him.

On 8 June 1675, a colonial jury fund three Wampanoag men guilty of Sassamon’s murder. Colonists hung the three Wampanoag men which gave King Philip a pretext for war.

In retaliation, Philip’s forces launched a series of bloody raids on the Plymouth Colony (Massachusetts). In response, the New England Confederation; the colonies of Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay, Connecticut and New Haven declared war on Philip.

King Philip’s War had the highest capita body count of any war in American history. Several hundred colonists out of population of tens of thousands died. Moreover, thousands of Indians were killed or sold into slavery.

The casualties included King Philip himself who was shot by a Native American mercenary, in August 1676. After his death, colonists stuck Philip’s head on a spike and displayed it there for 20 years.

King Philip’s War was important because it broke Native American resistance in New England, clearing the way for large British colonies. The British colonies in New England became the base from which Americans eventually conquered a continent.

The casualties included King Philip himself who was shot by a Native American mercenary, in August 1676. After his death, colonists stuck Philip’s head on a spike and displayed it there for 20 years.

King Philip’s War was important because it broke Native American resistance in New England, clearing the way for large British colonies. The British colonies in New England became the base from which Americans eventually conquered a continent.

Had King Philip won, he could have drive the British back into the sea and delayed European settlement in American. Instead, the New England Confederation and its Native American allies made the Northeast safe for British colonization with ultimately catastrophic results for indigenous peoples.

We forget King Philip’s War because it blows the Thanksgiving mythology of friendly Indians and noble Pilgrims apart. Instead, the Puritans and Native Americans were deadly enemies who tried to destroy each other.

Americans ignore King Philip’s War because it established the horrendous concept of removing all Indians from large areas of America. The conflict taught Americans that the natives were enemies who had to be destroyed at all costs. A line of reasoning that lasted until the late 19th Century.

The Philippine American War or Philippine Insurrection

I first learned of this bloody war when I found the words “Philippine Insurrection” on a war memorial at the Colorado State Capitol.

The words are on a plaque commemorating the service of American volunteers in the Philippines. The conflict was important enough to mention on a war memorial at the state capitol yet they never mentioned the Philippine War in my high school or college history classes.

The Philippine War is important because it was America’s first large overseas conflict. The Filipino American War was also America’s first colonial war.

The Philippine American War was an unplanned conflict, nobody wanted or expected. To elaborate war Philippine War was an unanticipated side effect from the Spanish-American War.

The United States fought the Spanish American War over Cuba. However, one of the Spanish-American War’s most important fronts was in the Philippines, where they based much of the Spanish Navy.

To neutralize the Spanish Pacific Squadron, US Commodore George Dewey’s fleet attacked Manila Bay. Dewey destroyed the Spanish fleet, which allowed the Philippine Revolutionary Army to liberate most of the islands and take over 15,000 Spanish prisoners.

Consequently, Philippine leader Emilio Aguinaldo declared the islands an independent nation on 12 June 1889. Unfortunately, Spain and the United States ignored the Philippine Declaration of Independence, and Aguinaldo’s First Philippine Republic.

Instead, Spain ceded the Philippines, which it could no longer control, to the United States in the 1898 Treaty of Paris. The Americans had annexed the Philippines but they had no plans for governing the islands.

This created a dangerous situation in the Philippines because large American and Filipino armies were facing each other in a small area. On 4 February 1899, war broke out when Private William W. Grayson of the First Nebraska Volunteer Infantry Regiment killed two Filipino soldiers. The next day, the U.S. field commander; General Arthur MacArthur Jr., ordered an attack on the Filipinos.

The conflict degenerated into a brutal guerrilla war in which Americans used their superior fire power to destroy Filipino cities and towns. The Filipinos lacked the weapons to wage a conventional war so they resorted to guerrilla tactics.

The Americans responded by burning villages and herding Filipinos into concentration camps to cut guerrillas off from civilian support. Without outside help, the Filipinos had little chance of success. However, they kept fighting until the American presidential election in November 1900.

Aguinaldo hoped William Jennings Bryan (D-Nebraska); who opposed American conquest of the Philippines, could win. Unfortunately, for the Filipinos, incumbent President William McKinley (R-Ohio) who favored annexation won.

The Philippine War had some similarities to the later Vietnam War with American forces battling Asian guerrillas in the jungle. Moreover, Aguinaldo’s strategy was to inflict casualties on American forces in hopes of turning U.S. public opinion against the war.

