Remembering General Elwell Otis on his Day, June 15th: Rochester’s imperial war hero

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General Otis’s grave in Mt. Hope Cemetery. In 1922, his body was re-interred in Arlington National Cemetery

• June 15, 2015

Monday, June 15th is General Elwell Stephen Otis Day. Otis Day honors Rochester’s greatest soldier, the Commander-in-Chief of American troops in the Philippines back in 1900.  Most likely, Rochester is the only large city in the nation that commemorates a war hero from the Filipino-American War (1898 – 1902).  Many historians argue this period marks the brief heyday of “official” American empire during which the United States took control of Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines.

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War Eagle, downtown Rochester [Photo: Jim Barclay, owned by David Kramer]

Although Otis Day is mostly forgotten, several years ago, Otis School #30—built on the General’s family homestead in Gates—had a grant to celebrate the day, including period songwriters and storytellers. Other reminders dot Rochester. Otis’s grave can be found in Mt. Hope Cemetery. The green War Eagle downtown is partially dedicated to soldiers who fought under Otis in the Philippines. Three photographs from the original Otis Day can be found on Main Street alongside other historic photos in the “Downtown: The Way It Was series.” The grave of Rochesterian William F. Healy, the only Rochesterian killed in battle in either Cuba or the Philippines can be found in Holy Sepulcher Cemetery.As seen in the photographs, Otis Day in 1900 was quite arguably the most glorious in the history of Rochester.  Tens of thousands of Rochestarians gathered to celebrate the homecoming of its famous native son who, almost forty years earlier, had gone off to the Civil War after graduating from the University of Rochester in 1858, to serve with distinction at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. He later fought in the Indian Wars. In 1881 Otis was actually the officer on duty to accept Sitting Bull’s surrender!

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Otis Arch, June 15th, 1900

In May 1898, President William McKinley appointed Otis as Major General of Volunteers; he was sent to the Philippines where he later became Military Governor.  In May 1900, Otis declared victory in the war against Filipino insurgents (his “Mission Accomplished” moment), and returned to the Unites States.  In a victory tour begun in San Francisco, Otis was personally thanked by President McKinley and given a rousing ovation by a joint session of Congress, and dubbed by the national press, “the hero of the Philippines.”

The tour culminated in Rochester.  The entire city was decked out in flags and red, white and blue bunting that stretched for miles. The famous architect Claude Bragdon designed a massive temporary heroic Arch, covered with elaborate sculptural details of cast plaster, on the intersection on Main Street and East Avenue.otis 4

With Otis at the lead, a grand procession of politicians, civic leaders and local veterans passed through the Arch. About 50,000 western New Yorkers poured into the city to participate in the ovation and the Democrat and Chronicle estimated the total at 100,000, far surpassing the 35,000 who attended the unveiling of the Douglass Monument in June 1898.   The round of banquets, speeches, band concerts and patriotic displays continued for days.  Soon after, Otis retired to his Gates farm.  When the hero died in 1909, he was buried beside a granite monument on top of the highest point in Mt. Hope Cemetery.  In 1922, Congress voted to re-intern Otis in Arlington National Cemetery, so his bronze plaque was removed, his body, exhumed, transferred and reburied with full military honors.

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Otis’s grave site in Arlington National Cemetery

To understand Otis’s place in American history requires a closer look at the war he led.

In 1898, in a brief, nearly bloodless, and wildly popular war, the United States defeated Spain and found itself with troops stationed in Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines.  A deeply divided debate engaged the nation: would annexing the Philippines as an overseas possession be in keeping with Manifest Destiny or unwarranted imperialism?  Historian Blake McKelvey says the Rochester press hotly contested the issue with a plurality supporting McKinley’s policies.

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NYS Militia passing through the Otis Arch, June 15th, 1900

McKinley chose to keep American forces in the Philippines. He concluded that America must  “uplift and civilize and Christianize” the Filipino people – even though the large majority were already Roman Catholic! Otis was sent to the archipelago.

