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Volunteers from Kansas' Fighting 20th won over nation

  • Published Sunday, Nov. 1, 2009, at 11:02 p.m.
  • Updated Monday, Nov. 2, 2009, at 6:14 a.m.

This is one in a series of vignettes celebrating Kansas history. The series' name comes from the state motto, Ad astra per aspera: "To the stars through difficulties."

More than a century ago, the Fighting 20th won the hearts of a nation.

The 20th was made up of Kansas soldiers who volunteered to fight in the Spanish-American War and then the Philippine Insurrection, experiencing months of intensive hand-to-hand combat.

Declaring the 20th the “backbone of my division,” Brigadier General of U.S. Volunteers Arthur MacArthur — father of future General Douglas MacArthur — praised the regiment for 30 engagements under enemy fire. In the process, it lost more men than any other regiment in the nation.

MacArthur wired Washington to tell the nation: “Kansans a mile ahead of the line. Will stop them if I can.”

When they came home on Nov. 2, 1898, the Kansans were greeted by 75,000 people who gave them a 13-gun salute and a nine-band parade, praising them because they were volunteers.

“The greater part of the engagements they fought and most of the losses of life were incurred when the regiment was under no obligation for further service,” said Lt. Col. Doug Jacobs, command historian of the Kansas National Guard Museum in Topeka.

The Spanish-American war began, in part, because of the Cuban fight for independence. American leaders wanted Spain to relinquish its control over its overseas territories, including Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam.

When the Spanish-American War ended, the 20th quickly became involved in the Philippines.

The Kansan who helped lead the fight there was Frederick Funston, who became a national hero.

In 1896, Funston went to Cuba, where he joined Cuban forces fighting for their independence from Spain.

In two years there, he lost 17 horses, fought in 22 battles, was shot through both lungs and an arm, and had malaria.

While recovering from his wounds, he was promoted by Kansas Gov. William Stanley to colonel of the Fighting 20th Kansas Regiment, which he then led into the Philippine Islands.

Under Funston’s leadership, the Fighting 20th took part in a special mission in which notorious rebel leader Emilio Aguinaldo was captured.

At 34, Frederick Funston received the Congressional Medal of Honor and was named brigadier general, becoming the youngest general in the U.S. Army in 1899.

In 1906, Funston was in charge of the Army’s Department of California at the Presidio in San Francisco when an earthquake struck, leaving 300,000 people homeless and much of the city crumbled and burning.

Funston helped organize troops to feed and give aid to San Franciscans.

Wichita’s Riverside Park has a Spanish cannon in recognition of the Fighting 20th.

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com.

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