- Historic Sites
“our Little War With The Heathen’
Our first Korean war, in 1871, was fought to open the Hermit Kingdom to Western trade. But the hermits wanted very much to be left alone
April 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 3
A stout, vigorous New England Yankee, Low was brand-new to his post and totally lacked previous diplomatic experience. But he was a man of substance: at the age of forty-two he had already been a successful banker, a United States congressman, and the Republican governor of California from 1863 to 1867, during which time he had championed the cause of fair treatment for California’s Chinese population, rescued Golden Gate Park in San Francisco from land speculators, and played a key role in founding the University of California at Berkeley. Furthermore, in his early youth he had spent five years clerking in a Boston shipping firm employed in the China trade and so perhaps had acquired, secondhand at least, some inkling of Oriental ways. All in all, therefore, he seemed a good choice for the difficult and delicate task of opening up Korea.
The same might have been said of Rear Admiral John Rodgers, commander of the Asiatic Squadron, Low’s escort to Korea. A thickset man who wore a fringe of white whiskers about his stubborn chin, Rodgers at fifty-eight was one of the most experienced and distinguished officers in the Navy. He had served in the Seminole and Mexican wars, conducted the first scientific exploration of the Bering Strait, and during the Civil War had been a skilled and gallant commander of Union ironclad monitors. Nor was he new to the Far East: he had acquired considerable experience there while charting the China Sea and the Sea of Japan in the mid-1850’s—experience that included, it is worth noting in view of what was to happen in Korea, the landing of forces on the Liuchiu (Ryukyu) Islands in order to secure the natives’ observance of their treaty obligations to the United States. Instructions from Washington gave Low the “responsibility of war or peace” on the forthcoming expedition, but directed him to defer to the Admiral on all naval and military matters.
Planning and preparation took nearly a year, during which Low conferred with Rodgers at Peking and sent word to the king of Korea, via the Chinese, of his intended visit and its purpose. He also collected all available information on that unknown country’s “semi-barbarous and hostile people,” but as he subsequently wrote to Secretary Fish, “Corea is more of a sealed book than Japan was before Commodore Perry’s visit.”
Finally, on May 8, 1871, he sailed from Shanghai, accompanied by two Chinese-speaking secretaries, Edward B. Drew and James B. Cowles, Jr. Four days later he boarded Rodgers’ flagship, the Colorado , in the harbor of Nagasaki, Japan. Riding at anchor along-side the Colorado were the other vessels of the Asiatic Squadron: the corvettes Alaska and Benicia and the gunboats Monocacy and Palos. Together the five ships mounted eighty-five guns and carried 1,230 sailors and marines. But all were old and obsolescent; the Colorado , a steam-and-sail wooden frigate, was in such poor shape that she dared not fire her full broadside for fear of springing her timbers. In addition, only the two gunboats possessed sufficiently shallow drafts to navigate the Han River, the pathway from the sea to Seoul. The three larger ships, therefore, were practically useless except as transports.
Rodgers’ force was, as European observers in Nagasaki were quick to point out, far inferior to the one France had sent in 1866, and it was not at all likely to overawe the Koreans. Yet it was about the best the United States could muster in the Far East in 1871. During the Civil War the American Navy was one of the world’s most powerful; now, scarcely half a dozen years later, it was in decline, on its way to becoming a national disgrace and an international laughingstock.
Yet if Rodgers’ squadron was weak in its ships, it was strong in the quality of its officers and men. They were tough, disciplined, highly trained professionals, most of them veterans of the Civil War. Moreover, from the admiral down to the deckhands they believed that the crews of the General Sherman and other vessels had been wantonly murdered; Roclgers’ men were determined to compel the Koreans, by force of arms if necessary, to observe the laws of nations and of humanity. They gave little credence to dockside rumors that the Korean soldiers were “ferocious giants” of “herculean strength,” and they had no doubts about succeeding where the French had failed. Indeed their mood was in many ways more appropriate to a punitive expedition than to a diplomatic mission.
The little American flotilla steamed out of Nagasaki Bay on May 16 and a week later lowered anchor near the mouth of the Han. Boat parties went ashore and, after demonstrating their peaceful intentions, received a friendly welcome from the natives, who for the first time beheld the “flowery flag” of the “land of Mi.” The Americans in turn presented them with gifts of brass buttons, blue cloth, and glass bottles (the last especially prized by the Koreans). They also handed the local prefect a letter stating the purpose of the visit and requesting to see representatives of the King.