- 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
Rodgers and Low planned to withdraw from Korea temporarily, after establishing diplomatic contact with the royal court, and then to return for a reply to the American demands. Perry had employed this technique with the Japanese, and they hoped it would prove equally successful with the Koreans.
On the morning of May 30 the fleet moved farther up the river and anchored between two islands that the French had named Boisée and Guerrière. “The Country is beautiful,” wrote Captain McLane Tilton, commander of the Marine contingent, to his wife, Nannie, back home in Annapolis. …[It is] filled with lovely hills & valleys running in every direction and cultivated with grain of all kinds. … Everything is pretty and green, and the little thatched villages are snugly built in little nooks, surrounded by pines & other evergreens.”
That afternoon four Koreans approached the Colorado in a junk, made signs of friendship, and then came aboard. They brought a document that acknowledged receipt of the American letter and announced that the regent was sending some noblemen to hold a conference. The officers of the Colorado showed the messengers around the ship, regaled them with food, wine, and ale, and gave them presents. They also persuaded them to pose for photographs, the most interesting of which shows a happily grimacing Korean standing on the deck, arms loaded with empty Bass ale bottles, and clutching a long-stemmed pipe and a copy of Every Saturday , a Boston illustrated newspaper with a picture of Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts clearly visible on its front page.
The next day three Koreans, ostensibly the pre-announced noblemen, boarded the flagship. They looked important in their wide-brimmed hats and flowing silk robes, and they were carrying small wands, symbols of royal office. But they had no credentials, and questioning revealed that they were of inferior rank. The Koreans were trying the same trick the Japanese had tried on Commodore Perry, and Low reacted in the same way Perry had: he turned the conference over to a secretary, Edward Drew, and retired to his cabin.
Speaking in Chinese, Drew informed the officials that the American minister wished to enter into negotiation with their government, but would treat only with duly accredited persons of equal rank. He further stated—as had Perry in Japan—that on the morrow some survey vessels would ascend the river to take soundings (Rodgers, like Perry, wished to find a safer anchorage). It was hoped, Drew said, that the boats would not be molested.
To this last the officials, Rodgers later recalled, “made no reply which could indicate dissent”; instead, “their manner of nonobjection conveyed the impression of actual compliance with our wishes.” They then bowed politely and took their leave. As a matter of fact they had no authority to say Yes or No to anything. The regent had sent them simply to stall for time, in hopes that the Americans would lose patience and go away. It was the traditional Oriental tactic for dealing with barbarians.
At noon on June a the survey expedition set forth. It consisted of the two gunboats, the Monocacy and the Palos , plus four steam launches armed with howitzers. Although these ships would be passing the main Korean forts guarding the channel to Seoul, Rodgers believed that the envoys’ “tacit assurances” of yesterday precluded any danger. Commander Homer C. Blake of the Palos , who was in charge of the survey, disagreed. “In ten minutes,” he predicted, “we shall have a row.”
The steam launches chugged slowly up the river, followed by the Monocacy and the Palos . The banks on either side were high and densely wooded, with here and there a thatch-roofed village or a rice field. Then, as they approached the lower end of Kanghoa Island, a long line of earthworks and fluttering yellow flags came into view. Soon swarms of white-clad troops could also be seen, as well as scores of straw screens masking batteries of artillery. Through a spyglass an interpreter translated the Chinese characters on the largest of the yellow banners as reading “General Commanding.” Evidently the top Korean officer was there in person.
The current at this point in the river was extremely swift, and it carried the American vessels right past the forts. Suddenly a shot rang out from the parapet flying the “General Commanding” flag. In an instant the screens flew up and some two hundred cannons belched fire and smoke. A storm of lead and iron swept across the river; veterans of the Civil War declared later that it surpassed anything they had ever experienced. Yet only two seamen were wounded and the ships suffered no damage at all. The timing of the barrage had been poor, its aim worse. Moreover, most of the Korean cannons were of small caliber and limited range; mounted in fixed positions, they could not be traversed to hit a moving target.
The Americans promptly returned the fire, the Monocacy blasting the forts with eight-inch shells. Under this hammering the Koreans fled in panic, leaving behind numerous dead beside their practically useless guns. Seeing this, Commander Blake at first considered going ahead with the survey as planned, but the Monocacy had damaged herself on a submerged rock and was leaking badly. The American vessels steamed back down the river and rejoined the main fleet, where the sound of the cannonading had aroused much alarm.