General Jacob H. Smith & the Philippine War’s Samar Campaign

American Imperialism at the Washington Hotel

“A monster public reception followed by a complimentary banquet was last night tendered to Gen. Jacob H. Smith, by local Grand Army men and citizens. The reception was from 8 to 9 o’clock, held in the Washington hotel. The factories closed early and thousands of workmen mingled with the business and professional men of the city, in the great throngs that shook the hand of the old warrior. Although the banquet was distinctly as stag affair, hundreds of ladies crowded about in the throng to meet Gen. Smith." According to the Akron News-Democrat, the banquet was "the most elaborate ever attempted in Portsmouth.” 

Smith's hometown return in 1902 surely appeared triumphant, but he was a man whose national reputation and career had recently been destroyed in the wake of a sensational courtmartial for his role in civilian massacres during the Samar Campaign in the Philippine War.

Smith first returnd to Portsmouth on August 11th, 1902, arriving by train at the Norfolk and Western Depot.  An estimated 3,000 area residents came out to meet him. The crowd's size spoke to both Smith's hometown popularity, as well as the national media attention he had garnered recent months.

Among the crowd, waiting at the depot, in a horse-drawn carriage, was Smith’s mother, Charlotte Maria Hurd Smith, who had told a reporter just a few days before, “What matters what he said? Look upon what he has done. Look upon a record without a blot or blemish. Then shall we consider a few words spoken when the atrocities to American soldiers were confronting him on every hand.” Two companies of the Ohio National Guard, one from Portsmouth and the other from Manchester, along with the Portsmouth Cycling Club Band, dressed in khaki, escorted the General and his entourage to the Hilltop home of Judge James W. Bannon, his brother-in-law. Just before dispersing the guardsmen gave three hearty cheers.

The Philippine War, which lasted from 1899 through 1913, resulted from the foreign policy of a group of imperialists within the Republican Party of President William McKinley. After their quick victory in the Spanish-American War in 1898, the United States found themselves playing the part of an occupying army on the Philippine Islands, far away from the mainland in the South Pacific. A Filipino independence movement had been working to overthrow their Spanish colonizers for years. Emilio Aguinaldo, the charismatic leader of the movement, provided critical aid to the Americans during their war with Spain. But, when US forces did not withdraw from the islands and the US government did not recognize Philippine independence, Aguinaldo and his compatriots rose up against the United States and what they viewed to be a colonial occupying army.

It was a choice, ultimately the Ohioan McKinley’s choice, to annex the Philippine archipelago and deny the Filipinos their independence. As he famously explained in an interview with a Christian missionary magazine, “there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God's grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow-men for whom Christ also died.” Shouldering what was then known as the “White man’s Burden,” McKinley and the imperialists chose to conquer these far off islands in the Pacific and more Americans died fighting the Filipino insurgents than had died fighting the Spanish.

General Jacob Hurd Smith led American forces during one of the most brutal and controversial campaigns of the war. The Samar Campaign of 1902 was an offensive aimed at punishing and crushing the insurgency on the Island of Samar. An American garrison in the town of Balangiga had been attacked in September 1901 by the local population, with the support of the local police chief and members of the insurgency. The people of Balangiga had apparently revolted in reaction to their abuse at the hands of the American soldiers. The US commander at Balangiga had sent troops out to destroy crops and grain reserves, to keep such food from flowing into the hands of the insurgents; he had also ordered all males over the age of thirteen, at gun-point, to work at clearing brush and repairing the streets of the town.

Fifty-four of the seventy-eight American troops stationed at Balangiga were killed; their bodies were mutilated and burned; only four escaped uninjured. The massacre and mutilation of Americans triggered a massive response that left Samar in tatters and General Smith seated before a court-martial. The Balangiga Massacre occurred two months after the government of the Philippines was transferred from the US military to US civilian authorities, headed by future President William Howard Taft. Aguinaldo had been captured in March of 1901 and it was hoped that the transition to civilian rule marked the beginning of the end of the war. The Balangiga Massacre, however, ended all talk about the reduction of troop levels in the Philippines.

Jacob Smith was born 29 January 1840 near Jackson Furnace, in Scioto County, and he spent his boyhood in Portsmouth and in Greenup County, Kentucky. Having briefly attended a military academy in Connecticut, the home state of his parents, Smith joined the Union’s Second Kentucky Infantry, receiving a commission as a First Lieutenant. Severely wounded during the Battle of Shiloh, Smith was brought back to his parent’s home in Portsmouth to recuperate. After the Civil War, he obtained a commission as a Captain in the Regular Army and rose through the ranks, serving in Louisiana during Reconstruction and then later on the Great Plains, where he participated in a number of the so-called “Indian campaigns,” against the Northern Cheyenne, the Apache, and the Uncompahgre Ute. Contrary to some claims, there is no record of Smith’s participation in the Wounded Knee Massacre of Sioux in 1890. Nevertheless, he had participated in some of the most brutal campaigns in the Plains Indian Wars of the late 19th-century.

