A week ago, I re-introduced you to Allegra Alazas, the heroine of the upcoming Sugar Moon. She already has a fan club because she stole every scene she could in Under the Sugar Sun.
Her hero (or anti-hero?) is a different kettle of fish. Ben Potter is not someone you were supposed to like in the past book—and yet I always intended to give you his story because it needs to be told.
Ben is loosely based on the real men who served in Company C of the Ninth U.S. Infantry. These men fought at San Juan Hill in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. Just as soon as they returned to their home barracks in upstate New York, they were shipped out again to the Philippines.
What had been meant as a sideshow the war against Spain became the first American imperial war overseas. In March 1899, only one month after tensions between Filipinos and Americans erupted in open combat, the Ninth was sent to reinforce the area around Manila. But they did not stay there long, either. After fighting in several battles that year, they were shipped to China to rescue to the American legation in Beijing (known back then as “Pekin”) during the Boxer War. They scaled the walls of the Forbidden City and camped in the palace grounds.
One might question what the heck America was doing. A war against Spain fought in Cuba had blossomed into a new war in the Philippines that lent soldiers to fight yet another campaign in China. Talk about mission creep. Yikes. Progressives in the Republican Club of Massachusetts claimed in a 1900 leaflet that the end justified the means: “Isn’t Every American proud of the part that American soldiers bore in the relief of Pekin? But that would have been impossible if our flag had not been in the Philippines.”
Once the foreign powers—Europe, Japan, and America—consolidated their hold on mainland China, the Ninth was sent back to the Philippine-American War. Their vacation was the steamer trip to Manila. There, the battle-weary group was given the privilege (and bother) of serving as honor guard for newly-named civilian governor (and future president of the United States), William Howard Taft.
Two years into their overseas rotation, this company of grizzly veterans was sent to one of the roughest outposts in the islands: Balangiga, Samar. Tasked with closing the port to trade—thereby preventing weapon smuggling to the Philippine revolutionaries—Company C settled down to village garrison life.
These men may have been the worst possible choice for this task. By this point, they were unlikely to trust anyone. In addition, some soldiers were likely suffering from what we would now call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Finally, they were cut off from the rest of the world, without even mail call since they were not on the main steamer line. Private Patrick J. Dobbins wrote to his family:
One man in my company went crazy a week ago and escaped to the hills, probably to be killed and eaten by the natives. Another, who was sick unto death, committed suicide this morning at 6 o’clock. His name is Schechterle and he enlisted at the same time I did in Boston. . . . A grave has been dug near our quarters, and a guard of eight men are over the grave. The body is being lowered into the earth. The flag is at half mast. Three volleys are fired, taps is sounded. It is his last call, ‘absent, but accounted for.’ He is better off. Many of us watch him as he is gently lowered with envious eyes.
Though the commanding officer of Company C, Captain Thomas Connell, was a West Point graduate (1894), he did not manage his garrison well. At first too permissive, he became stringent when he realized that his next promotion was on the line. He felt that the villagers were not obeying his commands to “clean up” the streets, so he ordered Company C to round up all the men and keep them prisoner in two tents on the square.
Yes, my character Ben will try to stop all of this from happening, but history is history. He will not be successful. A week later, the town—with help from guerrillas in the jungle—would ambush the company, killing 48 out of 74 Americans. This was real war with real consequences.
Obviously, my imaginary Ben Potter lived—or did he? For families like his in America, it would have been hard to know. Names in the real reports were spelled wrong. Numbers changed. It felt like even the Army did not know who had survived. When I found a real article in the Manila Times about a sister writing to a missing brother, I rewrote it in my mind to fit fiction:
This is a lot of backstory, to be sure. And it is only backstory, not the plot of my book. But I think it is critical history that Americans have forgotten and been doomed to repeat: the Philippines was the Vietnam or Iraq (or Syria?) of the Gilded Age.
