The United States developed a keen interest in Japan in 1853. On 8 July of that year, Commodore Matthew Perry led a squadron of US Naval vessels into the Harbor at Tokyo Bay. He was seeking to establish regular trade with the Japanese, diplomatic dialogue, and humane assistance for shipwrecked sailors. Initially, the Japanese weren’t having any of it, but they were impressed with modern technology demonstrated by Commodore Perry and today we are all living happily ever after.
After the Civil War, the US government wanted to continue establishing diplomatic relations with East Asian nations. So, in a manner similar to that demonstrated by Commodore Perry, a naval squadron was sent to support American diplomatic delegations hoping to establish trade and political relations with Korea. The US delegation also sought to ascertain the fate of SS General Sherman . On 1 June 1871, Korean shore batteries fired on American warships operating adjacent to the Korean island of Ganghwa. When Admiral John Rodgers failed to receive an apology from the Korean government within ten days of his demand, he initiated punitive action against the Joseon government.
On 10 June, Admiral Rogers landed 650 Americans; objective: capture and render ineffective coastal forts. In the doing of this, American forces killed 200 Korean defenders with a loss of only three American killed in action.
The expedition consisted of 550 sailors, 100 Marines, and five warships: Colorado, Alaska, Palos, Monocacy, and Benicia. Admiral Rogers’s flagship was the Colorado; embarked with him was Frederick F. Low, US Ambassador to China. The leading Korean was General Eo Jae-yeon commanding what Koreans called the Tiger Hunters.
The American first objective was a lightly defended garrison on Ganghwa along the Salee River. The second objective was a light garrison at Deokjin. The Koreans were poorly armed and denied effective range by American naval artillery and 12-pound howitzers. The American third objective was the Fort at Deokjin, which the Koreans promptly abandoned. Navy and Marine Corps shore party quickly dismantled the fort and continued to the Gwangseong Garrison, a citadel. By this time, Korean forces regrouped there. Along the way, Korean units attempted to flank the Americans, but they were beaten off by well-aimed artillery placed on two hills.
Artillery fire from ground forces and Monocacy offshore pounded the citadel in preparation for an assault by US forces. A force of 547 sailors and 100 Marines grouped on the hills west of the fortress (infantry troops were on the hill directly west of the fortress, while artillery troops on another hill both shelled the fortress and also covered the Americans’ flanks and rear) keeping cover and returning fire. Once the bombardments stopped, Navy Lieutenant Hugh McKee led the American charge at the Citadel.
Korean forces were armed with matchlock rifles, a fact that aided the Americans who were armed with Remington rolling block carbines. The Americans made it over the walls and found themselves confronting Korean troops armed with rocks. McKee was the first to enter the citadel, but he was fatally wounded. Commander Winfield Scott Schley was the second American to enter the citadel; he shot the Korean that had shot McKee. Corporal Charles Brown from the Colorado and Private Hugh Purvis from the Alaska captured General Eo’s standard. Private James Dougherty killed General Eo when he failed to surrender. Corporal Brown, Privates Dougherty and Purvis, and Carpenter Haydn received the Medal of Honor for their courage under fire.
The fighting only lasted fifteen minutes; in the end, 243 Koreans lay dead. American killed in action included Lieutenant McKee, Seaman Seth Allen, and Private Denis Hanrahan. Ten additional Americans received battle wounds. Twenty Koreans were captured. In total, the Americans captured five forts, dozens of various sized cannon, and while the Americans hoped to use the captives as bargaining chips with the Korean government, the Koreans refused —referring to the captives as cowards. One of these included General Eo’s deputy commander.
Diplomatically, the mission was a failure. The Koreans simply refused to negotiate and the American aggression led the regent Daewon-gun to strengthen his policy of isolation. He issued a nation proclamation against appeasing foreigners. On the other side of this coin, there were no further attacks on foreign ships. In 1876, Korea established a treaty with Japan after the Japanese Navy threatened to fire on the city of Seoul; apparently the Japanese learned quite a bit from Commodore Perry twenty-three years earlier. The development of a Japanese Navy in that time period is nothing short of remarkable. Treaties between Korea and European countries and the US soon followed.
In addition to the Marines receiving the Medal of Honor for this engagement were:
Chief Quartermaster Grace
Quartermaster Troy, Franklin, and Rogers.
Boatswain’s Mate McKenzie
Ordinary Seaman Andrews
Landsman Lukes and Merton
These were also the first medals of honor awarded by the United States for a foreign engagement.
From April-May 1882, the United States and Korea negotiated and approved a 14-article treaty. The treaty established mutual friendship and mutual assistance in case of foreign attack, and also addressed such specific matters as extraterritorial rights for American citizens in Korea and most favored nation trade status. The treaty remained in effect until Japan’s annexation of Korea in 1910.
The next conflict in Korea involving the United States occurred in June 1950.
 The General Sherman was a US merchant side-wheel steamer that visited Korea in 1866. After passing the Keupsa Gate without permission of the Korean government, the ship was attacked. Ships company battled for several days, but ultimately the ship was destroyed.
3 thoughts on “War in Korea, 1871”
The battle loss of The General Sherman was a stunner. Another instance when brave men who lost their lives are overlooked in the public realm.
The story of this land battle was also unknown to me. Incredibly fascinating find in history for me.
Another important link in history I had never known of.
“the Americans hoped to use the captives as bargaining chips … the Koreans refused.” Do you think we learned anything about the ‘asian’ outlook, especially the attitude of Japanese captors in WW2? Were they expecting that? Or did this get lost in collective memory.
One of the great things Marine Corps leadership has done over many years is to create various documents and historical publications that we might label, “Lessons Learned in Combat.” The purpose of this is not to glorify or chastise any commander or unit, but hopefully to prevent making the same mistakes as previously. Mistakes are always a factor in war, and if we make them, then we must learn from them. If we learn from them, we may be able to save lives; if we do not, then we may end up squandering lives. I feel certain the US Army has a program similar to the one I have described; not sure about the Navy and Air Force.
What seems missing, particularly considering the genesis of most of our diplomats under the spoils system, is a program of learning lessons from failed diplomacy. Have the diplomats ever undertaken such programs beyond collecting communiqués for a book one day? I do not know the answer. I only know that it seems as if we never learn the lessons of history. Otherwise, we would have stopped voting for Democrats somewhere around 1936.
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