Frederick Funston: The General Who Almost Led American Forces in World War I

Frederick Funston: The General Who Almost Led American Forces in World War I

The General that President Wilson had originally Selected to lead America in World War I was not Pershing—it was General Frederick Funston.

Key Point: Heavy responsibility exacted its toll on General Funston.

Looking at a 1917 newspaper photo of Frederick Funston, barely 5 feet 4 inches tall and weighing just a biscuit over a hundred pounds, today’s reader would wonder whatever made U.S. President Woodrow Wilson select such a tiny fellow as leader of the American Expeditionary Force into France—when and if the United States was to involve itself in World War I.

But Funston, who was born in 1865, cast a large shadow during his brief life—rising from raw recruit with the revolutionary forces of Cuban generals Calixto Garcia y Iniguez and Maximo Gomez, to a major generalship in the Regular U.S. Army. Beginning in his teens, Funston lived the adventures of a dime novel hero and survived an exceptional amount of combat.

Son of a former Union Army artilleryman, Ohio-born Funston moved, while still an infant, with his family to the primitive town of Iola, Kans. Funston’s mother imported the first piano as well as the first bathtub into Iola. A neighbor thought the tub was a new kind of coffin and asked who had died.

Funston’s father—a 6-foot, 200-pounder with the vocal chords of a giant—was a politically oriented successful farmer. Elected to Congress, his loud voice earned him the nickname “Foghorn,” although for obvious reasons he preferred what his constituents called him—“The Farmer’s Friend.” He was a strict teetotaler, but his son “had a throat like a dry crust” that needed alcoholic attentions, which consequently set a wall between the two.

Young Fred’s boyhood was normal for the times—fishing and hunting outscoring his interest in schoolwork—but after Iola High School he tried for an appointment to West Point. Ironically, but perhaps understandably, he failed to qualify academically as well as physically.

The Beginning of Funston’s Uncanny Luck

So he went to the University of Kansas where his grades were less than remarkable but where his ability to be in the right place matched his uncanny luck at being there at the right time. For example, among the friends he made at university was the young William Allen, later to be a world-famous editor who, by the early 1900s, became a personal friend of President Theodore Roosevelt.

The beginnings of this career gave no hints of Funston’s latent military talents, but his early activities were tributes to his extraordinary pluck. For instance, during a summer vacation from college, Funston took a job as a railroad ticket collector on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad, a line noted for the unruly behavior of its cowboy passengers. One of them once refused Funston’s request for his ticket, pointing out that his revolver was ticket enough. Funston said, “Good! That’s good,” and went on his way. But minutes later, he returned with a cocked weapon of his own, saying, “I’ll take your ticket now, if you don’t mind,” and did so.

Initially unimpressed with his diminutive size, the rough crowd that rode his route saddled him with the disparaging nickname of “The Toy Collector.” But by the end of his tour, his nickname had changed radically. All along the tracks, Funston became known as the “Human Marmot”—a man with “death in his right fist and lingering illness in his left!”

Obviously, a spirit like Funston’s chafed at conventional college life—he had no aptitude for organized study but spent free hours in the library absorbing what he found interesting. He also disregarded the Kansas temperance laws, and after a row with Foghorn, young Fred persuaded him to pull Washington political strings and secure him a botanist’s job with the Department of Agriculture. A few months’ pleasant apprenticeship in the Montana grasslands preceded nine months of broiling hell in California’s Death Valley, enduring temperatures of 127 degrees.

The following year, 1892, Funston went to the other extreme on assignment in Alaska’s frozen mountains where his activities established a record for the longest snowshoe trip ever accomplished by a white man. And in 1894, his astonishing solo canoe paddle of 1,100 miles down the Yukon River to the sea moved his friend White to write: “No bugles sounded on his return. Yet for continued hardships, unceasing danger and uninterrupted adventure, probably this trip has been unexcelled by any other on this continent in a century.”

When the Iola Register published accounts of his journeys, Funston had a brief fling as a newspaperman. It ended when, in the editor’s absence, he substituted his own opinions for what was supposed to appear on the front page.

Still restless in 1896, he drifted to New York City trying to raise capital for a coffee plantation venture in Mexico. And once again, the right place coincided with the right time. Passing the famous auditorium known as Madison Square Garden, Funston saw a notice that former Union Army General Daniel Edgar Sickles was inside whipping up an enthusiastic crowd over the question of freedom for the Spanish island colony of Cuba.

Cuba Libre Convert

Sickles, who lost a leg leading a corps at Gettysburg in 1863, recently had been American Ambassador to Spain, and it was said that in this capacity he’d had the gall to order the Spaniards to leave the island. True or not, Sickles had then been ordered to leave Spain.

Curious, Funston strolled in to hear what Sickles had to say.

The Funston who emerged several hours later was a convert to “Cuba Libre!” and was determined to become an active participant in the effort to bring this about.

Somehow wangling an introduction to Sickles, Funston learned that the Cuban Patriot Army valued a man with knowledge of field artillery. Consequently he bought a book on the subject, boned up on it, and presented himself to Cuban exile headquarters. In the interim, he’d also taken practical instruction on the operation of the Hotchkiss 12-pounder breech-loading cannon from an arms dealer, and within short order, the son of Union Army artilleryman “Foghorn” Funston became Ordnance Advisor to the Cuban Patriot Army.

In that capacity—although his only experience with live artillery firing had been hearing a 21-gun salute for then U.S. President Rutherford Birchard Hayes at a state fair—he conducted a live demonstration for his Patriot Army superiors with the as yet unproven Sims-Dudley dynamite gun. Setting up on a remote Long Island beach a few miles east of New York City, the group watched the weapon erratically lob shells into Long Island Sound. The resultant hundred-foot geysers in the vicinity of a passing excursion boat understandably created on-board panic and terminated the demonstration—but the sale was closed.

The gun and Funston went off to Cuba, and after two years of constant combat, Funston returned to Kansas broke and in poor health. He’d contracted malaria, been shot through both lungs, one of his arms had been snapped, and both legs had been crushed under a dead horse, causing a painful hip abscess.

Despite these agonies, Funston still managed to be one of the first volunteers when the United States finally went to war with Spain in April of 1898. Aware of his Cuban experience, Kansas Governor John Leedy gave the 33-year-old Funston a colonelcy in one of the three regiments the state was raising from scratch, the 20th Kansas Volunteers. Significantly, the 20th’s ranks included several privates who’d resigned commissions in the National Guard because they figured a man with Funston’s Cuban experience would be among the first ashore when the island was invaded.

“The Smartest Thing I Ever Did in My Life”

But he wasn’t. The debarkation port of Tampa, Fla. was a chaotic monument to mismanagement, and there weren’t enough transport ships to accommodate more than 60 percent of the assembled troops. While other officers—such as Rough Riders Theodore Roosevelt and his colonel, Leonard Wood—reaped lifelong glory from the brief Cuban fight, Funston had to lead his frustrated Kansans in the other direction—to occupation duty in the former Spanish colony in the Philippine Islands.

En route, however, following an uncomfortable train ride to San Francisco, Colonel Funston found reward in the West. After a six-week courtship, he married a local girl, Eda Blankart—an act that he characterized as “the smartest thing I ever did in my life.”

But within days of his marriage, bridegroom Funston was at sea—bound for the Philippines and events that propelled him into the national spotlight for the rest of his days. The 20th Kansas was part of the U.S. force—under Maj. Gen. Arthur MacArthur—sent to the islands to ease the transition from the iron rule of the defeated Spaniards to eventual self-government.

The Filipinos, however, mistakenly imagined immediate self-government after 400 years of the Spanish yoke and were deaf to warnings about the vacuum created by the Spaniards’ departure. With no experience in governing their asset-rich homeland, they could easily lose it to the colony-hungry Japanese, or the Germans, or even the British, who were said to have “conquered half the world in a fit of absentmindedness.” To forestall any of this, the administration of U.S. President William McKinley—whom Theodore Roosevelt had earlier denounced as having “the backbone of a chocolate eclair”—authorized the questionable task of occupying the Philippine Islands “for their own good.”