Ben lives through these events as a very young man, and they will haunt him for years. Love may not be a cure for combat trauma, but it can encourage Ben to face his past—especially when that past threatens his future with an amazing woman. (Want to read some teasers? There are some here. Enjoy!)
I just revised my Sugar Moon flashback scenes from Balangiga, a horrible incident that Ben Potter barely survived. While I was doing that, I went down a teensy-weensy research rabbit hole. Again.
I wanted to know what a typical morning looked like in the Army in 1901. That’s sort of tough because the Spanish-American War and Philippine-American War were not written about nearly as much as, for example, the Civil War or the Great War. But Google Books and the Rural New Yorker to the rescue! I found out from the (incompletely excerpted) article below that there was an awful lot of bugling:
If you have gone to summer camp, you know what reveille sounds like:
What about the others? The twenty-first century U.S. Army came to the rescue here. The day of a soldier has not changed much in 120 years, it seems.
Here is the tune to assemble for roll call:
After attendance is taken, soldiers were led through basic calisthenics. What did that look like in 1901? Thanks to the Manual of Physical Drill by the U.S. Army (1900), I know it went something like this:
The manual states to: “Never work the men to the point of exhaustion.” I think my active duty and veteran friends would laugh heartily at that one. And I think we all would find something to be desired in the instructions for how to dress for exercise:
Negligée? I have all sorts of images in my head there. All. Sorts. Especially in some of these drills…
And I do not think any of us are going to exchange our moisture-wicking nylon for flannel. Egad.
After the exercises were over, the mess call would be blown:
What happened after that? Well, you will have to wait for Sugar Moon to find out! (Or head on over to my Balangiga page for some serious spoilers. Hint: It doesn’t go well.)
Want to learn more about the setting of the Sugar Sun series? Click on any of the graphics below. To find these places on maps of the Philippines & Manila, click here to go straight to the bottom of this post. Enjoy your visit!
Note: If you are looking for only the history that relates to my newest release, Sugar Moon, you may find a pared down list of posts on this page, “Essential History for Sugar Moon.” Enjoy!
At the start of Under the Sugar Sun, Georgina Potter travels to the Philippines to search for her brother, Ben—a soldier missing since the Philippine-American War. The night she arrives, she walks into a fire set by the cholera police to “cleanse” a neighborhood. Right away we are rooted in the history of the American colonial period.
But why were Americans in the Philippines in the first place? How did war with Spain in the Caribbean turn into an empire in Asia?
Here on my blog, I have written a lot of history—no surprise since it is my day job. Here are links to the most relevant posts, complete with illustrations.
I hope you have enjoyed my snarky view of history, and I hope it enriches your reading of the Sugar Sun series.
My upcoming book, Sugar Moon, will be firmly rooted in history that I believe every American should know: the ambush of a company of American soldiers on September 28, 1901, in Balangiga, Philippines. Most people have never heard of it. What happened that day in Balangiga—and in the months of American counterattacks afterward—has been overshadowed by other towns that Americans do know, ones with names like My Lai and Fallujah. Had we learned the lesson of Balangiga, though, these two towns in Vietnam and Iraq might never have hit the headlines. In fact, they might not be noteworthy at all.
How did I stumble upon Balangiga? When I started plotting my story about an American schoolteacher and a Filipino sugar baron—the story that became Under the Sugar Sun—I did a lot of research at Ateneo de Manila University, where I read through old issues of the Manila Times on microfiche. (By the way, if you want to entertain me, give me two rolls of that microfiche and leave me there all day. It’s like giving a child an iPad. History is my babysitter.) One of the articles I stumbled across was entitled: “Sister Hunting for Brother: His Name is E.L. Evans and He is Supposed to Be in the Philippines.” From there, I conjured up the idea of a missing brother to bring Georgina Potter to the Philippines. Yes, she was hired by the American colonial government to start a school in the Visayas, but her real motive in coming—and for letting herself get entangled with a jerk named Archie—was finding her brother, Ben Potter.
