Mt. Hope Cemetery, 6/5/20. David Kramer at the grave site of Major General Elwell Stephen Otis (March 25, 1838 – October 21, 1909), wearing the colors of American soldiers in the Spanish-American and Filipino Wars, tan and light blue. “This was Otis’ first burial site – he was originally buried on the highest point of Mount Hope before being reinterred at Arlington National Cemetery on October 11th 1929. His bronze plaque was also removed from the Mount Hope monument, though it was not used on his monument there and is now lost. His original monument still stands and his epitaph reads: Not the last stroke but every stroke brings victory (findagrave.com). On the volumes at the base of the gravestone, see Postscript. [Photo: Lynda Howland]
Somewhere buried in the archives of the city of Rochester, a declaration names June 15th to be General Elwell Stephen Otis Day.
For all Otis’ fame, glory and distinction and despite our reporting on the 115th anniversary, 116th anniversary and the 118th anniversary‘s of his Day, the “the hero of the Philippines” is a forgotten figure in the annals of Rochester and his hometown of Gates. This year, the General’s name was removed from the General Elwell S. Otis School, since renamed the under-construction Flower City School.
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June 15, 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. Several years ago, the former Otis School #30 — built on the General’s family homestead in Gates — had a grant to commemorate the day, including period songwriters and storytellers. Alas, the grant expired.
Now almost forgotten, the original Otis Day in 1900 was quite arguably the most glorious in the history of Rochester. Tens of thousands gathered to celebrate the homecoming of its famous native son who, forty years earlier, had left for the Civil War, after graduating from the University of Rochester, to serve with distinction at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. Otis would later fight in the Indian Wars. In 1881 he was actually the officer on duty to accept Sitting Bull’s surrender!In May 1898, Otis was appointed Major General of Volunteers (later Military Governor), and sent to the Philippines. A year later, he declared victory in the war against Filipino insurgents, and returned to the United States. In a victory tour begun in San Francisco, Otis was personally thanked by President William McKinley, 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 where the city was decked out in red, white and blue bunting that stretched for miles. On the intersection of Main Street and East Avenue, renowned architect Claude Bragdon created a massive temporary heroic arch covered with elaborate sculptural details of cast plaster.
With Otis at the lead, a grand procession passed through the arch. About 50,000 western New Yorkers poured into the city to participate in the ovation; the Democrat and Chronicle estimated the total attendance at 100,000 overall, far surpassing the 35,000 who attended the unveiling of the Douglass Monument in June 1898. 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 1929, 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 be sure — although his school is renamed and his name removed — Otis is not entirely absent and forgotten. The War Eagle monument is inscribed with the war in which he was the theater commander. (The monument refers to war as the “Philippine Insurrection.” I call it the Filipino War. The Filipinos fought the Spanish to gain independence, just as they fought the Americans to secure independence.) Although Otis’ body is in Arlington, Virginia, his grave site remains in its lofty position on the hill near the grave of Frederick Douglass.
See a 2017 tour of Mt. Hope Cemetery that includes a visit to Otis’ (penultimate) resting place. The guide explains that Otis’ tomb is a cenotaph: an empty tomb or a monument erected in honour of a person or group of people whose remains are elsewhere. It can also be the initial tomb for a person who has since been reinterred elsewhere.
Most importantly, as seen in Celebrating the first Otis Day (June 15th) with the General’s sword at its new home: the Military Society of Rochester, Otis is the featured Rochester soldier in the Military Society of Rochester’s museum in the Village Gate. Several years ago, the museum acquired and prominently displays Otis’ sword.This year we add a new feature to the Otis series with the discovery of the site of “Otis Place,” the name of the Otis’ family farmhouse on Avery Street and Lyell Avenue, now in the city of Rochester, then in the Town of Gates.
In my search, I initially contacted Bill Gillette, the Gates Town Historian, who contacted John Robortella, former editor of the Gates-Chili News and publisher of Finger Lakes Historical Press.Using references found in Democrat and Chronicle articles from the period, Bill and John located the site of Otis’ long gone farmhouse. At the Town of Gates History Center in the Town Hall, Bill showed me fascinating archival and displayed material on town history, including the 1902 map with a rectangle labeled “Gen. E.S. Otis.”
