The man who started the Philippine-American War

HISTORY MATTERS - Todd Sales Lucero - The Freeman

This week in 1899, on February 4, a shot was fired that started the Philippine-American War. The man responsible for starting the war was Private William Walter Grayson. Very few Filipinos remember his name and in most Philippine history books, his name is a footnote or is not even mentioned. For a man responsible for a war that killed between 14,200 to 24,200 soldiers with a further 200,000-250,000 civilian casualties, Private Grayson remains one of history’s least-remembered personalities.

He was born on April 9, 1876, in England, to William L. Grayson and Sarah A. Grayson and was only four years old when he left England aboard the ship SS Helvetia. He, his mother, and a brother, John, arrived in New York on April 6, 1880, so it is understood that William Senior arrived earlier. They settled in Nebraska and before enlisting in the army William Junior worked as a hostler, taking care of horses at inns and stables. He enlisted on May 10, 1898, when war broke out between Spain and the United States and within two months, he was in the Philippines.

On the evening of February 4, 1899, after less than a year in the Philippines, he and another Nebraskan private, Orville Miller, were on duty on Sociega Street in Santa Mesa, Manila, when they heard a whistling. Tensions were high between the Americans and locals then, and the two privates thought the whistling was a signal by insurgents. Grayson claimed that they saw a Filipino soldier appear and he told him to halt. When the Filipino did not stop advancing, Grayson decided to shoot. Upon seeing another Filipino, Grayson once more fired a shot. Both Filipinos were killed, with Grayson reporting later that “he got his second Filipino that time.” There are conflicting reports of the event, with some historians writing that the two Filipino soldiers were unarmed. Some accounts also say that it is unclear if there were indeed casualties that night, but many accept that the man Grayson first shot, Corporal Anastacio Felix, was the first casualty of the war. More Filipinos later came up and returned fire and throughout the night, both sides exchanged fire.

While he continued to fight, he was hospitalized from March 31 until May 30 due to rheumatism, exhaustion, malaria, stomachaches, and overexertion. By June, he served as a cook, and by July 1, 1899, after the United States decided to do away with volunteer regiments, Private Grayson and his fellow 1st Nebraska volunteers sailed back to the United States.

The war lasted until 1902, but by then Private Grayson was safely back in America. After being discharged honorably on August 23, 1899, he decided to settle down in California. He married Clara Francesca Peters on October 15, 1899, and by December 1900, he became a US citizen. Because of his infirmities, he was unable to work fully. While he sometimes accepted work as a house painter and undertaker, he retired by 1920 due to health issues. While he applied for pension benefits in 1914, he was only awarded a pension eight years later. At the time of his death on March 20, 1941, his wife had predeceased him and he was living with his adopted daughter in a rented house, surviving only on his measly $60 monthly pension.

While Private William Grayson’s action of February 4, 1899, earned him notoriety, he never used this to his advantage. The only time he accepted his role in the war was through a single line in a 1934 letter sent to Veterans Affairs, writing: I fired the first shot that opened the Philippine Insurrection, February 4, 1899. While his unfortunate act would forever be remembered in the annals of history, very few remember him. As an American author once wrote, “in spite of his unusual role in starting a war, the remainder of Grayson’s life was filled with neither notoriety nor fame.”

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