Letter from William H. Sears
- Explaining how Frederick Funston was selected
- Colonel of the 20th Kansas Vol. Inf.
February 27, 1917
Mr. Richard J. Oulahan
New York Times Bureau
My dear Mr. Oulahan:
It is a story of a woman's whim, a story of bitter disappointment on the one hand and the achievement of a life long ambition on the other, a story of how Governor John W. Leedy slated one man to lead the 20th Kansas and was suddenly induced to change his plans and commissioned Funston colonel of the most famous regiment in the war with Spain.
When the sinking of the Battleship Maine in Havana Harbor plunged this country into war with Spain, it found John H. Leedy the Populist Governor of Kansas, myself, who had only recently commanded the National Guard of Kansas ranking as brigadier general, serving as the private secretary to Senator William A. Harris in Washington, D.C., and Frederick Funston, only recently returned from a 15 months' service with the Cuban Revolutionists with the rank of lieutenant colonel, on the platform lecturing on his thrilling experiences on the battle fields of Cuba. At the Abiline Convention I had acted as campaign manager for Colonel William A. Harris in his contest for nomination as Governor, and at the crucial moment after Harris had withdrawn I turned the Harris votes, then numbering 187, to Leedy and secured his nomination. In the campaign that followed I managed Senator Harris' campaign before the Kansas Legislature for United States Senator, and upon Harris' election to the Senate went to Washington with him as his private secretary. When the war with Spain came on I immediately wrote to Governor Leedy tendering my services, and the Governor was about to wire me to come to Kansas and take command of the 20th Kansas when the incident happened that changed the fortunes of two men and temporarily, at least, those of a woman.
The day before the declaration of war with Spain this woman was refused a pass for the next day by Senator Harris for a friend to the Senators' private gallery, and her disappointment and resentment at this refusal was so great that she sent a special dispatch to a Kansas newspaper in which she represented Senator Harris as criticizing Governor Leedy for his methods in the organization of the Kansas contingent for the war with Spain. This newspaper did not reach Washington until three days later, but Governor Leedy read this dispatch the day it was published, and was furious over it. Evidently linking the private secretary with the Senator, in giving out this interview, Governor Leedy told his private secretary, Colonel Edward T. Little, Congressman elect from the Second District, succeeding Hon. Joseph Taggart now in Congress, that he did not intend to send for "General Sears." "Then who are you going to appoint colonel of the 20th Kansas?" asked his secretary. "I am going to appoint you, Ed," replied the Governor. "I can not take the colonelsy, Governor, for I am not qualified, but I would be glad to have you appoint me lieutenant colonel," said Colonel Little. "I will be glad to do that, Ed, but who shall I appoint for colonel?" said the Governor. "Frederick Funston," relied Little. "Oh, but he is a black partisan Republican," replied Governor Leedy.
Then Colonel Little urged the Governor to banish partisanship in time of war and recognize all political parties in his distribution of commissions. After some argument and discussion the Governor agreed to this, and he was the only governor in the United States who pursued this policy during the was with Spain. Governor Leedy directed his secretary to telegraph Funston at once to come to Topeka.
In a long conversation I had with General Funston in my law office at Lawrence, Kansas, when he was en route from Florida and Washington to join his regiment at San Francisco, he told me that he was in Leavenworth, Kansas, ready to deliver one of his lectures when Colonel Little's telegram which had been sent to his old home at Carlisle, Kansas, reached him. In regard to this incident, General Funston said: "I considered this request from the Governor of Kansas, to come to Topeka in time of war, a command; so I took the first train for Topeka, where the Governor presented me with my commission as colonel of the 20th Kansas. It was a tremendous surprise to me, for I had not the slightest idea, being a strong Republican as I was, of being recognized by a Populist Governor. It had always been the ambition of my life to serve in war as colonel of a Volunteer Regiment, and here, without any effort whatever on my part, this ambition was suddenly realized. We all expected that you, General Sears, would get the first regiment that went out because of your long service in the National Guard and because you had contributed so materially to the nomination of Governor Leedy. I know nothing whatever about an Infantry Regiment, and I have got it all to learn. While with the Cuban Revolutions we had no drill, and all I learned to handle light field artillery -- and I could shoot a Hotchkiss gun as straight as a rifle -- learned to speak Spanish fairly well, how to "bushwhack" and to maintain the health of myself and men in a tropical climate."