Bill kindly offered an edition of the handsome, finely illustrated and well researched Town of Gates: County Cornerstone, Bicentennial 1813 – 2012.
At the corner of Lyell and Avery, I discovered Otis Place is now an ivy-covered apartment building.
Fittingly, I saw that Otis Place is across the street from the Lyell Branch of the Rochester Public Library. Almost surely, some item in the library’s local history section mentions Otis. The library was closed so I could not confirm the hypothesis.
At the end of Otis Street, I told a man for whom the street on which he lives is named. Whether or not he was feigning interest, the man appeared impressed. The man had not heard of Otis, but did know about the Spanish-American War.
Still wondering why Otis is such a relatively obscure figure in the Rochester historical imagination, at Boldo’s Armory on Monroe Avenue, I conferred with Alex White and Tim Bills, Historical Interpreter at the Genesee County Museum and former reenactment Battalion Commander of the 140th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment, the same unit Otis served with during the Civil War. Owner of Boldo’s, Alex is an amateur military and political historian, and frequent Talker contributor.
Some of Otis’ marginal historical stature is due to circumstance of his life story and military career. Otis was not a long standing fixture in Rochester society. After graduation from the University of Rochester in 1858, Otis received a law degree from Harvard, followed by over 40 years of service in the United States army. He did return to Rochester in 1870 to marry a Rochester girl, Louise Seldon, but Otis mostly lived on far-flung military posts. Otis’ retirement in Gates was uneventful. For example, he did not seek any elected or appointed political or judicial offices.
Furthermore, by June 15th, 1900 when Otis was fêted on East Avenue, the nation had already chosen its preeminent Spanish-American War hero, Commodore (later Admiral) George Dewey whose American Asiatic Squadron had utterly destroyed the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay on May 1st, 1898. Dewey achieved national celebrity status; many considered him a likely Democratic presidential candidate in 1900.
In late 1898, the Rochester City Council renamed the street Boulevard to Dewey Avenue. If truth be told, Otis can called a provincial, second fiddle hero compared with Dewey. Dewey Avenue is a far more important thoroughfare than Otis Street.
As impressive as was Bragdon’s Otis Arch, it paled in comparison to Manhattan’s Dewey Arch, erected for Dewey’s jubilant homecoming from the Philippines.
Worse for Otis’ reputation, it was his successor in the Philippines, General Arthur MacArthur (father of Douglass), who captured the imagination of war journalists. MacAurthur fought on the front lines; while Otis was mostly a desk commander.
Alex sees Otis relatively obscurity to be mostly found in the relative importance of the Filipino War, especially compared to the Spanish-America War whose monuments and grave sites dot Rochester. (see On Spanish-American War monuments in Rochester) While Alex thinks Otis’ long and distinguished military career is unrivaled in Rochester history, Otis’ second to last assignment was in a brutal, grim, bloody and unpopular war. Alex adds that within US military history, in terms of its weightiness, the Philippines war ranks “at the top of the third tier.” Furthermore, Alex says the war does not fit within the “American narrative,” that idealizes America as the guardian of freedom of liberty and independence, not as the vehicle of empire.
Today, we might call the Filipino War a dirty war. As seen in Rochester’s famed but forgotten figure:
The war would be protracted and bloody, marked by savage guerilla tactics. About 4,100 American and 20,000 Filipino soldiers were killed, with civilian deaths estimated at 200,000. The grim legacy was wide-scale atrocities and inhumane treatment, probably more committed by American soldiers but practices found on both sides: civilian concentration camps, burning of villages, and the torture and execution of prisoners and collaborators
By the time of Otis’ homecoming, the public had misgivings about the American intervention, especially as it learned more about the brutal fighting:
As atrocities multiplied, soldiers began to write home about their experiences. Otis dismissed and downplayed the reports, suppressing and censoring outgoing letters. Nonetheless, anti-imperialists seized upon eye-witness accounts as proof the war was a terrible mistake, accusing Otis of lying to the public about conditions in the Philippines.
