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Gregorio del Pilar: The ‘Boy General’

Posted On 2011 Dec 06
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By NENET GALANG-PERENA

GREGORIO DEL PILAR

During the Philippine Revolution in 1896, the people of my town  participated in the battles launched by the Katipuneros against Spain. Calumpit became the headquarters of General Luna in 1898 and in the bloody encounters at barrio Bagbag on April 25, 1899, the people bravely joined the army of the Ilocano firebrand.
Bagbag Bridge, spanning the narrow Quingwa River that drains to the sea, connecting Calumpit to Pulilan, was also the site of the first battle between Filipino and American soldiers during the retreat of Aguinaldo to the Ilocos Region and of the longest battle during the Filipino-American Wars led by Gen. Gregorio del Pilar on April 25, 1899. Though this bridge is symbolic of the valor displayed by the Filipinos as they stood against the American forces, it now lies in a shamble, somehow forgotten by a town beleaguered by almost yearly floods, the most deadly of which are unleashed by the nearby Anggat and Pantabangan dams.
The white statue of Gregorio del Pilar y Sempio standing on a stone base commemorating the Battle of Bagbag (now a sleepy sitio of the barrio where I was born, Caniogan),  was part of my daily trek to the public school where I entered first grade at the age of six. My maternal grandmother, a Chinese mestiza from San Luis Pampanga, would wait for my Ate and me by that statue as her house fronted it, to give us either an apple or a pear, which I took reluctantly, because it would bulge in my lavender school bag.
I have not really thought much about this hero, though I would continue to pass by its shadow through the three years I would attend Caniogan Primary School. I was supposed to have stayed until the fourth grade before transferring to the premiere Elementary School in the Poblacion now named Paaralang Pang-ala ala kay Francisco Mendoza (one of our town mayors, though the first elected mayor of its civil government in 1901 was an ancestor, Juan Galang) but my paternal grandmother frowned upon the head teacher, whom she called lasenggero.
Then, when my eldest son, Nomer, reached his 20th year, I suddenly remembered Goyo in his immortal sentry by the stretch of road where his cavalry passed on the way to perdition, who served in Aguinaldo’s army right out of his high school graduation at the Ateneo Municipal. The Americans called him the boy general, not out of derision, but admiration. Del Pilar met his untimely death in Pasong Tirad, Ilocos at the tender age of 24, when my son’s only care at that age was the loss of his favorite NBA team at Staples Center.
National Artist for Literature, Nick Joaquin, in the book “A Question of Heroes,” opined that the American accounts of his death in the hands of the 33rd Infantry from Texas were sensationalized, as he deemed the last stand of Del Pilar more of a sorry waste than a reason to celebrate.
American war correspondent, Richard Henry Little described the battle at Tirad Pass, this way:
“We had seen him cheering his men in the fight.  One of our companies crouched up close under the side  of the cliff where he had built his first entrenchment,  heard his voice continually during the fight, scolding them, praising them cursing, appealing in one moment to their love of their native land and the next instant  threatening to kill them if they did not stand firm.   Driven from the first entrenchment, he fell slowly back to the second in full sight of our sharpshooters and under a heavy fire.  Not until every man around him in the second entrenchment was down did he turn his white horse and ride slowly up in the winding trail. Then we who were below saw an American squirm his way out to the top of high flat rock, and take deliberate aim at the figure on the white horse.  We held our breath, not knowing whether to pray that the sharpshooter would  shoot straight or miss.  Then came the spiteful crack of the Krag and the man on horseback rolled to the ground, and when the troops charging up the mountainside reached him the ‘boy  general’  of the Filipinos was dead”.
We went up the mountain  side.  After H company had driven the insurgents out of their second position and killed Pilar, the other companies rushed straight up the trail.  Just past this a few hundred yards, we saw a solitary figure lying on the road. The boy  was almost stripped of clothing, and there were no marks of rank on the blood-soaked coat.
…As the main column started its march for the summit of the mountain, a turn in the trail brought us again in sight of the insurgent general below us. There had been no time to bury him.  Not even a blanket or a poncho had been thrown over him
And when Private Sullivan went by in his trousers, and Snider his shoes, and the other man who had the cuff buttons, and the sergeant who had the spur and the lieutenant who had the other spur, and the man who had the handkerchief,  and another that had his shoulder straps, it suddenly occurred to me that his glory was about all we had left him.
Historical accounts say that del Pilar’s defiled body was left by the roadside for two days until its odor forced some Igorots to cover it with dirt. While retracing the trail, an American officer,  gave the body a traditional U.S. military burial. Upon del Pilar’s tombstone, was inscribed, “An Officer and a Gentleman”.
The dashing and handsome general in a white steed, who left so many young maiden’s hear broken, had written before his death:
The General [ Aguinaldo ] has given me the pick of all the men that can be spared and ordered me to defend the Pass. I realize what a terrible task has been given me. And yet, I felt that this is the most glorious moment of my life. What I do is done for my beloved country. No sacrifice can be too great.
This indomitable courage reminds us of the disastrous historical military engagement of the Crimean War between Turkey and Russia, where the British forces under the command of Lord Raglan fought with a light infantry, immortalized by England’s poet laureate, Alfred, Lord Tennyson in “The Charge of the Light Brigade”:
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wonder’d.
Honour the charge they made!
Honour the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred!
In the 21st century, the British involvement in the Crimean War is dismissed as an instance of military incompetence, but for some, it was a celebration of the heroism of 600 soldiers who died serving their commander, even on a lost cause. In our millennium, we also wonder about the perspicacity of our colonial wars, which offered young men like Goyo and his 60 soldiers in its holocaust on that sad day of December 2, 1899. (email nenetgp@gmail.com)

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