I asked General Funston if he had any military books. He replied, "No, not one. I never read one." The I presented Funston with a number of up-to-date books from my military library, and made a list of several others, including Captain Beach or Field and Hasty Entrenchments, Colonel Wagner's Outpost Duty, Colonel Winthrop's Court Martial, a work on Feeding an Army in the Field, another on Maintaining the Health of an Army in the Field and another on Loading and Unloading Troops from Trains and Ships in Orderly Manner. General Funston went with me to a telegraph office and telegraphed Brentano's, in New York, to send these books to him C.O.D., c/o 20th Kansas, San Francisco, California. After sending the message, I escorted General Funston to Governor Leedy's home, which was then in Lawrence, and there General Funston greeted the Governor by saying he could not pass through the town without paying his respects to him, and again thanking him for making him colonel of the 20th Kansas. The Governor told Funston that he felt sure he had made no mistake in selecting him to lead the regiment and was sure he would give a good account of himself during the war. The balance of the interview with the Governor was taken up in discussion of the possibilities of the cattle industry in Cuba. The Governor asked Funston many questions about it, and General Funston explained in much detail the superior advantages of Santa Clara Province for cattle raising.
It was not until all commissions had been given out and the troops had left Kansas that Governor Leedy discovered the falsity of the newspaper dispatch that had caused him to turn me down and appoint Funston. When he learned the truth he came to my law office at Lawrence, Kansas, on three different occasions to explain and apologize for the wrong he had done me. The first time he called he remained for four hours, and most of the time he spent in iterating and reiterating his apologies. He said that at the time this dispatch appeared in the papers he was having a conversation with the War Department and President McKinley on five different matters relating to the rights and powers in organizing the Kansas Volunteer Regiments for the war, that those matters had become public, and not only the Republican papers but many Democratic and Populist papers were criticizing him for not stand by the President in time of war; and that the very day after he read the criticism of Senator Harris, Representative Charles Curtis, of Kansas, had made a speech on the floor of the House criticizing him and backing up McKinley and Alger in the controversy. At this point, Governor Leedy said: "I watched the papers day after day, and not a single Democrat or Populist in Congress from Kansas stood up and answered Charlie Curtis. With everybody on my back, I became so d--n mad I would not have appointed my own brother."
While I was bitterly disappointed in failing to become colonel of the 20th Kansas, I never felt envious toward Fred Funston, not did I blame him in any way. If I had made colonel of the 20th Kansas, no doubt I would have been set down on some sand bar, as was Colonel W.J. Bryan with his regiment, with no opportunity for active service; but because Funston was a Republican and because his father had served for many years in Congress with McKinley, his regiment was immediately recognized and given the opportunity for active service.
Governor Leedy was certainly justified by Funston's subsequent career in making him colonel of the 20th Kansas. Never in the history of this Republic has an officer shown more native ability, real first-class initiative and such a high order of strategy as this same "Teddy" Funston, as we boys called him in college. Not only did Funston stand high as a strategist, organizer and natural born leader of men, but he was a man of courage and extraordinary daring.
On the occasion of our long interview in my office at Lawrence, Kansas, I asked him the question that is so commonly asked of soldiers: "Did you ever kill a man in battle?" He replied, "Yes, I killed 13. One day, while serving with the Cuban Revolutionists, I rode a short distance away from my command to do a little foraging on my own account, when I was out off by a squad of seven Spanish soldiers and was compelled to run the other way. I suddenly came to a barb wire fence, and not being provided with wire cutters I abandoned my horse, crawled under the fence and ran for cover. The Spanish soldiers immediately began to shoot at me and the bullets were whistling about me and cutting the ground under my feet. I was never so frightened in all my life; I simply lost all control of myself for a few moments and ran at top speed. Suddenly it came to me like at shot, 'Funston, what a d--m coward you are. Don't you remember how you used to shoot the heads off of squirrels down on the Mari de Ceygnes [river] in Kansas, when you were a boy?' I suddenly turned and leveled my Winchester carbine and fired at a big sergeant sitting on his horse, but missed him. I fired again, and he threw up his arms and fell from his horse. At that moment the Spaniards had succeeded in cutting the barb wire fence and were coming through on their horses, so I ran for cover and hid myself securely in a thick jungle. There I lay perfectly still. Many shots were fired into the jungle, but none of them came near me. Finally I heard the corporal, who was left in command after the death of the sergeant, say to one of the men: 'You ride in there and drive him out.' The soldier replied: 'If you want him out of there you go in and get him yourself.' This amused me; I laughed to myself heartily. Soon after, one of the soldiers called out: 'I think he has gone in this direction.' The others seemed to think so too, and so they rode away and soon disappeared, which gave me an opportunity to regain my command, which I did late that night. But before starting back, I had great curiosity to see the man I had shot. So I went back to the bard wire fence and looked at him. He was a grizzled sergeant more than fifty years of age with three weeks' growth of beard on his face and his clothing very much soiled from long service. I did not feel any compunction of conscience whatever for killing him, but looked down at him just as I would have looked at a wolf or a bear that I had killed. Sometime after this exciting and tragic event, our command was on the march one day when General Garcia sent an orderly back to the rear urging me to bring up the field artillery quickly. We hurried forward, and on gaining an eminence, about 800 yrds. distance, we came in sight of a two story stone mill which was held by a force of Spanish soldiers. They had placed two field guns in the upper story, and were fixing from two windows. I trained my little Hotchkiss gun on one window, and the second shot I placed the shell directly in it, where it exploded. The third shot entered the second window and exploded. Soon after we drove the Spaniards away and captured the mill. I was curious to note the effect of my two shots, so I climbed up into the second story, and there before the first window lay five dead Spanish soldiers, and before the second window there were seven, all killed by exploding shells."