The Vietnamese Communists employed the same strategy in the 1960s and 1970s. However, the Vietnamese Communists had powerful allies; the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, who supplied them with enormous amounts of arms. In contrast, the Philippine resistance received no foreign help.

In another echo of Vietnam and Iraq, American commanders and leaders tried to deceive the public about the war’s true nature. The first U.S. military governor of the Philippines; Major General Elwell Stephen Otis, tried to exclude journalists and the International Red Cross from the islands.

Otis spread the lies that he had defeated the insurgency and the Philippine Revolutionary Army was only a band of outlaws. To Otis’s displeasure some American soldiers wrote the truth in letters home. When US newspapers published the letters, Otis looked bad.

Otis’s response was to order American soldiers to retract any statement home that ran counter to his party line. Otis’s disinformation campaign failed, and on 20 December 1900 McKinley replaced Otis with General Arthur MacArthur Jr. Ironically, MacArthur; the father of World War II legend Douglas MacArthur, had started the war.

Unlike Otis, MacArthur admitted there was a guerrilla war and began fighting it. Under General Order 100, MacArthur ordered his troops to arrest any civilian helping the guerrillas.

MacArthur’s tactics worked and U.S. forces eventually captured Aguinaldo himself in a strange commando raid. During the raid, Americans pretended to be prisoners of some Filipinos who took them to Aguinaldo’s hideout.

Unfortunately for Aguinaldo, the Filipinos were US allies, and the Americans were not prisoners. After his capture, Aguinaldo realized the war was lost and issued a formal Proclamation of Surrender on 19 April 1901.

However, other Filipino commanders ignored the surrender and stayed in the field until American forces overwhelmed them. Historians estimate that the Philippine-American War killed over 200,000 Filipinos and 4,500 Americans.

In a similarity to the Iraq War, the American public ignored the Philippine War, while a vocal minority of intellectuals, leftists, and pacifists opposed it. The war’s most famous American critic was the nation’s greatest author Mark Twain. Twain claimed the war betrayed American ideals. Yet there was no popular antiwar movement, possibly because a volunteer army fought the Philippine War.

The Philippine-American War had another strange similarity to the later Iraq conflict. As in Iraq, Americans decided they did not want the country they had fought so hard to conquer.

Within a year of the war’s end, America was looking for a way out of the Philippines. As early as 1902 the US Congress tried to hand Philippine government over to a partially-elected Philippine Assembly.

By World War I, even arch imperialist and former President Theodore Roosevelt (R-New York) favored abandoning the Philippines. In 1916, the US Congress passed the Jones Act which promised the Philippines eventual independence and granted the islands an elected Senate.

Ironically, by 1916 some Filipinos wanted an American presence because they were afraid of  Japanese imperialism. The hope was that the half-hearted American imperialists could keep the brutal Japanese imperialists out.

Thus, a strange relationship between two nations began. The United States finally granted the Philippines “full independence” in 1946, but a U.S. military presence in the islands continues to this day.

Strangely, Americans remember the conflict that begot the Philippine-American War the Spanish War, but not the second greater conflict. One reason is that the Philippine War lacked the glamour of the Spanish American War. In particular, the dashing Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders did not fight at Manila.

Another is that a historical account of a bloody colonial war destroys the mythical notion of the United States as a protector of freedom. The truth is America ignored another nation’s declaration of independence, and suppressed another people’s freedom.

The greatest effect of the Philippine War for the United States was World War II. The American presence in the Philippines made a conflict between the United States and Imperial Japan; which viewed the Philippines as its property, as inevitable.

Predictably, one of the main theaters of action in the American-Japanese War was in the Philippines. Ironically in 1942, American and Filipino soldiers; grandsons of the men who had tried to kill each other 40 years earlier, fought together to defend the Philippines. Many of those soldiers eventually died together in brutal Japanese concentration camps and on the Bataan Death March.

In a final ironic twist, U.S. Army General Douglas MacArthur, became famous for liberating the Philippines from Japanese Imperialism. MacArthur was the son of Arthur MacArthur the American conqueror of the Philippines. MacArthur commanded; critics say bungled, the defense of the Philippines in 1942 and the invasion that liberated the islands in 1944.

America’s forgotten wars teach us that history is always stranger and more complex than what they taught you in school.