Smith went on to lead American forces in Cuba, during the Spanish-American War, where he was again wounded in action at the Battle of Santiago. Smith then took command of troops in the Philippines, where he was promoted to Brigadier-General in March of 1901. After fighting a number of successful campaigns against the Filipino insurgents, Smith was given the task of crushing the resistance on Samar and exacting revenge for the deaths of the American soldiers at Balangiga.

The Manila News reported on 4 November 1902, that General Smith ordered all inhabitants of Samar’s interior to relocate to coastal towns, “saying that those who were found outside would be shot and no questions asked. …. All suspects, including Spaniards and half-breeds, were rounded up in big stockades and kept under guard.” At the same time, Smith cut off all food shipments and trade from the towns into the backcountry, carrying out a policy designed to starve the resistance into submission. Detachments of American troops then traversed the island’s interior, in search of rebel bands, burning villages and destroying crops and livestock.

It was not these general policies that ended up getting Smith into trouble, rather it was the specific orders he gave to one of his main subordinates, Marine Major Littleton W. T. Waller. At the beginning of the campaign when officers had gathered at the site of the Balangiga Massacre, Smith told Waller, “I want no prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn; the more you kill and burn the better it will please me. …. I want all persons killed who are capable of bearing arms in actual hostilities against the United States.” When Waller asked Smith to set an age limit for the kill orders, Smith said, “Kill everyone over ten.” Smith would later send Waller a written order “that the interior of Samar must be made a howling wilderness.” During the four and half month-long campaign, an estimated 15,000 Filipinos died on Samar as a result of the actions of US forces.

Smith’s orders were first revealed during the court martial of Major Waller, who was charged with ordering the summary execution of eleven Filipino civilians, who had worked as baggage carriers during one of Waller’s missions into the interior. The eleven civilians turned out to be boys and young men, who were accused of hoarding food and threatening mutiny while helping the US troops march through the jungles of Samar. Waller’s defense would become known after World War II as the Nuremburg Defense – I was only following my orders. Waller would be acquitted on the charges of murder, but the testimony during his trial would lead to the court-martial of his commanding officer, Brigadier-General Jacob Hurd Smith. Smith was charged with having committed “conduct to the prejudice of good order and military discipline.” The court-martial found Smith guilty and recommended an “admonishment” by his superiors.

The Samar Controversy hit the American press just when the US Senate was investigating the abuse of Filipino prisoners of war by the American military. Soldiers back from the islands testified to having observed and participated in the torture of prisoners. They described the common practice of the so-called “water cure,” wherein a person is tied down to a board and a bamboo shaft is inserted into their mouths. Water is then forced into their stomachs and pressure applied to their abdomen, forcing the water back out of their mouths, or, in some cases, causing the stomach to rupture, which can and did lead to the death of prisoners.

Members of Congress and editorials in the nation’s papers called for a severe punishment of General Smith. “In the records of all the great wars since the Middle Ages,” declared Senator Henry M. Teller of Colorado, “you cannot find such a disgraceful and wicked order as that issued by Gen. Smith.” Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, one of the most ardent supporters of the war, stated: “Gen. Smith’s order is one which every American should regret. On the surface those orders seem to me to be revolting.” In the House of Representatives, Republican Joseph C. Sibley of Pennsylvania called on President Theodore Roosevelt “to discharge Smith dishonorably from the service that he has disgraced. …. He is a disgrace … to every man who ever wore the uniform of the United States, and he is a blot and a disgrace to our present civilization.” The New York Times editorialized, “These orders are bloody and cruel to a degree which the American people will not believe to be justified even against the most treacherous savages. They will not regard as fit to remain in the service an officer capable of issuing them.”

The politics of the moment proved fateful. Roosevelt, upon reviewing the records of the court-martial decided against a simple admonishment, as had been recommended by the court. Instead, he forcibly retired Smith, two years before his scheduled departure from the service. Smith learned of his punishment upon his return to the United States, when his ship docked in San Francisco.

From there Smith traveled by train to Portsmouth, where he was given a hero’s homecoming welcome. After dinning with his closest friends and relatives, Smith welcomed newspaper reporters into the home and fielded questions. He attempted to justify his brutal orders. The inhabitants of the interior of Samar were, according to Smith, “savages of the most degraded kind. They were nomads and had no fixed habitation. …. The childhood of the natives is a dream by the time they are thirteen years of age. They are ready to take up the burden of life before that time. …. The natives of Samar are treacherous and barbarous. They mutilate the bodies of the dead in the most horrible manner.”

Smith won over the local press. Perhaps, they had never left his side. One reporter, writing for the Portsmouth Daily Times, opined that “He is a small man, rather slim, and is very bald. He is a neat dresser and in his citizens clothes did not look like the fierce soldier who had carried terror to the hearts of the most savage tribes in the Philippine islands.” Smith may have looked well that evening, but the following day he had a nervous breakdown. The planned formal reception and banquet had to be postponed. Smith’s illness made headlines around the nation, with the New York Times reporting “a complete nervous collapse.”

When Smith had recovered, his supporters in Portsmouth celebrated Smith’s long career of military service and formally welcomed him home. The event was held at the Washington Hotel on the 20th of August, 1902, in the heart of the Bonefiddle District. The Portsmouth Daily Times reporter captured the scene: “The lobby itself was a maze of red, white, and blue. The national colors were everywhere. Bunting circled about the columns, and hung in festoons from the balcony and … railings. Flags were unfurled here and there about the room to give the whole a general artistic effect. Pictures of McKinley, Washington, Grant, and Lincoln, draped with the national colors, hung upon the walls. …. Suspended from the center of the balcony was the greeting “Welcome” prettily made from crimped tissue paper.” The Times also reported that the absence of a portrait of President Theodore Roosevelt “was noted by all who viewed the scene.”

During the after dinner toasts, Smith, wearing his most formal military uniform, addressed the gathering. Again, he sounded unrepentant and the gathered crowd loved him for it. Reviewing his forty-years of army service, Smith declared: “We have fought to make this a united country; to wrest the great West from the hordes of Indian savages and to protect the frontiersman and his wife and children in their homes; to bring the blessings of liberty and good government to our neighboring and distant isles of the sea; to avenge the massacres in the harbor of Havana, to compel obedience to our authority in the Philippine Islands and to pacify and subdue the most savage tribes of the earth.” The Island of Samar, explained Smith, was “peopled by savage tribes who do not recognize any rules of civilized warfare, but are treacherous and brutal to the lowest degree. Still, they must be brought into subjugation, and kept so until they learn that the purpose is to give them freedom and the blessings of that good government which we enjoy.” Spontaneous applause interrupted the speech numerous times and upon its conclusion, Smith received a standing ovation and another round of three cheers for “Portsmouth’s General.”

The General’s defenders in the press and in Congress claimed that he had been singled out and punished for political reasons, that other officers had implemented similar orders and the brutal tactics of taking no prisoners had been practiced at various times throughout the archipelago by American forces. The press and influential members of both political parties, however, demanded that some high-ranking official be held accountable.

In the first weeks and months after his forced retirement, Jacob Smith hoped he would be reinstated; rather than blame his superior officers for their role in setting the general policies and standards of conduct of US forces, he kept his silence, claiming the circumstances on the islands required what might be construed to be brutal and uncivilized tactics in other places, particularly if it those tactics were used against Americans – an odd and racist form of moral relativism. However, Jacob Smith would ultimately try to shift some of the responsibility for his actions on to the shoulders of his superiors.

In 1906, Smith authorized his nephew, the newly elected Congressman Henry T. Bannon, to vindicate his honor on the floor of the House of Representatives. Bannon, for the first time, revealed part of the orders that had been issued to his uncle on the eve of the Samar campaign. “I do not propose to hamper you at all,” General Adna R. Chaffee had written to Smith, “but on the contrary, give you all the assistance you need to crush the insurrection in Samar…. The interior must be made a wilderness if that is the only remedy.” General Chaffee’s words never amounted to an express command to kill “everything over ten” or to violently torture and humiliate prisoners, as had General Smith’s express orders. Yet, there is no doubt that responsibility for war crimes went higher than one-star generals and were more widespread than might appear because of the handful of courts-martial.

Rather than hold those at the highest levels of the military responsible, where the general policy and orders originated, President Roosevelt scapegoated low-ranking generals, like Jacob Hurd Smith. For Smith and his supporters in Portsmouth, it was pure politics. “To my knowledge,” Smith told a crowd in 1911, “Theodore Roosevelt has never hesitated in sacrificing a friend to further his own insane ambitions and desires for popularity.”

When “Hell Roaring” Jake Smith died in 1918, his remains were transported from Portsmouth, Ohio, to Washington, D.C., where he was buried with honors in Arlington National Cemetery.


“Comes Home: Greeted by People and the Dear Old Mother. Gen. Jacob Smith Arrives and Militia and Band Make his Escort,” Portsmouth Times (11 August 1902).

“Smith Exalted by Fellow-Townsmen. Not a Picture of Roosevelt was Seen at Banquet Given Soldier,” Akron Times-Democrat (21 August 1902).

Nelson W. Evans, "General Jacob Hurd Smith," A History of Scioto County, Ohio, Together with a Pioneer Record of Southern Ohio (Portsmouth, Ohio, 1902).

Andrew Feight, "The Infamous 'Hell-Roaring' Jacob Smith, Portsmouth's General," Portsmouth Free Press 2nd Series, Vol. 1, no. 2 (November-December 2005).

Paul Kramer, “Debating torture and counterinsurgency—a century ago,” New Yorker (25 February 2008).

Manila News (4 November 1902).

“Results of the Philippine ‘Atrocities’ at Washington,” Literary Digest (10 May 1902).

David Silbey, A War of Frontier and Empire: The Philippine-American War, 1899-1902 (Hill & Wang, 2007).

“‘Water Cure’ for Filipinos is Followed by Court-Martial for Gen. Jacob H. Smith,” San Francisco Call (22 April 1902).