“our Little War With The Heathen’

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In the chapel of the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis there is a plaque:

In Memory of Hugh W. McKee Lieutenant U.S.N. Born April 23, 1814 Died June 11, 1871 from wounds received the same day on the parapet of The Citadel, Kanghoa Island, Corea; while leading heroically the assault of the Naval Battalion of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet erected by his brother officers of the squadron

Most people who read these words are somewhat puzzled: how was it that an American naval officer was killed fighting in Korea in 1871? Not many today are aware that long before 1950 the United States waged a brief but bloody war in that unhappy land.

In the nineteenth century, Korea was often and appropriately referred to as the “Hermit Kingdom.” By 1860 it was the last important Asiatic country still dosed to the Western powers. In fact its only normal diplomatic and economic contact with the outside world was through China, which exercised an ill-defined suzerainty over it. The only Westerners who had been able to penetrate its confines were a handful of missionaries, who had entered in defiance of Korean laws and were subjected to constant persecution.

The Koreans were determined to preserve their isolation. They knew little of the West, and what they knew they disliked. To them the “shorthairs,” as they contemptuously dubbed all Westerners, were mere barbarians whose presence in their land would constitute a source of danger and corruption. Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry, at the head of a powerful American naval squadron, had journeyed to Japan in 1853 and 1854, returning with a commercial treaty that opened up Japan to the Western world; an active trade between China and the West had been going on for many decades. Japan and even great China might have admitted foreigners, but Korea? Never!

Unfortunately for the Koreans, their desire to be left alone ran counter to the ambitions of Western merchants, missionaries, and ministries, as well as to the realities of international life. It was only a question of time before one or another of the powers attempted to open up the peninsular kingdom. Ironically, it was the Koreans themselves who provided the excuse.

Early in 1866 the reactionary tacwongun (regent to his young son, King Kojong, and the real ruler of the country at the time) instituted a persecution of Christians, during which several French Catholic missionaries were tortured and then beheaded. On learning of these atrocities, the French minister to China sent a naval expedition against Seoul, Korea’s royal capital. But when French marines assaulted the forts guarding the river passage to Seoul, they were repulsed, with heavy losses. This victory elated the Koreans, increased their contempt for all white-skinned “barbarians,” and strengthened their determination to resist foreign “contamination.”

Just prior to the French fiasco, an American-owned merchantman, the General Sheman , had put into the Taedong River on the northwest coast of Korea. Ostensibly she came to trade, but the Koreans were suspicious that lier real object was to rob the graves of their ancient kings. Moreover, the Sherman ’s crew (mainly Malays and Chinese) probably provoked the local inhabitants. In any case, the natives seized the ship, burned her, and massacred all aboard.

Precise details of the fate of the General Sherman and her people did not come to light for many years, but news of her loss, and of the failure of the French expedition, readied Washington late in 1866. Secretary of State William H. Seward, a strong believer in Manifest Destiny, decided that the time had come to assert American power in Korea. He first proposed to Paris a joint United States-French intervention, but Napoleon Ill’s government (which understandably enough had no desire to cooperate with the nation that had just forced it out of Mexico) declined the offer. The Secretary then instructed his nephew, George F. Seward, consul general at Shanghai, to journey to Seoul and secure “redress” for the General Sherman “outrage.” Young Seward, however, reported that such a mission would be futile unless backed by force. Accordingly the Navy, at the State Department’s request, ordered a number of ships to the Orient for this purpose.

Seward’ left office in 1869, before the organization of a Korean expedition could be completed, but his successor, Hamilton Fish, went ahead with plans for such an expedition, though he broadened its aims. American merchants in China were urging that the peninsula be opened to trade, and the Russians and Japanese were moving in the same direction. On April 20, 1870, Fish wrote to Frederick F. Low, United States minister to China, instructing him to proceed to Seoul with units of the Asiatic Squadron. His primary goal woidd be to obtain guarantees of humane treatment for shipwrecked sailors, but he was also to seek a commercial treaty. Fish cautioned him to employ force only if it was necessary to uphold the honor of the flag.