Why was Ben missing? Maybe because he was in a significant battle? Or, at least, a very confusing one? In Under the Sugar Sun, Georgina goes to Army Headquarters in Fort Santiago in Manila to find out, and she lays out all the news articles from a battle in Balangiga. A clerk tries to help her, to no avail:
“Your brother should be in here one way or another.” The clerk put his finger on the article with the list. “Name and rank?”
If it were that easy, she thought, she would not have bothered crossing the Pacific. “Sergeant Benjamin Potter.”
“I see a Ben Cutter,” the clerk said. “That’s probably him.” He sounded sure, as if the U.S. Army made such mistakes all the time. Maybe they did.
In fact, the Army did print various lists with different spellings of names: Dettron or Bastron for Sergeant Frank Betron, the model for Ben Potter. This is one of the reasons why I chose this setting for my character. It makes sense that if he survived, he still might not want to be found. Moreover, several survivors stayed in the Philippines afterward—in Betron’s case, maybe to find a woman from Balangiga. Now, there’s a story there!
So, it was decided: Ben served in Company C, Ninth Infantry, which saw action in China during the Boxer War, and then returned to the Philippines to be stationed in Balangiga. Poor Ben. Poor Balangiga.
Company C occupied this town, and occupation is ugly. It doesn’t matter how you justify it—in this case, blockading the southern coast of Samar so that the guerrillas in the mountains could not be resupplied, a legitimate military purpose. It also doesn’t matter if the occupation starts off peacefully, which it did in Balangiga. It is not going to stay that way. The lesson of occupation throughout world history—no matter whether we are talking about ancient Greek occupation of Jerusalem, Israeli occupation of Lebanon, the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, or the American occupation of the Philippines—things will go downhill.
The Americans called the Filipino guerrillas insurrectionists, and they labeled what happened in Balangiga a massacre, implying that the perpetrators had no just cause. On the other side, Filipinos call their soldiers revolutionaries, and they see the event itself as a just uprising. If you want to avoid all judgment, it was an incident, or more specifically an ambush. I am greatly indebted to Philippine historian Rolando O. Borrinaga and British writer Bob Couttie for their first-hand research and outstanding work on Balangiga. In my version of the story, I have taken some liberties—merging characters to simplify things for the reader, renaming a few people—but I hope that my unwitting mentors will find that I got the big brush strokes right. All errors are my own, of course.
As we will see in Sugar Moon, at first things went okay. Uneasily, but okay. An American officer played chess with the parish priest. The man Sergeant Benjamin Potter is based on studied martial arts with the police chief. Individuals got along. But here’s the rub: if the townspeople became too friendly with the Americans, they would face retribution from the revolutionaries up in the mountains. So the town tried to play it cool, stay neutral.
But the Americans noticed some strange things happening—like sweet potatoes planted in the jungle for the guerrilla soldiers, or townspeople not cutting down banana trees that could provide the guerrillas cover—and the Yanks thought they had been betrayed. They ordered the town to cut down essential food sources, to “clean up” the town. If the town complied, not only would they need to destroy their own property, they would also endanger the understanding they had with guerrillas. I think you probably see where this is going. The reality of a town like this during occupation is that it will be caught in between two armies, and if neither army can truly protect the civilians against the other, the people must try to play one off the other. That is a dangerous game.
The captain of Company C doubled down. He imprisoned the town’s men in conical tents that looked like Native American teepees. These Sibley tents were supposed to sleep 16, but were each jammed full with between 70-90 men and boys who had to sit on their haunches all night. They were not fed dinner, and in the morning they were forced to cut down the food their families depended on. This went on for several days.
The Americans did not see the town turning against them. They only saw their own frustration: they felt alone, vulnerable, on the edge of a hostile island, a day’s travel away from the nearest garrison. Yet they did not expect the ambush. My character Ben will narrate the whole debacle through his flashbacks, which starts with him trying to court a local woman. He’s a proper gentleman, don’t worry, but he’s smitten.
