- 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
This was a much more formidable fortification than the ones already so easily taken. The Americans called it “the Citadel.” It crowned a steep hill 150 feet high and mounted 143 guns. Moreover, it was garrisoned by the elite of the Korean army—the “Tiger Hunters.” These were men from the Yalu River region, each of whom had killed at least one tiger singlehandedly, and all of whom were sworn to fight to the death. Flapping above the fort was the huge yellow “General Commanding” banner.
Kimberly’s men marched under a blazing sun across a series of hills and ravines. Several times they had to halt while pioneering parties levelled and widened the trail, cut down bushes, or filled in hollows. Whole companies were needed to pull the howitzers, sometimes being forced to lower them into gorges, then haul them out on the other side. Several marines and sailors fainted from heat and exhaustion; others became ill.
As they neared the Citadel, Korean troops began massing on their left. Kimberly at once detached about a third of his force and five howitzers to counter this threat. The rest of the column, under the immediate command of Lieutenant Commander Silas Casey, then took up an assault position in a ravine at the bottom of the hill on which the Citadel stood. Just as they did so, the Koreans outside the fort charged. But, as before, the howitzers quickly smashed their ranks and they made no further attacks.
All that time the Monocacy , steaming up the river abreast of the landing party, had been bombarding the Citadel. Now Kimberly’s howitzers joined in, lobbing their projectiles right on top of the Korean works. After an hour the fort’s cannons no longer replied. Kimberly thereupon signalled the Monocacy to cease firing and Casey ordered his men, who had been blazing away at the fort with their rifles, to charge.
They rose with a yell and surged up the hillside, officers in front. A hail of metal from musket and cannon met them, but most of the missiles passed harmlessly over their heads, as the defenders were unable to depress their artillery pieces low enough to take proper aim. The Tiger Hunters, realizing they did not have time to reload, then threw down their muskets and mounted the parapet, swords and spears in hand, chanting a blood-curdling war song; some, in desperation, even threw stones at the onrushing bluecoats.
Lieutenant Hugh W. McKee was the first to enter the fort. Immediately he was struck by a bullet in the groin and a Korean thrust a spear into his thigh. His assailant then lunged at Lieutenant Commander Winfield Scott Schley. The spear pierced Schley’s left sleeve, pinning it to his coat. A moment later Schley shot the Korean down. (Schley survived and later became an admiral and the controversial commander of the “Flying Squadron” in the Battle of Santiago de Cuba during the Spanish-American War.)
A fierce hand-to-hand struggle took place inside the fort, carbines and cutlasses opposing swords and spears. Many of the Tiger Hunters wore cotton armor nine layers thick and could be stopped only by bullets fired at close range. On the other hand, their swords were made of such soft iron that on contact with the American sabers they bent instead of cutting. All the defenders fought with fanatical courage until killed or badly wounded; not one surrendered voluntarily. In a number of instances weaponless Koreans even scooped up gravel and threw it into the faces of the Americans. The few small groups who did try to escape were mowed down “like rabbits” by detachments Casey had posted outside the fort.
In the end about a hundred surviving Tiger Hunters fled down the hill to the river, where they drowned themselves or cut their own throats; among the latter was the commanding general. At 12:45 P.M . Private Hugh Purvis, U.S.M.C., cut down the generalissimo’s large yellow flag and ran up the Stars and Stripes. The battle was over.
Piles of crumpled, white-clad corpses lay in and around the Citadel. Fires had broken out, and there was a sickening smell of burning flesh. Many of the Korean wounded, rather than surrender, silently suffered living cremation. An American sailor, distressed by this scene of horror, asked Marine Captain Tilton for permission to spare the badly wounded by shooting them in the head; Tilton replied that this would be murder and that he must let them remain as they were. In all about 350 Tiger Hunters died in the fighting, and only twenty, all of them wounded, were taken prisoner. The victors’ losses, on the other hand, consisted only of McKee and two others killed, and ten wounded. As so often before and since, unsurpassable bravery had proved no match for equal courage supported by superior weapons and tactics.
Kimberly’s men remained on the island until the following morning, levelling the fortifications to the ground, burying the dead, and proudly posing for photographs. They then re-embarked and, their boats crammed with trophies, returned with the rest of the expedition to the anchorage, where booming cannons and ringing cheers welcomed them back.
The capture of Kanghoa opened the way to Seoul, but Rodgers had neither the means nor the authority to seize the capital. Moreover, it soon became obvious that the Koreans had not been chastened. When Rodgers offered to return the prisoners, the local governor replied contemptuously: “Do as you please with them.” He put them ashore, therefore, to meet whatever fate befell those who, according to the Korean fighting code, were considered already dead.