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  • Reinette Senum


Updated: Jan 30, 2023

It was precisely 100 years ago today, February 19th, 1917, that Major General Frederick Funston, the most famous military figure you had never heard of, dropped dead of a massive heart attack, sending the entire nation into shock. Only 5’4” tall and barely 120 pounds, Frederick Funston, would be the highest-ranked military official in the country at the time of his death.

“Fighting Fred Funston,” also known as the “Man who saved San Francisco,” had commanded the Presidio during the 1906 earthquake.

Frederick would be jolted out of his bed in the early hours of April 18th. Donning little more than his undergarments, Frederick would scramble to the top of Nob Hill, immediately turning around and looking over the city besieged by fire. Within a moment, Frederick returned to his home, where his wife, Edna, handed him his morning cup of coffee. Frederick would take the cup from his wife’s petite hands and quickly direct her, “Pack our belongings into the trunks. The house will be burning down today.”

Frederick Funston and wife, Edna, spend an afternoon in their living room of the home they would ultimately lose in the 1906 inferno.

Hours later, it did just that. Frederick Funston’s home would burn to the ground while he took command of the city. Despite limited communication, within hours, Frederick would arrange to ship every square foot of canvas tenting that the army owned west of the Mississippi and provide temporary housing. Leaflets were printed declaring looters would be shot, and dramatic rescues would continue for days. Funston set up efficient local refugee camps, ration stations, and a recovery plan for the approximately 300,000 people who found themselves homeless and hungry. Over 16,000 evacuees found safe refuge at the Presidio. The victims, at the Presidio and other sites throughout the city, were fed and clothed and provided emergency medical treatment when and where needed.

An evacuee camp in San Francisco, 1906.

In addition, a boat was immediately sent to Oakland to telegraph Washington for additional troops. Considering the limited communications available at the time, it was also impressive that the California governor got word to send a relief train into the city, arriving just 18 hours after the disaster and after receiving news of the San Francisco disaster in Morse code from a distance of 3,000 miles, President Roosevelt would immediately marshal one of the

longest hospital trains ever.

The inferno following the 1906 earthquake, San Francisco

Frederick would command the dynamiting of a swath of Victorian mansions along Van Ness Avenue in the 4 square mile fire path. Frederick also immediately undertook the controversial acts of declaring an unofficial martial law and creating a firebreak to stop the ensuing inferno. As three blocks of expensive homes fell every twenty minutes, Frederick and the soldiers watched silently.

Just over a decade later, after the 1906 earthquake, while relaxing in the lobby of the St. Anthony Hotel in San Antonio, Texas, listening to the Blue Danube waltz, Frederick would hoist a six-year-old Inez Harriet Silverberg into his arms. Enamored with the scene before them, Frederick would exclaim, “How beautiful it all is… You know there is no music as sweet as the old tunes,” and then take a sharp intake of breath, collapse, and die from a massive heart attack.

On this fateful night, the Secretary of War Newton Baker was hosting a dinner party at his home for his guest of honor, US President Woodrow Wilson.

It was late in the evening when Major Douglas MacArthur, the son of Funston's former commander in the Philippines, General Arthur MacArthur, Jr., was on duty for the general staff and would receive one of the most important telegrams of his life. One that he knew must be delivered immediately to Secretary Baker. McArthur wrote of the event;

“When I reached the Secretary’s home, the butler refused to let me enter, saying he had orders to admit no one. The dining room looked out on the entrance hall, and I can see it plainly. It was a gay party, with lights and laughter, the tinkle of glasses, the soft music from an alcove, the merry quips and jokes of a cosmopolitan group. I finally pushed by the Butler and tried to attract the attention of the secretary so I can report to him privately what had occurred. But the president saw me and sang out in the most jovial manner," “Come in, Major, and tell all of us the news. There are no secrets here.” There was a general clapping hands at this, and I knew I was in for it. So I clicked my heels together, saluted him, and barked in a drill-sergeant tone, “Sir, I regret to report that Gen. Funston has just died.” Had the voice of doom spoken, the result could not have been different. The silent seemed like that of death itself. You could hear your own breathing. Then, I never saw such a scattering of guests in my life. It was a stampede.”

Major General Frederick Funston laying in state at the City Hall Rotunda of San Francisco, 1917

Frederick was the first to ever lay in state at the Alamo and the City Hall Rotunda of San Francisco -- as San Franciscans stood silent for two minutes in his honor. Like the Alamo, thousands awaited one last look and opportunity to pay their respect to the “Little General.”

