Filipino General Antonio Luna

Hero of the Philippine-American War

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Monument to Antonio Luna in Santa Cruz. via Wikimedia

Soldier, chemist, musician, war strategist, journalist, pharmacist, and hot-headed general, Antonio Luna was a complex man who was, unfortunately, perceived as a threat by the Philippines' ruthless first president Emilio Aguinaldo and as a result died not on the battlefields of the Philippine-American War but on the streets of Cabanatuan.

Swept up in the revolution, Luna was exiled to Spain before returning to his country to defend it as a brigadier general in the Philippine-American war.

Before he was assassinated at 32 years old, Luna greatly influenced the Philippines' fight for independence as well as how its military would operate for years to come.

Early Life of a Revolutionary

Antonio Luna de San Pedro y Novicio-Ancheta was born on October 29, 1866, in the Binondo district of Manila, the seventh child of Laureana Novicio-Ancheta, a Spanish mestiza, and Joaquin Luna de San Pedro, a traveling salesman.

Antonio was a gifted student who studied with a teacher called Maestro Intong from the age of six and received a Bachelor of Arts from the Ateneo Municipal de Manila in 1881 before continuing his studies in chemistry, music, and literature at the University of Santo Tomas. 

In 1890, Antonio traveled to Spain to join his brother Juan, who was studying painting in Madrid. There, Antonio earned a licentiate in pharmacy at the Universidad de Barcelona, followed by a doctorate from the Universidad Central de Madrid.

He went on to study bacteriology and histology at the Pasteur Institute in Paris and continuing on to Belgium to further those pursuits. While in Spain, Luna had published a well-received paper on malaria, so in 1894 the Spanish government appointed him to a post as a specialist in communicable and tropical diseases.

Swept into the Revolution

Later that same year, Antonio Luna returned to the Philippines where he became the chief chemist of the Municipal Laboratory in Manila. He and his brother Juan established a fencing society called the Sala de Armas in the capital.

While there, the brothers were approached about joining the Katipunan, a revolutionary organization founded by Andres Bonifacio in response to the 1892 banishment of Jose Rizal, but both Luna brothers refused to participate — at that stage, they believed in a gradual reform of the system rather than a violent revolution against Spanish colonial rule.

Although they were not members of the Katipunan, Antonio, Juan, and their brother Jose were all arrested and imprisoned in August 1896 when the Spanish learned that the organization existed. His brothers were interrogated and released, but Antonio was sentenced to exile in Spain and imprisoned in the Carcel Modelo de Madrid. Juan, by this time a famed painter, used his connections with the Spanish royal family to secure Antonio's release in 1897. 

After his exile and imprisonment, understandably, Antonio Luna's attitude toward Spanish colonial rule had shifted — due to the arbitrary treatment of himself and his brothers and the execution of his friend Jose Rizal the previous December, Luna was ready to take up arms against Spain.

In his typically academic fashion, Luna decided to study guerrilla warfare tactics, military organization, and field fortification under the famous Belgian military educator Gerard Leman before he sailed to Hong Kong. There, he met with the revolutionary leader-in-exile, Emilio Aguinaldo and in July of 1898, Luna returned to the Philippines to take up the fight once more.

General Luna

As the Spanish/American War came to a close, and the defeated Spanish prepared to withdraw from the Philippines, Filipino revolutionary troops surrounded the capital city of Manila. The newly-arrived officer Antonio Luna urged the other commanders to send troops into the city to ensure a joint occupation when the Americans arrived, but Emilio Aguinaldo refused, believing U.S. naval officers stationed in Manila Bay would hand over power to the Filipinos in due course.

Luna complained bitterly about this strategic blunder, as well as the disorderly conduct of American troops once they landed in Manila in mid-August of 1898. To placate Luna, Aguinaldo promoted him to the rank of Brigadier General on September 26, 1898, and named him Chief of War Operations.

General Luna continued to campaign for better military discipline, organization and approach to Americans, who were now setting themselves up as the new colonial rulers. Along with Apolinario Mabini, Antonio Luna warned Aguinaldo that the Americans did not seem inclined to free the Philippines.

