- 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 were incensed by the attack on their ships. It was, they felt, an act of premeditated treachery, a deliberate affront to the flag that they could not and would not ignore. Accordingly they sent word to the Korean government (by attaching a message to a stake on Guerrière Island) that unless it apologized within ten days there would be armed reprisal. At the same time Rodgers ordered preparations made for an amphibious assault on Kanghoa Island.
Both the Admiral and the Minister were of the opinion that, in Low’s words, “It is mistaken policy when dealing with oriental governments and peoples to allow insults and injuries to go unredressed. Such leniency leads them to believe that fear alone prevents retaliation, and adds to their arrogance, conceit, and hostility.” He and Rodgers further believed that retaliation would not lessen the chances of negotiation but instead might actually improve them, for (again to quote Low) “evidences were multiplying that all our overtures made in a conciliatory spirit would be peremptorily rejected.”
Five days later, on June 7, a junk approached the Colorado and a messenger came aboard with two letters in Chinese, one from the King, the other from the governor of Kanghoa Island. The first (which was a copy of a communication sent to Low via the Chinese, but which he had not received prior to leaving Peking) denied that the Koreans had been at fault in the General Sherman affair, cited several instances in which they had aided shipwrecked American sailors, and declared that nonintercourse with foreigners was the immutable policy of the land.
The governor’s letter, far from apologizing for the attack on the survey fleet, asserted that the commander of the forts had simply done his duty, for “when your honorable vessels, not considering the fixed regulations of another country, penetrated its important pass, how could the officers, appointed to guard the portals of the frontier … calmly let it go by as of no consequence?” The governor closed by expressing concern that the Americans might be hungry after “a voyage of 10,000 li of wind and wave,” and offered “as a trifling assistance to your table” three bullocks, fifty chickens, and ten thousand eggs.
Rodgers angrily denounced the governor’s message as “insulting” and refused to accept the proffered gifts. Low did not even consider it worthy of an answer.
And thus it was that late on the morning of June 10 the Monocacy , the Palos , and the four steam launches again began puffing their way up the river. The Palos had in tow twenty longboats packed with a landing party of 546 sailors and 105 marines equipped with Remington breech-loading carbines and seven howitzers. Besides its regular armament, the Monocacy mounted two nine-inch guns from the Colorado . Again Blake was in over-all command of the operation, which had as its objective the destruction of all fortifications on Kanghoa Island. He and his men were confident that soon they would give the Koreans a “good drubbing” and then “kick their mud forts down the hill.”
At 1 P.M. the Monocacy began shelling the southernmost fort on the island. Its garrison quickly fled, and American marines and sailors, headed by Commander Lewis A. Kimberly, splashed ashore. To their dismay they found themselves wallowing up to their knees, even to their waists, in the slimy goo of the mud flat. Cursing and sweating, losing their shoes and ripping their trousers, they struggled across to firm land, a dozen men being needed to drag, sometimes literally to carry, each howitzer. They then pushed on and occupied the abandoned fort, where they spent the rest of the day destroying the Korean installations.
Meanwhile the Monocacy proceeded farther upstream and opened fire on the “middle” fort. This time the Koreans responded vigorously with their artillery, but did no damage other than to cut some rigging. The Monocacy continued to pound the fort, until nightfall caused it to break off the engagement. The Palos , while moving to support her sister ship, ran aground on an unseen rock. Not until the next day, and only after much difficulty, did she get off, taking water through a bad gash in her hull.
Kimberly established two camps, one for his sailors near the captured fort, the other some distance away for his marines. Toward midnight, hundreds of Korean troops, ghostlike in the summer darkness, approached the camps, howling, beating drums, and firing wildly. A few salvos from the howitzers scattered them, and they did not come back.
At dawn the Monocacy resumed shelling the middle fort. At the same time, Kimberly’s column approached it up the riverbank. Fearful of being cut off, the defenders fled without firing a shot. They left behind sixty loaded cannons—all brass breechloaders with two-inch bores. Kimberly detailed a work party to tumble these ridiculous pieces into the river, and with the bulk of his force moved on to attack the main fort at the northern end of the island.