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
In the chapel of the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis there is a plaque:
Most people who read these words are somewhat puzzled: how was it that an American naval officer was killed fighting in Korea in 1871? Not many today are aware that long before 1950 the United States waged a brief but bloody war in that unhappy land.
In the nineteenth century, Korea was often and appropriately referred to as the “Hermit Kingdom.” By 1860 it was the last important Asiatic country still closed to the Western powers. In fact its only normal diplomatic and economic contact with the outside world was through China, which exercised an ill-defined suzerainty over it. The only Westerners who had been able to penetrate its confines were a handful of missionaries, who had entered in defiance of Korean laws and were subjected to constant persecution.
The Koreans were determined to preserve their isolation. They knew little of the West, and what they knew they disliked. To them the “shorthairs,” as they contemptuously dubbed all Westerners, were mere barbarians whose presence in their land would constitute a source of danger and corruption. Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry, at the head of a powerful American naval squadron, had journeyed to Japan in 1853 and 1854, returning with a commercial treaty that opened up Japan to the Western world; an active trade between China and the West had been going on for many decades. Japan and even great China might have admitted foreigners, but Korea? Never!
Unfortunately for the Koreans, their desire to be left alone ran counter to the ambitions of Western merchants, missionaries, and ministries, as well as to the realities of international life. It was only a question of time before one or another of the powers attempted to open up the peninsular kingdom. Ironically, it was the Koreans themselves who provided the excuse.
Early in 1866 the reactionary tacwongun (regent to his young son, King Kojong, and the real ruler of the country at the time) instituted a persecution of Christians, during which several French Catholic missionaries were tortured and then beheaded. On learning of these atrocities, the French minister to China sent a naval expedition against Seoul, Korea’s royal capital. But when French marines assaulted the forts guarding the river passage to Seoul, they were repulsed, with heavy losses. This victory elated the Koreans, increased their contempt for all white-skinned “barbarians,” and strengthened their determination to resist foreign “contamination.”
Just prior to the French fiasco, an American-owned merchantman, the General Sheman , had put into the Taedong River on the northwest coast of Korea. Ostensibly she came to trade, but the Koreans were suspicious that lier real object was to rob the graves of their ancient kings. Moreover, the Sherman ’s crew (mainly Malays and Chinese) probably provoked the local inhabitants. In any case, the natives seized the ship, burned her, and massacred all aboard.
Precise details of the fate of the General Sherman and her people did not come to light for many years, but news of her loss, and of the failure of the French expedition, readied Washington late in 1866. Secretary of State William H. Seward, a strong believer in Manifest Destiny, decided that the time had come to assert American power in Korea. He first proposed to Paris a joint United States-French intervention, but Napoleon Ill’s government (which understandably enough had no desire to cooperate with the nation that had just forced it out of Mexico) declined the offer. The Secretary then instructed his nephew, George F. Seward, consul general at Shanghai, to journey to Seoul and secure “redress” for the General Sherman “outrage.” Young Seward, however, reported that such a mission would be futile unless backed by force. Accordingly the Navy, at the State Department’s request, ordered a number of ships to the Orient for this purpose.
Seward’ left office in 1869, before the organization of a Korean expedition could be completed, but his successor, Hamilton Fish, went ahead with plans for such an expedition, though he broadened its aims. American merchants in China were urging that the peninsula be opened to trade, and the Russians and Japanese were moving in the same direction. On April 20, 1870, Fish wrote to Frederick F. Low, United States minister to China, instructing him to proceed to Seoul with units of the Asiatic Squadron. His primary goal woidd be to obtain guarantees of humane treatment for shipwrecked sailors, but he was also to seek a commercial treaty. Fish cautioned him to employ force only if it was necessary to uphold the honor of the flag.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.