The next project for my “Law and Theater” discussion is Anne Nelson’s 2007 play “Savages” (not to be confused with Christopher Hampton’s play of the same name). In a sense, this is a continuation of my previous discussion of “Breaker Morant” by Kenneth G. Ross (found here, here, and here, for those who might have missed it the first time around). Both of these plays deal with the same themes (the treatment of prisoners during a guerilla war), both are set at approximately the same time (early 1902), and both are based on historical events. “Savages” is set during the Philippine-American War, and deals with the actions of USMC Major Littleton Waller Tazewell Waller on the island of Samar.


As always with the “Law and Theater” series, this entry will outline the basic historical facts of the case. Next week, I will review the play itself and discuss the various legal issues it raises.


The Philippine-American War (1899-1902)


In the aftermath of the Spanish-American War of 1898, the United States annexed the Philippine Islands from Spain. In return, the United States paid Spain $20 million.


Many Filipinos were less than thrilled with this transaction, however. In 1896, Filipinos, led by Andrés Bonifacio and Emilio Aguinaldo, began a revolution against the Spanish authorities. Aguinaldo eventually became the supreme leader of this movement. Afer the Battle of Manila Bay, Aguinaldo’s forces assisted Admiral George Dewey and General Wesley Merritt against the Spanish. On January 1, 1899, Aguinaldo was named President of what was later known as the First Philippine Republic.


On December 21, 1898, President William McKinley issued the Proclamation of Benevolent Assimilation, announcing the annexation of the Philippines. This proclamation was released by U.S. authorities in the Philippines on January 4, 1899. The next day, Aguinaldo issued two statements denouncing the annexation. On the evening of February 4, 1899, the first shots in the Battle of Manila were fired, thus igniting the conflict.


The Balangiga Massacre (September 28, 1901)


By 1901, the war had evolved into a guerilla conflict. On August 11, 1901, a company of the U.S. 9th Infantry Regiment arrived in Balangiga, the third largest town on the southern coast of Samar. The soldiers were to close the port and prevent its use by Filipino forces on Samar. Initially, relations between the soldiers and the villagers were cordial. But by late September, tensions were on the rise.


Early on the morning of September 28, 1901, approximately 500 villagers attacked the garrison. They took the soldiers almost completely by surprise. In the ensuing battle, 36 soldiers were killed, another 22 were wounded, 4 were missing in action. 8 others later dies of their wounds. Only 4 men of Company C were unwounded. The Filipinos lost 28 killed and 22 wounded in the action.


Newspapers in the United States quickly dubbed this the “Balangiga Massacre,” and made comparisons with Custer’s Last Stand. The military governor of the Philippines, Major General Adna R. Chaffee, was given orders to immediately pacify Samar. Chaffee, in turn, passed the duty on to Brigadier General Jacob H. Smith. According to his entry on Wikipedia (the Internet’s only true source of information….), General Smith had the following exchange with Major Waller:


General Smith:            I want no prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn, the more you kill and burn the better it will please me. I want all persons killed who are capable of bearing arms in actual hostilities against the United States.

Major Waller:              I would like to know the limit of age to respect, sir?

General Smith:                        Ten years.”

Major Waller:              Persons of ten years and older are those designated as being capable of bearing arms?

General Smith:                        Yes.


Major Littleton Waller


Littleton Waller Tazewell Waller in 1905, after his promotion to Colonel. From Wikipedia

Major Waller joined the Marines as a Second Lieutenant in 1880. He had seen sea duty with the European Squadron aboard the U.S.S. Lancaster, and had participated in a landing operation during the British naval bombardment of Alexandria in 1882.


During the Spanish-American War, her served as the commander of the Marine detachment on board the U.S.S. Indiana, and was present during the naval Battle of Santiago. After the battle was over, Captain Waller was ordered to launch the Indiana’s whaleboats and rescue as many Spanish sailors as possible. For his actions, Waller was later awarded the Specially Meritorious Service Medal.


