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The Spanish American War and the Philippine American War:

What is the difference, and why do my family documents mean something different from what they say?
By Patrick McSherry

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One of the greatest points of confusion for those doing genealogical research concerning the 1898-1906 era is the difference between the Spanish American War, the Philippine American War, and the Philippine Insurrection. Also, there is great confusion as to why an official government document may state "Spanish American War" and you find  that your relative's regiment did not exist during the Spanish American War. This article should help clarify these issues.

The Basic Differences - Spanish American War and Philippine American War:

The Spanish American War lasted from late April (the date varies a few days as to when the "official" beginning occurred - April 22, 23, or 25) to December 10, 1898 when it ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris between the U.S. and Spain. It only lasted eight months (click here for a chronology). The Spanish American War was a global war, being fought physically in the Philippines, Guam, Puerto Rico and Cuba. In addition, it was fought politically in the home countries as well as in diverse places such Egypt, and Hawaii. Particularly important also is that the war was fought between the U.S. and Spain. This may sound obvious, but is a point of confusion. Lastly, the Filipinos served as an active defacto, but unofficial, U.S. ally. The Spanish American War Centennial Website (of which this page is a part) addresses this conflict.

In contrast, the Philippine American War began on February 4, 1899 (a month and a half after the Spanish American War ended). It was a conflict local to the Philippines, being fought between the U.S. and the Filipinos in the archipelago. The war lasted officially until 1902, though fighting did occur as late as 1906. In short, the war was longer, much more bloody, but was not a global conflict. Significantly, the war was fought between the U.S. and the Filipinos. Spain was not involved. It was a separate and different conflict from the Spanish American War.

What was the "Philippine Insurrection":

The Philippine American War was formerly termed the "Philippine Insurrection" by the U.S. The term is no longer accepted, since, as pointed out by the government of the Philippines, the conflict did not fit the definition of an insurrection. For it to have been an insurrection, the U.S. would have had to have been in some sort of basic control of the archipelago when the conflict commenced. In fact, the U.S. only controlled Manila, Cavite, Manila Bay, and the water surrounding the archipelago. It had no troops, and no governmental control elsewhere. As a result, the action was, in fact, a war. The conflict has now be termed the "Philippine American War" by the U.S. government, and the conflict is so listed at places such as the Library of Congress. This is not revisionist history...its simply a clarification that is more accurate.

So...Why the Confusion?

The confusion enters the picture at the outbreak of the Philippine American War. When the war broke out, the U.S. forces who were present to fight were basically the same forces which had fought in the Spanish American War. It was not understood at the time that the skirmishes were a prelude to a new, longer, bloody struggle. When the Spanish American War veterans who were now fighting against the Filipinos were wounded or killed, pensions were issued from the Spanish American War pension fund. It made sense. They were Spanish American War veterans afterall.

However, shortly, more troops arrived to fight in the action – tens of thousands more. These were men who joined after the Treaty of Paris was signed, and had no plans to fight Spain. Still, when they were wounded or killed, the government continued its procedure of issuing pensions from the Spanish American War pension fund. A new Philippine American War pension fund was never created. So, men who were involved in fighting as late as 1906 in the Philippine American War- eight years after the Spanish American War ended - collected Spanish American War pensions! In addition, the government added veterans of the Chinese Relief Expedition ("Boxer Rebellion") to the mix, even though this conflict was fought only in China.

Of course, to collect a pension, the paperwork must be filed correctly. The pensions were paid out of the Spanish American War Pension Fund, so the pension records had to read “Spanish American War.” In fact, all related government documents – including gravestones – followed suit. As a result, all of these government records list all Philippine American War veterans and Chinese Relief Expedition veterans as “Spanish American War Veterans.” This has come down to us today and it is still creating havoc among genealogists who do not realize the difference. The documents do not differential between the two conflicts. This is somewhat akin to listing all Korean War vets as World War Two vets instead, which everyone would recognize as being incorrect.

It should be noted that the United Spanish War Veterans (U.S.W.V.), a private organization for veterans of the conflict, similar to the modern American Legion or Veterans of Foreign Wars, followed the government’s lead. It accepted veterans who fought in these same conflicts. This served to help swell the ranks, creating a wider base with more income, more political power, etc. Interestingly, the Philippine American War veterans did create their own organization – the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) which still exists today.

Some Clues on How to Tell if a Veteran Served in One War or the Other.

The following assumes that you know that your relative served in the period around the time of the Spanish American War and Philippine American War. It does not apply to other time periods

1. Check their date of enlistment. If they joined after December 10, 1898, they cannot be a Spanish American War veteran! This data would be included in their pension record (we explain how to get these here -click here).

2. Study out the regimental name or abbreviation (click here for help with abbreviations). If it is a federal regiment (it has the U.S. designation), the federal forces only consisted of the following during the war. If a regiment, for instance, is labeled “46th U.S. Volunteer Infantry”, that regiment did not exist during the Spanish American War, and the veteran had to have served at a later date. If the veteran served in the 20th U.S. Infantry, he could have served in either the Spanish American War or Philippine American War. Also, there were, of course, other federal organizations that existed, such as the Corps of Engineers, Signal Corps, Medical Corps, etc. But these designations will not give you a clue as to when the person served.

The 1st through 25th U.S. Infantry regiments
The 1st through 10th U.S. Cavalry regiments
The 1st through 8th U.S. Artillery regiments

The 1st through 10th U.S. Volunteer Infantry regiments
The 1st through 3rd U.S. Volunteer Cavalry regiments
The 1st through 3rd U.S Volunteer Engineers

State regimental unit designations (these have the name of the state in them, like 4th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry) are more difficult to give fast rules on. Each state had its own numbering system. Most started at “1” for the first regiment, others, however, picked up where the Civil War designations ended, and some did not number regiments successively. Here you would need to do some local research. Rosters and unit histories for many military units are included on our Unit Histories and Rosters Page

3. If the unit is designated “CAC” or Coast Artillery Corps…the veteran did not serve in the Spanish American War, since this organization was formed later.

4. Check the veteran’s date of birth. It is very unusual to find anyone born after 1880 who served in the war. Few underage men were able to get in since competition to find a spot in a military unit was intense in 1898. There are some exceptions…navy apprentices could be younger.

A note on gravestones:

Gravestones can be tricky to read. The designation must be read in the proper order.

For instance, a stone may read “2nd Infantry” on one line with the designation “PA” for Pennsylvania below it. This does not mean “2nd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry.” It means “2nd U.S. Infantry” and notes that the veteran was from Pennsylvania!

If the stone reads “2nd PA Inf.” That would mean “2nd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry.” PA is in the regiment title.

We hope that helps!

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