General Funston told me the story, of how he severed his command with the Cuban Army and returned to the United States: "I had secured a furlough from General Garcia, and accompanied by an American we started on horseback for the coast, expecting to secure passage on some filibustering steamer, and thus get back to the United States. One day we were riding along a dusty road, and on our immediate left was a very high railroad grade. Just ahead the road turned sharply to the left over the grade. I spurred my horse forward to a gallop, anxious to see what was on the other side of the grade. I had just topped the grade when I was confronted by a row of Spanish rifles behind it, and compelled to throw up my hands. As I did, I slipped the furlough in my mouth, chewed it up and swallowed it. My companion when he saw my hands go up turned tail and escaped. In order to save myself, I adopted the policy of denouncing the Revolutionists in the most violent terms, and while I admitted I had been with them I told the Spaniards that I was sick of them and their methods and was deserting. I kept up this piece of deception to the very end, but without result, for as soon as I reached Havana I was tried by court martial and sentenced to be executed. But President McKinley intervened in the matter, and through the personal efforts of General Fitzhugh Lee, U.S. Consul at Havana, I was released and permitted to return to the United States. I was in more than 20 battles in the Cuban Revolution during the 15 months I was in Cuba; but the most considerable engagement of the whole revolution was at Las Tunas, a battle which lasted for three days. Early in the morning of the first day, I asked permission of General Garcia to use my light artillery, first in destroying the blockhouse surrounding the town. This permission was immediately given, and I turned my guns on the first blockhouse and soon destroyed it. And thus I circled the town with my battery, destroying these blockhouses in detail. When they were all out of the way the Cuban Army was able to move closer to the town. During this engagement, I was shot through the body with a Mauser rifle, and after capturing the town were 80 Cubans and 250 Spaniards were killed, and many wounded, I was placed in a hammock, hung from a long pole and carried by two big negro Revolutionists, and so escaped, and was placed in a mountain hospital, where I soon recovered."
The spring following the war with Spain I went to Cuba on a mission for a group of United States Senators, and while at Santiago visited the arsenal and saw the battery commanded by Fred Funston in the Cuban Revolution. It consisted of three small field pieces, one dynamite gun, one Driggs-Schoeder and one Hotchkiss, none of them more than two or two and one-half inch caliber. At Santiago I met Colonel Portuando, who was Funston's second in command during his service in Cuba. He said that Funston was a perfect dare devil, was a great strategist and organizer, that at the battle of Las Tunas, he charged at the head of the Cuban soldiers right into the motes and trenches, facing a perfect storm of Mauser bullets and shells, and that he was greatly admired by the Cuban soldiers and they would follow him anywhere.
I was a member of a committee appointed by the Governor of Kansas to meet the 20th Kansas when they entered the State at the west line on its return from the Philippines. I found Fred Funston with his wife and child in the sleeper and had a good visit with them. I remarked to Funston that I had read of his being wounded in action in battle with the Filipinos. He held up his hand and showed me the scars where the bullet had gone into his hand and had come out. He remarked that he was very proud of this wound, and while he did not want to be killed in battle he had always been very anxious to be wounded. It was a sentiment that had actuated him from boyhood, and he was very proud to be able to say that he had really shed blood for his country.
Hoping that you may be able to cull something of interest from this very rambling desultory statement, I beg to remain
Very sincerely yours,