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Eriksmoen: Former officer won Medal of Honor while serving in the Philippines

An undated portrait of James. M. Bell. Special to The Forum

During the turn of the last century, a former officer of the 7th Cavalry, who had spent seven years in northern Dakota Territory (1878 to 1885), was considered “one of the most brilliant and courageous soldiers of his time.”

During the Philippine-American War, “both General Arthur MacArthur and William Howard Taft agreed that (James Franklin) Bell was the most outstanding general.” That esteemed feeling about Bell also extended to President Theodore Roosevelt, who wrote to Bell “congratulating him on his conduct of the war.”

In 1906, the president appointed him as Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army. For 20 years, James F. Bell had served as an officer in the 7th Cavalry. Since his career often mirrored that of James Montgomery Bell, he began to be referred to as J. Franklin Bell to avoid confusion.

When the U.S. declared war on Spain on April 11, 1898, Bell was promoted to major and named chief military information officer of the Philippine Expeditionary Force. He sailed to the Philippines on June 15 and soon found himself involved in combat.

The war officially ended on December 10, 1898, with the signing of the Treaty of Paris, and the Philippine Islands were ceded to the U.S. Many of the Filipinos did not want to exchange Spanish rule for American rule – they wanted independence.

On Feb. 4, 1899, fighting broke out between the Filipino and American forces.

On March 2, 1899, Bell was promoted to captain of the 7th Cavalry and “served with great distinction, part of the time, as Chief of Scouts under General MacArthur.”

On March 20, he was named acting judge advocate and mustering officer of the 8th Corps’ 2nd Division. On April 17, Bell was promoted to major and named as Adjutant General of the U.S. Volunteers.

On July 5, Bell was promoted to colonel of the U.S. 36th Volunteer Infantry, popularly known as the “Suicide Club.” Most of the action took place on the island of Luzon, and the 36th was in the thick of it. Bell was acknowledge as a specialist in guerilla warfare largely because of his encounters with the hit-and-run tactics employed by many northern plains Native-Americans while he served as a 7th Cavalry officer.

On Sept. 9, while in advance of his regiment, Bell encountered heavy fire from surrounding insurgents concealed in bamboo thickets. Directly in front of him was a Filipino captain and six other enemy soldiers. Despite the incoming fire from all around, Bell “charged the seven insurgents with his pistol” and forced them to surrender.

For his “most distinguished gallantry in action,” he was awarded the Medal of Honor. Bell’s courage was summed up in a letter he wrote to a fellow officer, “I would rather die at the front than spend the rest of my life explaining why I was not there.”

On Dec. 5, Bell was promoted to brigadier-general, and on Jan. 7, 1900, he was given command of the 4th Brigade of the 2nd Division. His overall commander was Loyd Wheaton, who had also served at Fort Abraham Lincoln in the 1870s. On July 15, Bell was named Provost Marshal-General of Manila, where his responsibility was to oversee the safety of all of the American personnel in the capital city.

In 1901, William Howard Taft was appointed governor-general of the Philippines, and he and Bell became close friends.

Meanwhile, trouble was occurring in Luzon Province, and Bell was called back into action to put down a revolt that was largely brought about because of the action of General Jacob H. Smith.

After a surprise attack killed 51 American soldiers on the island of Samar, Smith retaliated by giving an order to Major Littleton Waller. The order read: “I wish you to kill and burn, the more you kill and burn, the better it will please me. I want all persons (over the age of 10) killed.”

The soldiers under Bell’s command put down the revolt on April 16, 1902. Bell received letters from both Wheaton and President Roosevelt praising him for his action.

Both Waller and Smith were court-martialed, and Wheaton and Bell were given the responsibility of locating witnesses for the trials. Early in 1902, the War Department wanted Bell to return to his position as commander of the Cavalry School and Staff College, located at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.

However, he believed his work in Luzon was incomplete and asked the Department to delay his reappointment for one year.

On July 1, 1903, Bell became commandant of the school and remained there until April 15, 1906, when President Roosevelt appointed him Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army.

It has been speculated that “Roosevelt, perhaps sensing the new counter-insurgency mission of the United States’ military forces and recognizing Bell’s extraordinary record of achievements in that area, appointed him.”

That counter-insurgency mission was to take place in Cuba. Although Cuba was granted independence through the Treaty of Paris, the U.S. had absolute control over all of Cuba’s treaties, trade agreements, tariffs, and other international dealings. Private companies in the U.S. also dominated the country’s economy.

When unrest began to reveal itself in Cuba, Roosevelt asked his Secretary of War Taft and Bell to come up with a plan of occupation.

Bell recommended the employment of a large network of spies to gather as much information as possible, a surge of troops well in excess of what would normally be needed for such an endeavor, and an effort to keep this mission as low profile as possible.

Roosevelt and Taft agreed. When the regime of Cuba’s new president collapsed in September 1906, Roosevelt ordered 18,000 troops into the country to prevent fighting between rival political groups.

By November 1908, “Cuba was deemed stable enough to allow a gradual withdrawal of American troops.”

When Taft replaced Roosevelt as president in 1909, Bell was retained as chief of staff. He retired on April 26, 1910, and was chosen to command the Philippine Department until 1914.

After commanding a couple of different departments within the U.S., Bell was asked to prepare the newly formed 77th Division for action in World War I. He died on Jan. 8, 1919, two days after the death of Roosevelt, and was buried with honors in Arlington National Cemetery.

In 1940, the U.S. Army purchased a troop ship that was named the USS J. Franklin Bell, in honor of the former chief of staff. Ironically, this ship was involved in some of the heaviest action around the Philippine Islands during World War II.

“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at: