Send in the Marines!

Chinese Imperial Colors

The United States’ first interest in China was demonstrated in 1784 when an American flagged merchant ship departed from New York bound for Canton, China. Denied access to British markets, which, given the number of ports then controlled by Great Britain, had a stifling effect on an emerging American economy.  Americans went to China looking for new markets to buy goods.  They were well received by the Chinese, and in fact some historians have suggested that the Chinese preferred dealing with Americans who wanted to purchase Chinese made goods, while the European nations were only interested in selling to the Chinese.

By the mid-1800s, Sino-American relationships had grown.  The interest in markets continued, but so too did an interest in converting millions of Chinese to the Christian faith.  Christian missionaries were among the first Americans to study Chinese language, culture, and history—and it was these missionaries that helped to shape America’s overall perceptions of Imperial China.

As for the Chinese, America was seen as a land of opportunity.  Thousands of Chinese migrated to the United States during the California gold rush, and labor was in high demand to help build transcontinental railway systems.  Some Chinese leaders were so inspired by the American political system that they sought to model a new China on the American Republic.

Thus, for much of America’s history, relationships between the United States and China were positive. In the late Nineteenth Century, however, European powers and Imperial Japan were expanding their colonial interests. Some of these wanted to break China up into colonies, each of these controlled by one European power or another.

The Chinese “Boxer”

Discontent with foreigners had been on the rise in China since 1898, when the “I Ho Ch’uan Society” (Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists) began gaining popularity in northwest China. This group, commonly referred to as Boxers, opposed foreign influence and developed strong opposition to Christian missionaries.  As the Boxers became better known, their ranks swelled with farmers and laborers who were adversely affected by droughts that had come on the heels of devastating floods.  The Boxers believed that these misfortunes were the result of foreigners and Christian missionaries.

Over time, Boxer activity spread to additional provinces; provincial leaders, as well as the Imperial Court were inconsistent in their stand relative to the issues.  On some occasions, Chinese authorities sought to protect foreigners and Christians.  At other times, these same officials stood by and watched the resentment escalate.  Tzu Hsi, the empress dowager of the Manchu Dynasty, was publicly anti-Boxer, but privately she encouraged the Boxers.

Turn of the Century cartoon depicting Uncle Sam dictating the Open Door Policy to European and other interests.

In the fall of 1899, the United States was a late arrival in China.  Nevertheless, the US wanted to maintain what Secretary of State John Hay called an “open door” policy in China.  That is to say, a proposal that China keep its door open to foreign trade, but at the same time barring any foreign nation from controlling the internal affairs of China.  If the Boxers succeeded in pushing the United States and other foreign countries out of China, this newly opened door could soon be shut.  Secretary Hay maintained that it was in America’s best interests to maintain an independent China.  Nevertheless, maintaining an open door in China was a challenge, since nations seeking to colonize and control China pursued their own interests irrespective of what the United States thought.

In the next year, a crisis erupted in China as Boxers increased their resistance to foreign influence and presence.  This increased violence served as an impetus to the alliance of eight nations: Austria-Hungary, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Russia, Japan, and the United States.  Each of these nations maintained legations in Peking.  As the Boxers became progressively violent, hundreds of foreign missionaries and Chinese Christians began flocking into that city asking for the protection of the foreign legations.

On 28 – 29 May 1900, Boxers burned several strategically placed railroad stations.  Receiving word of this, the foreign legations wisely suspected that they were being systematically isolated, and it wasn’t long before they telegraphed for help.  The 8-nation alliance responded immediately.

LtCol John Twiggs Myers

On 31 May, Captain John Twiggs Myers, USMC [1] arrived in Peking in overall command of two ship’s detachments of American Marines.  This newly formed Legation Guard consisted of Myers’ twenty-five Marines from the USS Oregon along with Captain Newt Hall, USMC and twenty-three marines, five sailors, and an assistant surgeon from the USS Newark.  Also arriving in Peking were 350 sailors and naval infantry from other foreign nations.

A second multi-national force was organized on 10 June under the command of British Vice Admiral Sir Edward Seymour —the largest contingent of which were British, with but 112 American sailors and Marines.  US Navy Captain Bowman McCalla [2] was detailed to serve as Admiral Seymour’s second in command.  The Seymour Expedition traveled north, rebuilding the railroad line as they went—and did so with the Chinese government’s authorization.  The Chinese government knew that the railway lines between Tianjin and Peking had been severed —in fact, had ordered it done. It was a set up.

In Peking, the first Boxer was seen in the Legation Quarter on 11 June 1900.  The German Minister, Clemens von Ketteler, ordered his soldiers to capture the Boxer, who was but a young lad.  Inexplicably, Ketteler ordered the boy’s execution.  The boy’s death served as the catalyst of a massive attack by thousands of Boxers into the walled city, who commenced a systematic campaign of pillaging and burning Christian churches and cathedrals.  Captured Christians (foreign or Chinese) were burned alive.  American and British missionaries took refuge inside the Methodist Mission and an attack there was repulsed by US Marines.