General Frederick Funston was dead, and the nation was at an instant loss: As pressure increased for the United States to engage in The Great War, Major General Frederick Funston emerged as the leading candidate to command the American Expeditionary Force (AEF).

After Frederick’s death, the next logical choice to command the AEF in France and lead the nation into its first World War was that of General John J. Pershing: Solidifying Pershing's rapid ascension to high command.

One of many cartoons of Fuston. This one following his unexpected death.

Several months later, the United States would enter into war, and the daring exploits and military expeditions of Frederick Funston would disappear into the shadows of the newly formed heroes of World War I. General Frederick Funston would no longer be a household name, and his adventurous stories would soon disappear, albeit for the few historians who relish military history. However, Frederick Funston's actions and undertakings had already changed the course of America.


Initially, as a young man, Frederick joined the Cuban Revolutionary Army fighting for independence from Spain in 1896. During this time, Funston had fought in 22 individual battles and had 17 horses shot out from under him. He rose in rank to lieutenant colonel, was shot through both lungs and an arm, and finally, in a cavalry charge, had large shards of wood thrust into his hip from the roots of an upturned tree when his horse rolled over. Twenty-three months later, Frederick weighed 80 pounds and was coughing up blood. He was extremely ill and forced home in 1898 with a near-fatal malaria case. Thus beginning his military career.

Of all Frederick's adventures in military commitments, the kidnapping of the Philippines' democratically elected president, Emilio Aguinaldo, would be the seminal event in Funston's life and a first for America in what is now a long list of US-led coups. This military escapade would also solidify Frederick as a controversial character in the minds of Americans.

Funston was one of the Philippine-American War’s most famous soldiers. Periodicals and newspapers alike clamored for information about his exploits. Making national headlines regularly, stories of Frederick were interpreted and massaged to suit the deeply partisan press.

Frederick’s friends and imperialist supporters developed a myth around Funston as the ideal American, shy but humble, and a great hero despite lacking formal military education (Frederick made his unorthodox way through the ranks of the Volunteer Army). As one would expect, Frederick’s detractors depicted him as an undisciplined, glory-seeking mercenary guilty of murder and torture and a prime example of the worst aspects of President McKinley's expansionist policies; both sides ultimately obscuring the truth of Frederick’s true character. While he was gregarious and had a self-effacing sense of humor, he could also be ruthless and never forgave a perceived slight. Despite these critical flaws, most biographies on Funston present a sanitized image of simply being a patriotic and romantic daredevil.

As the U. S. finally tamed a continent and began peering across the seas, Frederick Funston matched the United States’ restless desire for expansionism. Frederick’s actions were not one of diplomacy or altruism but of global dominance; Frederick, Theodore Roosevelt, and William McKinley were the standard-bearers of imperialism (Manifest Destiny). The trio stood isolationism on its head, proposing that America needed to save the world. It was Frederick, however, who was the most outspoken of the three. While his five foot four figure was small, his voice was so booming and animated he was known for his speeches; his tenor so strong he could sway a rally into a clamor and unify a fighting force…and he did so unabashedly.

During the Philippine American War it was known as The Water Cure

Frederick was never reluctant to use his bully pulpit. He continued to express contempt for the hypocrisy of political leaders, “who at the start of the war had boldly wanted the United States to strip Spain of everything, but now we're” playing politics and gambling with the blood of their countrymen.” President Roosevelt sent word that he was in “cordial sympathy” with Funston, but could he please be less outspoken.”

From San Francisco to New York, the acerbic Funston continued touring the nation, making impassioned speeches and testimonials advocating for American expansionism while simultaneously irritating those back in Washington. When Frederick “publicly made insulting remarks about anti-imperialist Republican Senator George Frisbie Hoar of Massachusetts, mocking his "overheated conscience" in Denver, just before a planned trip to Boston, President Theodore Roosevelt denied his furlough request, and ordered him silenced and officially reprimanded.”

Unheeding Roosevelt’s demand, Frederick did not silence his bellowing voice and imperialistic praises while touring, thus prompting editorials and calls for his court martial until finally forcing Roosevelt and his political circle to yank Frederick from the 1904 US Presidential ticket as Vice President.