General Luna felt the need for a military academy to properly train the Filipino troops, who were eager and in many cases experienced in guerrilla warfare but had little formal military training. In October of 1898, Luna founded what is now the Philippine Military Academy, which operated for less than half a year before the Philippine-American War broke out in February of 1899 and classes were suspended so that staff and students could join the war effort.

The Philippine-American War

General Luna led three companies of soldiers to attack the Americans at La Loma where he was met with a ground force and naval artillery fire from the fleet in Manila Bay — the Filipinos suffered heavy casualties.

A Filipino counterattack on February 23 gained some ground but collapsed when troops from Cavite refused to take orders from General Luna, stating that they would obey only Aguinaldo himself. Furious, Luna disarmed the recalcitrant soldiers, but was forced to fall back.

After several additional bad experiences with the undisciplined and clannish Filipino forces, and after Aguinaldo had rearmed the disobedient Cavite troops as his personal Presidential Guard, a thoroughly frustrated General Luna submitted his resignation to Aguinaldo, which Aguinaldo reluctantly accepted.  With the war going very badly for the Philippines over the next three weeks, however, Aguinaldo persuaded Luna to return and made him Commander-in-Chief.

Luna developed and implemented a plan to contain the Americans long enough to construct a guerrilla base in the mountains. The plan consisted of a network of bamboo trenches, complete with spiked man-traps and pits full of poisonous snakes, that spanned the jungle from village to village. Filipino troops could fire on the Americans from this Luna Defense Line, and then melt away into the jungle without exposing themselves to American fire. 

Conspiracy Among the Ranks

However, late in May Antonio Luna's brother Joaquin — a colonel in the revolutionary army — warned him that a number of the other officers were conspiring to kill him. General Luna ordered that many of these officers be disciplined, arrested, or disarmed and they bitterly resented his rigid, authoritarian style, but Antonio made light of his brother's warning and reassured him that President Aguinaldo would not allow anyone to assassinate the army's Commander-in-Chief.

To the contrary, General Luna received two telegrams on June 2, 1899. The first asked him to join a counterattack against the Americans at San Fernando, Pampanga and the second was from Aguinaldo, ordering Luna to the new capital, Cabanatuan, Nueva Ecija, about 120 kilometers due north of Manila, where the Philippines' revolutionary government was forming a new cabinet.

Ever ambitious, and hopeful of being named Prime Minister, Luna decided to go to Nueva Ecija with a cavalry escort of 25 men. However, due to transportation difficulties, Luna arrived in Nueva Ecija accompanied only by two other officers, Colonel Roman and Captain Rusca, with the troops having been left behind.

An Unexpected Death

On June 5, Luna went alone to the government headquarters to speak with President Aguinaldo, but was met with one of his old enemies there instead — a man he had once disarmed for cowardice, who informed him that the meeting was canceled and Aguinaldo was out of town. Furious, Luna had started to walk back down the stairs when a rifle shot went off outside.

Luna ran down the stairs, where he met one of the Cavite officers he had dismissed for insubordination.  The officer struck Luna on the head with his bolo and soon Cavite troops swarmed the injured general, stabbing him. Luna drew his revolver and fired, but he missed his attackers.

Still, he fought his way out to the plaza, where Roman and Rusca ran to help him, but Roman was shot to death and Rusca was severely injured. Abandoned and alone, Luna sank bleeding to the cobblestones of the plaza where he uttered his last words: "Cowards!  Assassins!" He died at 32 years old.

Impact on the War

As Aguinaldo's guards assassinated his most able general, the president himself was laying siege to the headquarters of General Venacio Concepcion, an ally of the murdered general. Aguinaldo then dismissed Luna's officers and men from the Filipino Army.

For the Americans, this internecine fighting was a gift. General James F. Bell noted that Luna "was the only general the Filipino army had" and Aguinaldo's forces suffered disastrous defeat after disastrous defeat in the wake of Antonio Luna's murder. Aguinaldo spent most of the next 18 months in retreat, before being captured by the Americans on March 23, 1901.