Tomorrow, Rochester marks the 118th Otis Day in honor of Rochester’s most decorated veteran, General Stephen Elwell Otis, the Commander-in-Chief of American troops in the Philippines back in 1900. (SEE BELOW)
I’ve published on Otis, been photographed next to his sword and commissioned Jim Barclay for a photograph of the War Memorial Eagle dedicated in honor of the war in which Otis distinguished himself.
But as time passes, I am increasingly less enthusiastic about Otis Day. The Filipino-American War in which Otis served was perhaps the United State’s least justified foreign war, very much the Vietnam of its day. The last Otis Day ceremonies petered out maybe a decade ago. Perhaps for the best.
As time passes, I also grow increasingly skeptical about the appropriateness of the War Memorial Eagle designed as a tribute to those who fought in America’s three foreign wars from 1898 – 1902.
The history of the Eagle dates back to 1939 when, according the Memorial Art Gallery website, a committee was formed to chose a sculptor and design:
C. Paul Jennewein, Robert Laurent, Lee Lawrie, Heinz Warneke, and William Zorach were invited to submit proposals for the sculpture in Franklin Square. Maquettes were on view in the Gallery while the committee made its decision. Carl Paul Jennewein’s sculpted eagle was selected.
The bronze eagle is depicted sitting on the prow of the USS Maine, holding a broken chain symbolizing the end of Spain’s 33-year domination of Cuba.
In 1941, Jennewein’s Art Deco bronze rendering of the eagle was completed, one suggesting America’s “sundering the chain of oppression.”
But historical ironies abound. From 1939 – 1941, it was clear America would likely take up arms against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. As such, a monument representing America’s sundering the chain of oppression made sense.
But to convey the oppression sundering imagery, the committee chose America’s most ignoble and blatantly imperialistic overseas adventures. The Spanish-American War may have begun as a humanitarian gesture, but quickly became an opportunity for the United States to dominate Cuba.
Furthermore, the sculpture refers to the Filipino-American War as the “Philippine Insurrection” when it was obvious — even in its day — that American was attempting to prevent Filipino independence and to establish the Philippines as an overseas colony. And, the sculpture refers to the “China Relief Expedition” in what was really the United States’ intervention in the Boxer War with the intent of projecting American power in Asia.
In addition, today — if not in its day — the iconography on the plaque at the top of the sculpture is dubious. The image is of a supine Cuban or Filipino girl with her back to viewer as she kneels next to two American soldiers with her arms reaching out to both men in a gesture of subservient gratitude.
The sculpture does not rise to the level of a monument to Confederate generals but is a far cry from what I’d like as a representation of America spreading freedom.
Celebrating the first Otis Day (June 15th) with the General’s sword at its new home: the Military Society of Rochester
June 15th, 2016Today Rochester celebrates the 116th anniversary of Otis Day, when Rochester’s greatest soldier was honored in Rochester’s greatest parade. (FULL STORY OF OTIS BELOW)This Otis Day is special as it marks the first year General Otis’ ceremonial sword is on display at the Military History Society of Rochester in the Anderson Arts Building.At the Museum, the Otis Collection is perhaps its signature showcase. When entering, on the outside hallway are cases with photographs of General Otis and his wife, as well as accounts of the first Otis Day in 1900.Along with the centerpiece sword is a collection of Otis Day souvenirs.Tom Farnham, a museum intern, Master’s Degree candidate and Fellow at the Nazareth College Center for Public History, explains how General Otis’ sword came to the Society:
Elwell Stephen Otis was an extraordinary man and Rochesterian. Educated at the University of Rochester and Harvard Law School Otis assumed command of the Rochester raised 140th New York Infantry
Regiment at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House from May 1864 until the end of the American Civil War. Otis made a career of the Army and commanded troops in both the Western Indian Campaigns and the Spanish American War. By the end of his career he become the post of Military Governor of the Philippines.
By agreement with the Rochester Historical Society the Military History Society of Rochester displays within its collections items reflecting General Otis’ service as well as his ceremonial sword and dress uniform. The uniform is resplendent and richly colorful replete with epaulettes and accoutrements befitting his rank. His sword is no less decorative in that it displays considerable craftsmanship both in both design and artistic heraldry that is etched upon the blade just above the hilt.
• 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.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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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]