On Sunday, September 28, 1901, the morning after the town fiesta, the police chief attacked the American sentry. A church bell rang. Warriors rushed out of the jungle line east of town. Others dressed as women streamed out of the church with machetes. The American soldiers were eating breakfast. Dozens would die immediately and gruesomely. A little more than half would manage to escape, and several of them would die along the way of their wounds or from other attacks. In total, 48 of 77 Americans would die.
Americans blamed the Filipino revolutionaries—General Lukban’s men in the interior of Samar—but the truth Borrinaga and Couttie uncovered is that the town actually planned the attack themselves. They may have borrowed some men from villages outside Balangiga proper, and they may have coordinated with the revolutionaries, but this was a town fighting back against the soldiers who had imprisoned them.
After that, all hell broke loose. If there is something more violent than the rising up of an occupied people, it is the revenge exacted by a conventional military force armed to the teeth. The American commander in Samar ordered his men to turn the entire island into “a howling wilderness” by striking down all men and boys capable of carrying arms, which he defined as all those over ten years old. (This is in violation of General Order No. 100, which served as the American law of war at this time.) American soldiers made a special trip back to Balangiga to burn down the town and kill anyone in sight. Months of revenge resulted in the deaths of thousands on Samar, maybe as many as 15,000, according to Borrinaga. The destruction was so widespread that it sowed the seeds for a whole new war only three years later.
This was the My Lai moment of the Philippine-American War, and it was just as explosive to the American public as that incident in Vietnam was. For the first time, with the advent of the trans-Pacific telegraph cable, the American public could follow events with an immediacy that had been previously impossible. The excesses of the Army now blanketed newspapers and magazines Stateside. Though military authorities tried to censor the press by controlling the telegraph lines out of Manila, reporters got around this by traveling to Hong Kong to wire their stories. The courts-martial of several American officers made daily headlines, and Senate hearings began on the issue of American atrocities in the Philippines.
But how do you criticize the methods of occupation without questioning the whole endeavor to begin with? You can blame a few “bad apples” to satisfy the public, but is it enough? The general in Samar received a slap on the wrist from the court-martial that followed, and though popular outcry in the US later forced President Roosevelt to demand the general’s retirement, the punishment still didn’t fit the crime. The general retired with a full pension. Similarly, the American lieutenant in command at My Lai, convicted of murdering 22 Vietnamese civilians, served only seven months of house arrest and then was pardoned. In both cases, “marked severities” divided the American public.
My character Ben tried hard to be better than the rest, but what happened in Balangiga tortures him. You are not supposed to have liked him in Under the Sugar Sun, and he does not like himself much, either. He suffers from Post Traumatic Stress disorder, something that two of my very best friends share with him. Soldiers with PTSd struggle with guilt, depression, substance abuse, anger management, insomnia, and other health problems. I am greatly indebted to these friends for letting me put some of their worst fears on the page. I hope they will also appreciate the redemptive journey Ben goes through and the healing power of love that he finds. They would tell me this is far too simplistic a cure, but I think they want Ben to have a happily-ever-after, so it’s okay.
George Santayana wrote in 1905: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It is fitting he said so at the outset of what was later called the American Century. The vigorous debate about the use of military force abroad—and it’s aftereffects like PTSd—are familiar to people today. But they were not really a part of American discourse until the Philippine-American War. America’s professional army was born out of this war. Before 1898, the entire US Army was smaller than today’s New York City Police Department. Most of the Spanish-American War had to be fought with state volunteers whose enlistments lasted only a year. When hostilities broke out in Philippines, Congress promptly doubled the size of the regular army once, and then doubled it again. For the first time in its history, America had a significant standing army stationed far from its borders.
Maybe it is not good enough to just remember the past. You should experience it yourself. That’s the garden where empathy grows. That’s where you get all the feels. I hope Sugar Moon helps.