If the Spanish-American War was the Splendid Little War, the American-Filipino War was a Nasty Little War. About 4,100 American and 12 to 20,000 Filipino soldiers were killed. Estimates of civilian deaths, direct and indirect, range from 34,000 to 200,000.  The war was marked my savage guerilla warfare, civilian concentration camps, wide scale atrocities—probably more committed by American soldiers but a practice found on both sides—including the use of “water torture,” now known as “waterboarding.”  Otis found himself at the center of the controversies, in many ways buffeted by forces beyond his control.untitled

First, when Otis first took command, he faced Emil Aguinaldo, the rebel leader whose army had helped defeat Spain. Initially, there was peace as Aguinaldo petitioned for full Filipino independence.  However, in an incident Filipinos claimed was manufactured (with Otis’s tacit approval, a fact not overlooked by the war’s detractors) a very minor skirmish broke out.  Full scale hostilities between Otis and Aguinaldo’s armies ensued.

Second, Aguinaldo conventional forces, no real match for the Americans, were overpowered relatively quickly.  Instead, Aguinaldo adopted a protracted strategy of insurgency and guerilla warfare, relying on popular support outside the capital of Manila.  Yet, Otis made the fabulist assertion that the war was over, except for “a few outlaw bands” (Rumsfeld’s Iraqi “dead enders”?) To American soldiers in the field and the correspondents covering the war, the claim was patently spurious. Newspapers critical of the war pilloried and lambasted Otis: “The Incorrigible Otis,” “Otis in Wonderland,” and “Otis through the Looking Glass.”

Proclomation

In 1899, General Elwell S. Otis proclaimed American sovereignty over the Philippines, in accordance with the terms of the Treaty of Paris. A small typographical error: the date should have been ‘January 4, 1899’.

Moreover, Otis’s victory claim seemed transparently politically motivated.  Republican President McKinley faced a strong challenge from anti-imperialist Democrat William Jennings Bryan in the election of 1900. Hence, McKinley’s enthusiastic embrace of Otis’s victory tour. To anti-imperialists and Democratic editors, the very idea of an “Otis Day” would be a nonsensical act of political theater.

Third, the grim enduring legacy of the war was the specter of atrocities committed by American combat troops. As the burning of native villages, water tortures, and execution of prisoners multiplied, American soldiers began to write home about their experiences. In response, Otis dramatically dismissed and downplayed any inhumane tactics.  He moved to suppress and censor letters sent home. But the damage was done.  Anti-imperialists seized upon eye-witness accounts of atrocities as proof the war was a terrible mistake, and accused Otis of lying to the American public.

At the same time, it is on the issue on unrestricted warfare that Otis may have been the real hero.  As historian Stuart Creighton Miller argues, Otis was under extreme pressure—seemingly along the entire chain of command—to impose even harsher methods for subduing the Filipino insurgents.  Yet, Otis continually resisted changing the rules of engagement. Supposedly, the regular soldier would dub him; “A Foolish Old Woman,” and “A Silly old Grandmother.”  Fundamentally, however, Otis, I think, stood by a firm principle.  The United States liberated Cuba because of Spanish atrocities against the Cuban people. If America did the same in the Philippines, she would be no better than Spain,

Ultimately, by 1902 when President Theodore Roosevelt declared the insurgency finally over, the American people had soured on overseas imperial adventures. There would be no more homecoming parades for conquering heroes of faraway islands.

For all his fame, glory and distinction, ultimately Otis has not played a very prominent role in the annals of Rochester.  Otis does have an elementary school (now closed), the adjoining street and a nearby railway stop named after him. But nothing else. No statue in the Town of Gates, no monument at City Hall, not even a named building at the University of Rochester.  No more parades on Otis Day.

Finally, when Rochesterians remember its greatest soldier on June 15th, I think Otis’s legacy should not be his political gamesmanship or strategic misjudgments, but his ability to keep a bad war from being worse. When you pass Otis’s gravesite in Mt. Hope Cemetery, think of him as a flawed, but decent, man, who fought a dubious battle.

[Much of this information can be found in Blake McElvey’s histories of Rochester, the Mt. Hope Cemetery catalogue, the archives of the Rochester Museum and Science Center where some of Otis’s artifacts are kept, and the work of historian Stuart Creighton Miller. Also below is an article I wrote on another Rochester/American-Filipino War. In 1915, the African-American Rochester journalist F. Grant Gilmore wrote The Problem: A Military Novel considered the first war novel written by a black author. The Problem is set in the Philippines]

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Thomas F. Healy’s grave in Holy Sepulcher Cemetery

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SEE ALSO On Spanish-American War monuments in Rochester. And remembering the Buffalo Soldiers on Veteran’s Day

On Spanish-American War monuments in Rochester. And remembering the Buffalo Soldiers on Veteran’s Day