- 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
The plain fact of the matter was that the loss of a few hundred troops meant nothing to the Seoul government. Indeed the loss of the capital itself, as long as the King was safe, would not have been particularly disturbing. Three hundred years before, the Japanese had occupied the entire peninsula but in the end had been forced to evacuate it. The same fate, the Koreans were confident, would befall these new invaders should they persist.
The Americans remained three more weeks at the mouth of the Han, vaguely hoping that the Koreans might even yet agree to negotiations, and making needed repairs on the Palos and the Monocacy . “We are heartily sick of this place,” wrote Captain Tilton to his wife on June 27. “The weather here is enough to give anyone the horrors. It is raining, blowing & fog over everything, and quite uncomfortably close.…” Finally, on July 3, the fleet raised anchor and set sail for China. A little over a month later, the first official accounts of what the New York Herald headlined as “Our Little War With the Heathen” appeared in the press. The curious public read d’f the fighting on Kanghoa Island, looked up “Corea” in their atlases, and then turned to the other interesting news of the day—Ku Klux Klan outrages in the South, the illness of Queen Victoria at Balmoral, and yachting at Newport. After all, Korea was far away, and it was not of real consequence to the United States—Seward, Fish, and the China merchants notwithstanding.
But in Korea, a hermit kingdom still, the departure of the barbarian ships was an occasion of great rejoicing and—this would have astonished Rodgers and his men—celebrations of victory. For since the Americans had not succeeded in establishing any meaningful contact with responsible Korean officials, the Koreans believed that the foreigners had merely come to avenge the deaths of pirates and robbers (the crew of the General Sherman ), but had been so discouraged by the fierce resistance of the Tiger Hunters that they had gone home and would never disturb their land again. Hence the regent had a monument erected in the center of Seoul to commemorate the defeat of the “Western Barbarians.” And when, a few years later, a Scottish missionary tried to convince a native of the military superiority of the West, he was answered with a snap of the fingers, “What care we for your foreign inventions? Even our boys laugh at all your weapons!”
Conceived by Seward, ordered by Fish, and headed by Rodgers and Low, the American expedition had been an attempt to do in Korea what Perry had done in Japan eighteen years earlier. Like most imitations, it failed. Not only did Korea remain closed, but its rulers were strengthened in their isolationist policy by the illusion of military victory over the despised Westerners. Of course it could be claimed in the United States, as indeed it was, that the honor of the flag had been upheld; but doubt must be expressed that the one-sided slaughter of poorly armed natives truly accomplished that end.
Essentially, America’s first Korean “war” was the tragic consequence of the mutual ignorance and reciprocal arrogance that have so often characterized contacts between East and West. To be sure, Rodgers and Low made mistakes, particularly in sending the survey expedition up the Han without a more definite assurance that it would not provoke an attack; and they might well have displayed less belligerence and more flexibility in dealing with the Koreans. But not all the fault, obviously, was on their side; it is doubtful that any other Americans of the time would have acted differently than these two able men, who had been given a mission which probably was hopeless from the start. When Perry’s “black ships” sailed into Tokyo Bay, internal conditions in Japan were ripe for an end to isolationism; in Korea eighteen years later they were not: China, which in the final analysis held the key to Korea, preferred in 1871 to keep the door closed.
Eleven years after Rodgers’ sailors and marines stormed the Citadel, another American naval officer, Commodore Robert W. Shufeldt, went to Korea. He had no gunboats or landing parties—only patience, understanding, and tact. With these, and aided by a more conciliatory attitude on the part of the Seoul regime and a diplomatic helping hand from the Chinese (whose policy regarding Korea had in the meantime changed), he made a commercial treaty which for the first time opened “the Land of the Morning Calm” to the Western world.
Unfortunately, Korea soon came under an oppressive Japanese domination, which in turn gave way in 1945 to an unnatural division between a Communist north and a Nationalist south. As a consequence, American fighting men returned to the banks of the Han River, this time not to open up Korea but to prevent it from again being sealed off completely from the West. Once more Americans did battle against Koreans—but struggling bravely by their side were other Koreans who, like those of 1871, were prepared to die rather than succumb to an alien way of life. In history things change; they also remain the same.