By 1902 when President Theodore Roosevelt declared the insurgency over, Americans had soured on imperial adventures. No more homecoming parades through monumental arches for conquering heroes of faraway islands.
At Boldo’s, I was thrilled to learn that Tim Bills knew so much about Otis. Bill is the former reenactment Battalion Commander of the 140th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment, Otis’ unit, and extensively studies regiment history. As for Otis’ obscurity, Tim says Otis’ limited recognition is like so many illustrious Rochester Civil War soldiers who have slipped into the mists of history. But for the Colonel Patrick O’Rorke Memorial Bridge in Irondequoit, the hero of Gettysburg would be almost completely forgotten. Like Alex, Tim laments the ever diminishing knowledge of local history, most seen in the all but complete disappearance of local history in the New York State Social Studies curriculum.
Ultimately, Tim gave a concise and undeniably true reason for Otis’ forgotenness: “The passage of time.”
When I think of Otis, I picture his moment of triumph, passing through Bragdon’s Arch before cheering crowds whose number would not be matched until the airplane was invented and a heroic aviator flew across the Atlantic. Then quiet retirement in Gates, with a hint of General Washington’s mythologized return to Mt. Vernon. A solemn and well attended funeral in 1909. More honors and nostalgic cheers as Otis’ body is taken from Mt. Hope Cemetery to Chesnut Street en route by train to a hero’s reburial in Virginia.
In the early decades on the 20th century, Otis’ memory would be rekindled every Memorial Day when Spanish-American and Filipino War veterans marched down Main Street, with the final visible marching reminders fading away sometime in the 1940s. By the time Arch Merrill writes about Otis in 1951, leafing through yellowed copies of the Democrat and Chronicle before the invention of digital archive, Major General Elwell Stephen Otis is a curiosity from a bygone era.
See all stories below postscript
My Ph.D thesis, The Rhetorical war: Class, race and redemption in Spanish-American War fiction: Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, Richard Harding Davis and Sutton Griggs examines the vast outpouring fictional and non-fictional that soon appeared after the Spanish-American War, and to a much lesser degree the Filipino War.Literary historian Woodruff Christian Thomson describes the brief conflict as somewhat like a prizefight ending in a knockout in the second round.” This placed a strain upon “those authors and publishers who vied for the immediate, popular market in books about the war. A dozen or more volumes, remarkably alike in content, format and blatant tone, appeared in the years 1898 – 1900. They . . . are usually prolifically illustrated with drawings and photographs of battle scenes and views of the new ‘possessions’ and portraits of ‘heroes’ and ‘statesmen.’” Riddled with jingoism, Thomson characterizes these books as “extremely chauvinistic.” (The Spanish-American War in American Literature, 1962). At the same time, as the Filipino War dragged on without a clear conclusion, the reading public lost its appetite for tropical battles scenes from thousands of miles away and tired of repetitive accounts of American soldierly heroism. The Filipino War produced only a handful of the works described by Thomson.
In the volumes picture above Otis is mentioned in Hero Tales and Admiral Dewey.
Literature of the Filipino finds its place in Rochester history in the person of F. Grant Gilmore who, like Otis, is mostly forgotten. An author, editor, playwright, barber, umpire, operator of the “Colored 400” who made cakewalking tours throughout the northern tier and southern Pennsylvania, member of the Masonic Lodge and on the Commemoration Committee that celebrated the anniversary of Frederick Douglass’ 100th birthday in 1917, Gilmore was a prominent figure in the African-American community.
Most notably in 1915, Gilmore wrote The Problem: A Military Novel (later made into a play). Partially set in the Cuba and the Philippines, its black protagonist, Sgt. Henderson serves with distinction. Critics call The Problem the first American war novel by a black author. According to newspaper accounts in New York and Pennsylvania, Gilmore wrote the novel and play in direct opposition to Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan (1905) and D.W. Griffith’s film The Birth of a Nation (1915), two popular, virulently racist works that promoted black oppression.
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 1929, 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]