The blood-letting continued as soldiers at the British and German Legations shot and killed several Boxers, further alienating the Chinese population, and the effect of which nudged the Qing government toward supporting the Boxers.  Vengeance-seeking Moslems soon joined the Boxers in attacking and killing Chinese Christians.

Vice Admiral Edward Seymour, Royal Navy

Seymour received news about the Chinese attacks on foreign legations on 18 June; he decided to continue his advance.  The expedition had come within 25-miles of Peking when it was set upon by overwhelming Chinese forces.  By the next day, Chinese resistance was so severe that Seymour was forced to withdraw. Two-hundred of his men had been either killed or wounded.  The expedition was low on food, ammunition, and medical supplies.  It was at this point that the expedition discovered a cache of munitions at an arsenal.  Seymour captured the arsenal, occupied it, and decided to wait for reinforcements.

Also on 18 June, the Chinese government informed the foreign ministers that a state of war would soon be in effect, unless the legations withdraw from China within the next 24-hours. As a plum, the Chinese government promised safe passage as far south as Tientsin.  On the following day, the foreign ministers announced that they had no intention of leaving China.  Thus, on 20 June 1900, as promised, the empress dowager issued her declaration of war that included praise for the Boxer insurrectionists.  A siege of the city began on that very day.

U. S. Marine Corps field uniform, c. 1900.

Chinese artillery and small arms fire became a constant form of harassment, although initially, there were no organized attacks against the foreign legations, but each agreed to form pro-active, mutually supporting military defense.  On 25 June, Marines placed themselves at a critical position on the Tartar Wall—otherwise, the entire legation would have been subjected to devastating fires from the Chinese rebels.

The Boxers constructed barricades some distance from the front of the Marine position.  During the night of 28 June, Private Richard Quinn reconnoitered one of these barricades by crawling on his hands and knees to the Chinese position, and in so doing, gathered vital intelligence about Boxer activities.  Each day, the Chinese moved their barriers closer to the Marine position on the Tartar Wall and by 2 July, these barricades had become unacceptably close to the Marine position.

Captain Myers responded by attacking the Chinese barricade.  At a time when the Chinese least expected it, Myers led an attack against the barricades on the Tartar Wall.  The Chinese fell back to another barricade hundreds of yards further on.  During the engagement, two Marines were killed, and Myers received a serious wound to his leg from a Chinese lance.  With Myers seriously wounded, Captain Hall assumed command of the Guard.  An informal truce was made on 16 July, although Chinese harassment continued until the foreign legations were relieved on 14 August 1900.

American Marines participated in several actions after Myers’s force reached Peking.  After the failure of the Seymour Expedition, the United States quickly scrambled additional troops to help end the siege of Peking. Two separate detachments of Marines left Cavite in the Philippine Islands and joined up near Taku, China. The first detachment consisted of 107 Marines from the 1stMarines, who left Cavite on USS Solace.  A second detachment of thirty-two marines sailed from Cavite aboard USS Nashville.  These two detachments were combined to form a battalion under the command of Maj. Littleton W. T. Waller.  On 20 June, the Marine battalion, augmented by approximately four hundred Russian soldiers engaged the Chinese near Tientsin.

Although the marines served as the spearhead of the American-Russian attack, they had scant success against the greater Chinese force.  Following an overwhelming counterattack, Waller decided to withdraw. The Marines formed the rear guard of the retreat, in which they were pursued for four hours, ending up where they started, suffering three killed and seven wounded.

Two days later, Waller’s battalion and the Russian force were strengthened to two thousand men with the arrival of British, Russian, German, Italian, and Japanese troops.  This enlarged force went on the offensive the next day and took all but the inner walled city of Tientsin.  On 28 June, the international force relieved Seymour’s expedition, which had been held up for a month at the Hsi-Ku Arsenal north of Tientsin.

The 9thUS Infantry arrived on 6 July, joining the allied force near Tientsin.  The number of Marines serving in China increased when 318 men under the command of Colonel Robert L. Meade arrived on 10 July from the Philippines.  Meade’s Marines moved from the coast to Tientsin, where it joined Waller’s battalion with Colonel Meade assuming command of the all Marine forces.

The next day, the allied force launched an attack against Tientsin to rid the walled inner city of any remaining Boxer forces.  The attacking force, commanded by a British general officer, included American Marines, the 9th US Infantry, British, French, German, Japanese, and Russian infantry.  Fighting took place most of the day, but there was little to show for it.  Of the 451 Marines engaged in this action, seventeen enlisted men and four officers became casualties.  A Japanese night attack finally broke through the Chinese defenses, which allowed the international force to enter the walled city of Tientsin.

General Chaffee, U. S. Army

On July 30, US Army General Adna R. Chaffee [3] arrived in Tientsin and assumed command of all US forces in China.  Arriving with Chaffee was another battalion of Marines under the command of Major William P. Biddle [4], two battalions of the 14thUS Infantry, the 6thUS Cavalry, and one battery from the 5thUS Artillery.