In 1900, Waller, now promoted to Major, was ordered to China to take part in the multinational effort to relieve Peking during the Boxer Rebellion. Waller and his marines saw action at Tientsin and Peking. For his actions in China, he received a brevet promotion to Lieutenant Colonel (and later received the Marine Corps Brevet Medal when it was created in 1921).


The Samar Campaign


Major Waller and a Marine battalion of 315 men arrived on Samar on October 22, 1901. After some success pacifying the southern part of the island, General Smith ordered Waller to scout a potential telegraph line from the east to west coasts of the island. This route led through uninhabited jungle. On December 28, 1901, Waller set out with 60 Marines, 2 Filipino scouts, and 33 Filipino porters. Facing terrible conditions and poor supply lines, Waller and his men were soon in dire straights. Many of the men were sick, and the command was running out of food. On January 3, 1902, Waller divided his command. He and 14 men went for help at Basey, on the west coast of Samar. The remainder of the command, under Captain David D. Porter, remained in the jungle. Captain Porter later further divided this group, taking 7 marines and 6 porters back to Lanang, on the east coast. The remainder of the men were left under the command of Lieutenant A.S. Williams.


Waller reached Basey on January 6. Porter reached Lanang on January 11. Both men then set out to rescue Williams. Waller and Porter linked up on January 16. Williams and his ragged band were rescued on January 18. By this time, 10 Marines had died, 1 had gone insane, and the porters had mutinied. When the command reached Lanang, 11 porters were arrested.


After an investigation, Waller ordered the execution of the porters, without trial, for treason, theft, disobedience, and general mutiny. He reported the executions to General Smith, who passed the report to General Chaffee.


Waller’s Court Martial


General Chaffee ordered an investigation, and Waller was court martialed. The trial began on March 17, 1902.


Waller’s defense was not that he was following General Smith’s orders to leave Samar a “howling wilderness.” Instead, he used General Order Number 100, authorizing excessive force, to justify his actions. The prosecution then called General Smith as a rebuttal witness. Smith attempted to throw Waller under the bus, stating under oath that he had not issued any special orders to Waller.


Waller called three other officers to verify his version of Smith’s stories. He also provided copies of every order Smith had given him. He also testified that Smith had ordered him to execute every Filipino over the age of 10.


The court voted 11-2 to acquit Waller. As a result of Waller’s testimony, General Smith was court martialed. Smith was convicted, and his sentence was “to be admonished by the reviewing authority.” Secretary of War Elihu Root recommended that Smith be retired. President Theodore Roosevelt accepted this recommendation. Smith retired from the Army and suffered no additional punishment.




Next week, I will examine the legal issues brought up in the play itself. This will include a more detailed discussion of General Order Number 100, and its application during the Philippine-American War.

Be Sociable, Share!

About W. Lewis Black

W. Lewis Black is an associate attorney at Dunn & Dunn, P.C., located in Salt Lake City, Utah. His practice focuses on personal injury, employment law, workers compensation, and Social Security Disability claims. He is a past member of the Ensemble at Pinnacle Acting Company in Midvale, Utah. He can be contacted at
This entry was posted in Law and Theater and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Bob Couttie says:

    As someone deeply interested in the Balangiga incident, and author of a published book (Hang The Dogs: The true tragic history of the Balangiga Massacre) I was very interested to find this blog and look forward to reading your commentary on the play.

    • Thanks for your comments, Bob. I apologize for the delay in getting Part II posted (I’ve been very busy with my paying job recently). I hope to finish it this weekend. I will have to check out your book. These reviews are hardly comprehensive, and any additional information I can find is always welcome.

      Thanks for visiting the blog!

  2. Bob Couttie says:

    I looked at the link to the play and found this “SAVAGES takes place in 1902, a few years after the United States invaded the Philippines to free them from Spanish colonial rule. But American troops now find themselves fighting a long, costly war against the people they originally came to liberate.”

    This is a rather revisionist view and far from the documented evidence.

    • I think that synopsis was written by the publishers of the play. It’s mainly marketing, to get people visiting the Dramatists website (or reading their catalog) to buy a copy.

      That being said, I agree that it’s not an accurate assessment of the historical record.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *