June 20, 2024

Hankering for History

Hanker: To have a strong, often restless desire, in this case for–you guessed it–history!

Captain Thomas W. Connell, 9th U.S. Infantry Company C

9 min read

History provides the looking glass through which one can view the past and understand how events happened, and the outcome they had on the world. Within history, the observation of those characters, which have influenced a particular event, gives the opportunity to delve into the past-in order to better understand decisions made or not made. One such individual this historian feels is worth looking closer into is Captain Thomas Walter Connell. I believe that Captain Connell’s actions are a direct reflection on the bias attitudes engulfing the nation during this era. Western research has placed blame on the Filipino’s for their fiendish attack on the men of Company C. However, my argument eliminates this accusation and places the blame on pure racial bias by the American government and those leaders that simply impressed a young Army officer throughout his short-lived career. Credited not only for honorable service to his country, Captain Connell gave his life in service serving at Balangiga, Samar, Philippines, at the infamous Balangiga Massacre on September 28, 1901. Connell led his men to Balangiga on August 11, 1901, in an effort to support and secure this particular part of the Philippines. However, on a Sunday morning in late September, Connell and his men faced an insurmountable enemy determined to eliminate the American influence not only in the Philippines, but also in the town of Balangiga. Historians however, because of the small part that Captain Connell played, have overlooked his military career up to Balangiga. Connell not only served in the Philippines, but in Cuba and China before finally making this final voyage to Balangiga.

Captain Thomas W. Connell
Captain Thomas W. Connell

Studies suggest leaders are judged by their sacrifice when incidents such as Balangiga occur, however the objective of this paper is to understand Connell before his arrival in the Philippines, and to see the influences in his life, which helped form the decisions made in lieu of the attack at Balangiga. The understanding of this author is that Connell’s decisions at Balangiga were a combination of biased ideas from his leaders and the declaration of Benevolent Assimilation set forth by President William McKinley. Nevertheless, Connell as a young officer observed the tactics of total of war and adhered to the instruction imparted to the young cadets at West Point. The incrimination of Balangiga should not placed on Connell’s shoulders, however, he can and should be responsible for those decisions that ultimately cost the lives of 54 United States soldiers.

William Walter Connell was born into the Irish Catholic family of Mr. and Mrs. David J. Connell of New York, New York on January 6, 1872. The Civil War had ended eight years earlier and the United States was continuing to pick up the broken pieces of the Union, slowly bringing unity back to the shattered nation. According to the New York “The Evening World” Connell was raised in a prestigious New York family. In this edition, the paper ran a front-page article that included pictures of the family, the family home and their slain son, Captain Thomas Connell. The paper stated, “David J. Connell, the father, is a man of wealth.” Connell’s father was the custodian of City Hall and agent for the Peter Goelet estate. Not only was Connell’s father influential in the town, but his brother was the Deputy Assistant District Attorney in New York City. Connell attended school in New York as a student of the public school system. He also attended De La Salle Institute, a Catholic a preparatory school founded in 1849 by the Christian Brothers, for students planning to attend Manhattan College. Upon graduation from De La Salle, Connell received an appointment to West Point Academy. At the age of seventeen Connell began his attendance at West Point on September 1, 1891 and would continue until graduation on June 12, 1894. Connell was a below average student from his records at West Point, as indicated from the first grades seen in 1892 where he was ranked 44th in a class of 57. This downward trend continued throughout his tenure at West Point, and his worst year would come in 1893 as a junior when he ranked 47th in his class. He did, however, bounce back, elevating his rank six spots his senior year, graduating 41st in his class. From his records, Connell’s grades were not the best, which does not reflect the aptitude of a poor leader; but in turn may show a lack of concern on his part during his time at the academy. It cannot be assumed by his class rank, that his leadership skills were less than admirable. There are several through histories who have graduated from West Point nearly last in their class, and excelled throughout their career, such as General George Armstrong Custer and George Edward Pickett. Even though Connell’s grades were not those of a top student, those that remembered him would still hold him in the highest esteem. In his obituary, recorded in the Annual Reunion pamphlet at West Point in 1902, an exert from his pastor’s letter of comfort to his parents was printed which read “In your great sorrow it must be consoling for you to feel that all that knew your dear son loved him for his tender, gentle, genial, kindly, loveable character. Of all the young Catholics who graduated from West Point since I have been pastor there is none for whom I have more esteem and affection” With these words from his pastor, the obituary stated that Cadet Connell’s time at West Point was honorable.

Major General Oswald Ernst
Major General Oswald Ernst

Connell from all aspects was an overall good student and admired by his peers and administration alike at West Point. Connell was part of what was considered a great group of cadets at West Point. Major General Oswald Ernst said of Connell and his graduating peers in 1894, “It would be difficult to find outside of West Point, a more soldier-looking lot of lads than those that will receive their diplomas on June 12. Strong, broad-shouldered, graceful and erect, they look every way the ideal soldier.” Connell and his peers had now met the requirements asked of them to lead men into battle and to assume the roles as officers in the United States Army.

