Battle Across the Zapote River
PHILIPPINES WAR 1889
BATTLE ACROSS THE ZAPOTE RIVER
In one of the largest and fiercest battles of the Philippines War, an American division routed a Filipino army south of Manila in June 1899.
From VFW Magazine, June 1999.
New York Times correspondent called it “the liveliest engagement of the war.” Next to the battle for Manila itself five months earlier and up until that time, the Battle of the Zapote River on June 13, 1899, was indeed the biggest.
It pitted 3,000 soldiers against a Filipino force of perhaps 5,000 in a conventional face off. The Times reported it was “the largest and best organized body of men which has met American troops.” It also featured the first artillery duel with an enemy battery, as well as a major naval bombardment.
By mid-1899, the Filipino army had retreated into the hills of Luzon. But it remained a threat, so a reconnaissance-in-force was ordered to clear the countryside between Manila Bay and Laguna de Bay south of the city.
A newspaper correspondent accompanying the expedition, with typical melodrama, described the supposed mood of the men on the eve of the campaign. He wrote: “The lust for war was in our blood—and we knew that tomorrow would show us the terrible beauty of skilled and legal murder!” It is highly unlikely that such sentiments were shared by the seasoned combat veterans.
A division of two provisional brigades commanded by Brig. Gen. Loyd Wheaton and Gen. Samuel Ovenshine took separate routes south on June 10. This hike in the sun, harassed all the way by enemy ambushes, was brutal. Wheaton reported:
“The march at this point had been one of great fatigue. The temperature was from 100 to 110 degrees in the sun, no wind blowing, and the country passed over was destitute of wells or springs, and covered by high grass. The men were carrying about 30 pounds each and there was much suffering from the excessive heat, but nearly all the men who had fallen out rejoined while my command was halted at the well.”
Both brigades met as planned about seven miles south of Manila. The battle opened when Companies F and I, 21st Infantry, were ambushed near Bacoor by 1,000 Filipinos. Fighting was intense. With their ammo exhausted, the infantrymen had to break through the enemy flank.
Capt. William H. Sage earned the Medal of Honor for his actions. His citation read: “With nine men he volunteered to hold an advanced position and held it against a terrific fire of the enemy estimated at 1,000 strong. Taking a rifle from a wounded man, and cartridges from the belts of others, Capt. Sage himself killed five of the enemy.”
Meanwhile, Adm. George Dewey’s fleet had been at work in Manila Bay providing naval gunfire support. Gunboats Callao, Manila and Mosquito silenced a Filipino artillery piece at Cavite Viejo. The Helena, Princeton, Monterey and Monadnock soon joined in the fray, shelling the towns of Paranaque and Las Pinas. Observing the seven warships in action, the Times reported that “...the upper bay presented the appearance of being the scene of a great naval battle.”
Army action centered around a rickety wooden bridge spanning the Zapote River. A company of the 14th Infantry and D Battery, 6th Artillery, led the charge against trench defenses five feet thick and occupied by 4,000 Filipinos.
With its 3.2-inch field gun, Battery D took out an enemy battery and broke the defenses at 30 yards, losing two men KIA.
“A thousand rifles blending into a continuous roar” finally drove the Filipinos from their trenches. Men of the 14th swam the river, seizing deserted rifle pits. Lawton wired Otis: “We are having a beautiful battle, hurry up ammunition, we will need it.”
With reinforcements - 82 bluejackets from the warships who landed behind the enemy’s rear and elements of the 9th and 12th Infantry regiments - the Americans next assaulted breastworks about a mile away. The 21st in the meantime drove the Filipinos from their last line of defense near the bridge.
A rebel rear guard fought vigorously as the main body escaped into bamboo groves. Soldiers in pursuit encountered well-concealed Filipinos. Lawton rode his black stallion back and forth across the front line, shouting commands as Mauser bullets hit the dirt all around him.
As insurgent forces withdrew inland, Lawton led a troop of the 4th Cavalry unopposed into Bacoor, which had been reduced to rubble by the U.S. Navy. The Battle of the Zapote River was over. U.S. casualties totaled 14 KIA and 61 WIA. Filipinos lost an estimated 150 killed and 375 wounded.
Company "K", Fourteenth U. S. Infantry Regiment, shown here after it's return to Manila from China in 1900, was among the units that fought desperately at the Battle of the Zapote River on June 13, 1899. Sharpshooters of the 14th led the campaign.
Battle Across the Zapote River: VFW Magazine, June 1999
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Last modified: January 20, 2013