The mission of the China Relief Expedition was to relieve the legations in Peking and protect American interests in China.  On 4 August 1900, the international force of approximately 18,000 combat troops left Tientsin for Peking.  Chaffee’s force of 2,500 Americans included 482 Marines.

On 5 August, Japanese infantry engaged and defeated a Chinese force at Pei-tsang.  The next day, Marines fought successfully at Yang-stun. The international force reached Peking and relieved the foreign legation on 14 August but experienced several casualties from heat exhaustion during the 85-mile march to Peking.

Upon reaching Peking, Marines aggressed the north gate to destroy Chinese snipers and set up an observation post.  Two enlisted men, along with First Lieutenant Smedley D. Butler, were wounded in the assault. By the time the siege was lifted, the Legation Guard suffered eighteen casualties: 7 were killed, 11 wounded, which included Captain Myers and the assistant surgeon.

Marines advanced to the Imperial City on the next day, but light resistance to the presence of foreign military forces continued throughout China for several months.  A Boxer Protocol was finally signed in September 1901. Afterwards, US Marines returned to their former assignments and locations.

Of those who served during the Boxer Rebellion, 33 enlisted men were awarded the Medal of Honor, including the first posthumous award of the Medal of Honor: Private Harry Fisher was killed on 16 July while engaged in combat on the Tartar Wall.  Private Dan Daly received his first Medal of Honor for heroic action on the night of 15 July.

Brevet Medal

At this time, military officers were not eligible for the award of the Medal of Honor; instead, those noted for courage under fire were distinguished by advancement of numbers in grade, or on occasion, they were awarded brevet rank [5].  Captain John T. Myers was brevetted Major; First Lieutenant Butler was advanced to brevet captain, and First Lieutenant Henry Leonard was advanced two numbers in grade.  Three officers who served during the Boxer Rebellion would become commandants of the United States Marine Corps.

In its aftermath, there was an unfortunate downside to the Boxer Rebellion.  A few civilians and members of the news media [6] first claimed and then reported that Captain Newt Hall was “over cautious” in the defense of the legation by abandoning the barricades —the suggestion being that in doing so, he jeopardized the safety of members of the legation [7].  The fact was that Captain Hall was a somewhat taciturn individual who was not especially liked by members of the legation, whereas Captain Myers was both personable and popular.  With his name sullied and given the competitive nature of service in the Marine Corps, Captain Hall demanded a court of inquiry.

RAdm Bowman H. McCalla, USN

Captain Bowman McCalla, USN, who, according to Marine Corps historian Colonel Robert Debs Heinl, Jr., was “neither fool nor faint of heart,” unreservedly recommended Hall for a brevet promotion for his conduct under fire in Peking [8].

Captain Hall’s court of inquiry convened on 1 March 1901 in Cavite, Philippine Islands.  It cleared Captain Hall of any malfeasance, but the wording of the court noted that he was not charged “for the reasons that he has already suffered enough for the worldwide publication and criticism for his conduct in Peking.” This was clearly a case of damnation by faint praise.

The Secretary of the Navy further confounded the issue when he approved brevet promotions for Myers and Hall but, in advancing Captain Myers four numbers in grade for eminent and conspicuous conduct, failed to give a similar compliment to Hall.

Nevertheless, Captain Hall served a full and distinguished career in the United States Marine Corps, retiring in grade of Colonel in 1929.

Notes:

[1] The story of Handsome Jack of the Marines is told here.

[2] McCalla, later to serve as a Rear Admiral, was cited for conspicuous gallantry during this expedition.

[3] Adna Romanza Chaffee (April 14, 1842 – November 1, 1914) played a key role in the US Civil War, the Indian Wars, Spanish-American War, and the Boxer Rebellion.  He rose to the rank of lieutenant general, United States Army and served as Chief of Staff from 1904 to 1906.

[4] William P. Biddle served as a United States Marine from 1875 to 1919.  He participated in the Spanish-American War, Battle of Manila Bay, Boxer Rebellion, China Relief Expedition, Philippine-American War, and World War I.  He was the 11th Commandant of the U. S. Marine Corps from 1910 to 1914.

[5] A warrant that gave commissioned officers a higher title in rank in recognition for gallantry or meritorious conduct in battle without conferring authority, precedence, or pay of actual rank/promotion.  An officer so promoted was referred to as Brevet Major or other ranks.  An officer so promoted would be noted as Bvt. Major Harold Jones.

[6] G. E. Morrison, The London Times, as one of the complainants.

[7] The late Marine historian, retired Colonel Robert Debs Heinl Jr., in Soldiers of the Sea, wrote, “Other charges circulated that Hall had hesitated to lead his men forward over the barricade on the final day when relief was in sight.  Ugly talk it was,” noted Heinl. The talk came to the attention of U.S. Army Major General Adna R. Chaffee, who commanded all U.S. forces in China.  He detailed Captain William Crozier, who had distinguished himself in the relief column, to look into it. Crozier found that virtually all the complaints were from civilians (who would not know courage if it bit them on the leg) and recommended no further action.

[8] It was at about this same time that Century Magazine published a slanderous, attack on Hall by a civilian named W. N. Pethick, who had been at Peking during the siege.