Commissioned as a Second Lieutenant, Cadet Thomas Connell, with 97 of his West Point classmates would now serve within the United States Army, with Connell receiving his first assignment with the United States Fifth Infantry. Research does provide a reason, why Connell resigned from the Fifth Infantry on Sept 18, 1894 and transferred to Madison Barracks, Oct 1, 1894, to become part of the United States Ninth Infantry. This author would be amiss if it were not mentioned that one of the renowned Balangiga Bells, which are at Francis E. Warren Air Force Base and Camp Red Cloud, Korea, once called Madison Barracks home. According to a dispatch sent from Cebu, Philippines Oct 25, 1910, Captain Fred R. Brown, Adjunct Ninth Infantry stated “One of the views I took near enough so you can see the inscription,…one at Madison Barracks, and two here at (Ft D.A.R)” The three bells are a source of great controversy with the United States and Philippines even today.

Madison Barracks served as garrison duty for Connell and the men of Company C there in Sackets Harbor for the next four years until April of 1898 when the regiment received orders to go to Cuba. The unit left Madison Barracks in mid-April and landed in Siboney, Cuba on June 24, 1898. After nearly five years since his commission, Connell would see his first combat action. The Ninth’s engagement with the enemy would be in the Battle of Santiago. Lieutenant Connell served at Santigo with two fellow officers, both of whom would bury him just a few years later, Lieutenant Edwin Victor Bookmiller and Captain Morris C. Foote. The Ninth would fight valiantly beside the Third and Twenty-Fourth Infantries, made up of General William Rufus Shafter’s Fifth Corp. The Ninth on the July 3, 1898, would assist in the siege of San Juan Hill along with Colonel Teddy Roosevelt and his legendary Rough Riders. Connell was witness to history that day as he and the men of the Ninth fight along with Colonel Roosevelt. The men were praised for their bravery and fighting that day. Richard Davis a war correspondent dispatched to Cuba reported, “The men of the Ninth and the Rough Riders rushed to the block-house together…fell on their faces on the crest of the hills beyond, and opened upon the vanishing enemy.” Through the heat of battle and the horrible conditions, the Ninth demonstrated they were a paragon group of men, and Connell was a leader that would continue to lead them to great triumphs in the future. Connell and his men for their achievements that day were awarded a streamer to their regiment’s colors for the dangerous actions faced. Lieutenant Connell for his gallant efforts in Cuba was promoted to brevet Captain. Connell had survived this historic battle and his leadership among his peers was apparently stellar, as he was now a newly promoted Captain in the United States Army. Nevertheless, rank and courage is not all Connell may have walked away with from Cuba. History does not allow us to ascertain how much Roosevelt may have influenced those that fought with him. However, it is very possible this young Lieutenant picked up on the “paternalist racism” Roosevelt was known to disseminate in an effort to both colonize and assist those countries he considered backward in the East.

Though it may not be possible to know the influence Roosevelt had on Connell as a person, it is the influence the nation’s bias had on the American soldier. This can be verified through a statement made by Connell’s second in command, Lieutenant Edward Bumpus, who remarked, “We are bound for goo-goo land now.”: Goo-goo-derogatory word used for Filipinos. This racial attitude was apparent even before the company landed in Balangiga, and possibly led to the destruction of the Company C. In the 1902 Affairs in the Philippines Report, it states, “Almost without exception soldiers, and many officers, refer to the natives in their presence as “n——s”, and the natives are beginning to understand what the word “n—-r” means.” Here again the racism and bias of the early 19th century is apparent in these two clear examples. The citizens of Balangiga not only dealt with the harsh rules Connell placed upon them in cleaning up the city, but they were harassed and belittled by the American soldiers each day. As the document referenced from 1902 states, they understood what these disparaging words soon meant, and it begin to dig at their psyche, which may have been yet another reason they decided to revolt against these men they thought were there to protect them from the insurgents. They were not only fighting the insurgent, but also the demeaning attitude of Captain Connell and his men.

Connell’s next job in the army would be a demanding yet prestigious job in the eyes of his peers, as he now would be working next to one of the generals in the Army, Brigadier General Henry T. Douglas of the Seventh Infantry, United States Volunteers, and Havana Cuba. Connell started his duty as the Aide de Camp with Brigadier General Douglas in December of 1898 and would continue working with him until March 14, 1899. Orders were given March 13, 1899, that certain general’s service was no longer needed with volunteers and Brigadier General Douglas was one of those relieved of duty position. There is only one reference to Captain Connell’s work with Brigadier General Douglas, which comes from his military records. Records indicate that Brigadier General Douglas was a Civil War veteran with the Confederate States of America. Again, the influence of a high ranking individual could have influenced Connell and the attitude of this officer, during his time with General Douglas. Yes, there is a certain amount of assumption here; however, Connell had worked with two individuals whose bias against those of a different race where apparent. Connell’s exchanges with the Filipinos in Balangiga had hints in his demands and reaction to “disobedience” against a “white “authority. Connell would leave his assignment with Brigadier General Douglas and meet those men that would make history with him in Balangiga.

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