The news, once again, made front-page headlines from the Boston Herald, April 24, 1902: "President Muzzles Funston" to San Francisco Call, April 25, 1902: "Funston Silenced. President Orders Him to Cease Talking." Even the legendary my childhood hero, Mark Twain, chimed in with his searing satire first published in the May 1902 issue of the North American Review, In Defense of General Funston. If ever Mark Twain had an enemy, most likely it was Fred.

General Funston’s final chapter of service to his nation occurred in 1916 on the border of Mexico. Revolution, the slaying of unarmed Americans in Mexico, and the raids of Francisco “Pancho” Villa north of the border had increased tensions between the United States and Mexico.

Frederick sent his subordinate, Brigadier General John J. Pershing, and several thousand troops across the border to hunt down Villa. Funston supervised John Pershing's "Punitive Expedition" from his headquarters in Texas and maintained security along the entire length of the Mexican border from the Gulf of Mexico to the California line.

While in command of Brigadier John J. Pershing and the punitive expedition of 4,800 troops, Frederick would utilize this particular military expedition as a testing ground for motorized tactics and aerial surveillance and reconnaissance in pursuit of Pancho Villa: A first for the US military.

While Pershing gained the headlines this time, Funston would command the federalization of 150,000 National Guardsmen and pioneered what was to become a future pattern of the high-level military.

In addition to commanding Brigadier Pershing, Funston's subordinates included future generals Captain Douglas MacArthur, Lieutenant George S. Patton, Jr., and Lieutenant Dwight D. Eisenhower…. until that fateful evening on February 19th, 1917.


After a heart attack took the life of the 51-year-old general, Frederick’s lifelong friend, former college mate, and Pulitzer Prize recipient, William Allen White, called Frederick "one of the most colorful figures in the American army from the day of Washington on down."

Frederick was a trailblazer and would unabashedly do as he pleased and, at

Another cartoon of Frederick Funston, the man controversial on both sides

his own will; hence one reason for his controversy. But Frederick was controversial on many fronts. So much so that it was not uncommon for the military to be uncertain how to report his deeds. In addition, Frederick was a rare bird in that he made his way through the ranks of the Volunteer Army, causing the “Old Army” that remained to feel he did not deserve his accolades and promotions because of his unorthodox approach to war; Frederick had gained as much fame from his fearless exploits as he did for ignoring the rules. But Frederick’s controversial approach would set the stage for America’s imperial expansion for the next 100 years.

Today, General Frederick Funston seems an unforgettable character because he does not appear in the United States history textbooks listed among America's legendary generals. Most historians can only recall with certainty that Frederick Funston captured President Emilio Aguinaldo; his life and deeds were all but relegated to history's junk heap as another forgotten hero. However, this is a great disservice to American history. Though Frederick has all but disappeared from our historical narrative, his actions have not. Frederick catalyzed influence on the current trajectory that the United States and the US military find themselves on today.

At that moment of Frederick's last breath, on that historic night on February 19, 1917, his legacy would begin to fade. And within the 100th anniversary of his death, I would undertake my soul-searching, utilizing the life of my Great Grandfather, General Frederick Funston, as my most successful instrument in better understanding my place in this world and at this moment.

Adopted as an infant, I would spend my childhood and most of my adult life searching for my birth parents. Upon discovering them, I would begin uncovering the family characters, tragedies and accomplishments, and, most importantly, their consequences.

While Major General Frederick Funston no longer exists in physical form, it is clear that a continuation of his unorthodox and bold actions has outlasted him; a path lay behind him of extraordinary heroism and another of oppression and destruction. And though many of Frederick's deeds were noble and of great bravery, he was a Medal of Honor recipient; I could see many of his darker deeds continue to this day; imperial expansionism, torture, and presidential coups, to name a few: Ironically, as an activist, this is much of what I spend my daily life fighting against.

With this Great Uncovering, I began to understand the power of legacy. I had been given the gift of A One Hundred Year Perspective; like a quartz crystal, I can see the power of one's actions after one hundred years of passing. And with this newly found perspective, I could not help but think of Mother Theresa’s quote, “I cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.”

But it is with my more profound understanding of the life and times of General Frederick Funston that I have come to realize that we are more the ripples than we are the stone. This alternative, and, yes, unorthodox, perspective has permanently changed my perception about our existence and the meaning of life. Thank you, Fred.

The arrival of the casket of General Frederick Funston, City Hall, San Francisco

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More on my ties to Frederick Funston and our synchronous solo crossing of Alaska here.

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