|Korean dead in the ruins of the Gwangeong Citadel.|
A fat book could be made out of forgotten and neglected foreign wars or interventions by the United States. Take the war in Korea, for instance. No, not the one when Harry Truman sent American forces to try to repel and invasion of the South by the Communist North in 1950, although I know veterans of that conflict have taken to calling it a forgotten war. No, I have in mind an action nearly 80 years earlier. Never heard of it? Well pull up a stool and I will tell you all about it.
In American military and naval annals it is listed, mostly as a footnote, as the United States expedition to Korea of 1871. It is best remembered as the first foreign conflict in which Medals of Honor were awarded. The Koreans, who have a keener memory of such things, call it the Shinmiyangyo.
Korea in the late 19th Century was one of the most isolated nations on earth. The history of this peninsular nation in northern Asia was a tragic one of repeated invasions or attempted invasions by neighboring China, Japan, and Manchuria. The response of the ruling Joseon Dynasty which came to power in 1392 and had ruled and shaped the nation as a Confucian culture and state, was extreme isolationism—a virtual exclusion of all contact and trade with the rest of the world. That policy was being tested again by pressure from Japan, the introduction of Catholicism by missionaries in the late 18th Century, and demands of European powers for concessions and trade privileges.
In 1866 the French launched a punitive expedition against Korea in retaliation for a massacre of Catholics that included French Priests and to demand trade concessions. A sizable French force landed on the fortress island of Ganghwa which guarded the approach to the capital of Seoul. After six weeks of fighting, the French ignominiously were forced to withdraw. The ruling Joseon Dynasty, weakened by internal descent was strengthened and probably deluded about its military capacity. It re-affirmed its isolation and in the West became known as the Hermit Kingdom.
As for the United States, having spanned its own continent and emerged united from the Civil War, the country continued to look westward to the Pacific all the way to the shores of Asia to expand its influence and to secure free and equal access to the trade of all Asian ports. Spurred on by the Navy, a force in search of a mission to keep it afloat in peace time, the government followed a policy to open trade relations with all nations and to check the growing power of its greatest rival the British Empire with its strong presence in China and naval superiority.
The first catalyst of the U.S action against Korea was the fate of the SS General Sherman, an American side wheel commercial steamer that had been hired by an English firm in China to try to open trade with Korea in 1866, the same year as the French adventure. The belligerent American Captain of the ship would not take a refusal to allow it to dock and captured Korean officials sent to inform him of the government policy. He then tried to move up river firing cannon as he went. The Koreans rallied and after several days of fighting and the loss of several Junks, the General Sherman was destroyed and her surviving crew taken captive—and were likely executed.
Also of official concern was the possible fate of Americans who were shipwrecked in Korean waters, although in the one confirmed case, the survivors were well treated and sent to China from where they could be repatriated. Finally, the U.S. sought to open Korean ports and sign a trade agreement.
Early April 1871 what might be called a heavily muscular diplomatic mission set sail for Korea. In Command was Rear Admiral John Rogers on board the USS Colorado the flagship of the Navy’s Asiatic Squadron, an iron-hulled three-masted steam screw frigate which had seen service in the Civil War. On board to handle negotiations was Frederick F. Low, the United States Ambassador to China. Also in the squadron were four other warships, the sloop of war USS Alaska, the armed tug USS Palos, the side-wheel gunboat USS Monocacy, and the screw sloop USS Benicia.
Admiral Rogers might be forgiven if he envisioned having the success and glory the Commodore Mathew Perry found in opening trade with Japan in 1854.
On June 1 Rogers arrived in Korean waters and successfully put men ashore to attempt to contact authorities. He crew reported encountering “men in white” who were reluctant to talk to him or take any message to the Emperor in his capital of Hanyang, modern day Seoul. Rogers’s men ashore reportedly politely told the Koreans that they would be exploring the area and “meant no harm.”
The Admiral then led his ships to the entry of the Han River leading to the capital—where foreign ships were explicitly forbidden to go. The flotilla came under ineffective cannon fire from fortresses on Ganghwa. The ships were not badly damaged, due “to the bad gunnery of the Coreans, whose fire, although very hot for the fifteen minutes in which they maintained it, was ill-directed, and consequently without effect.”
Rogers hotly demanded an official apology for the “unprovoked attack” and gave the Koreans a ten day deadline to reply. When those days lapsed, he quickly swung into action with a punitive raid on Ganghwa Island.
On June 10 hostilities began with an attack on the lightly defended Choji Garrison on the Salee River. The Koreans, members of the Tiger Hunters led by General Eo Jae-yeon were crudely armed with matchlock muskets which had been obsolete for nearly a hundred years in the West.
A force of 546 sailors and 105 Marines were put ashore to move on other objectives supported by 12-pound howitzers and guns from the flotilla. They quickly moved on and captured Deokjin Garrison, and Deokjin Fort, which they found abandoned. The Koreans fell back and regrouped at the well-fortified citadel of the Gwangseong Garrison. As the Americans advanced on the fort an attempt to flank them was repulsed,
American forces established strong artillery batteries on two hills overlooking the fort which was pounded by extensive shelling abetted by fire from the USS Monocacy operating close to shore in shallow Han River waters.
Navy Lt. Hugh McKee led a charge on the damaged fort. The Korean defenders with their slow loading matchlocks were hardly able to get off a single volley of fire before McKee reached the top of the wall leading his troops. He was felled by a ball immediately. Right behind him Commander Winfield Scott Schley personally shot the Korean who had wounded McKee. Several seamen rushed to the aid of McKee, fatally wounded in the groin. Meanwhile two Marines, Corporal Charles Brown of the USS Colorado’s guard and Private Hugh Purvis of the USS Alaska’s guard captured the personal flag of Eo Jae-yŏn and Private James Dougherty shot and killed the General. Carpenter Cyrus Hayden, a sailor from the USS Colorado planted the American Flag on the ramparts under heavy fire.
The whole battle for the fortress lasted 15 minutes from the breach of the walls. The surviving garrison, including the deputy commander, was taken prisoner. In all of the action that day the Koreans lost 243 dead and 20 captured, most of them wounded. American losses were three dead, including McKee, and ten wounded.
It was a brilliant military victory, especially considering that the Americans accomplished in a single day what the French had failed to do in six.
Despite the military glory, the diplomatic mission ended in abject failure. Rogers tried to use his prisoners as a bargaining chip to demand negotiations with the Koreans. The Koreans, for their part, flatly refused to negotiate, or even to take back the prisoners, who they considered traitors for surrendering. The squadron stood off Korean waters until July 1 fruitlessly waiting to begin talks. Frustrated and with fuel for his ships running low, Rogers had to break off contact and return with his primary objectives un-met. In the end Rogers left as empty handed as the French
The U.S. was unable to establish relations with Korea until 1886, after the Japanese forcibly opened trade there and the British had extracted concessions.
Nine sailors and six Marines including McKee, Brown, Purvis, Dougherty, Hayden, and three sailors who came to the aid of McKee were awarded the Medal of Honor. Admiral Rogers never claimed the fame and glory of Commodore Perry and faded into historical obscurity.
For the Koreans, especially, in the Communist North, which now so closely resembles the Hermit Kingdom, the whole experience of 19th Century contact with the Americans is celebrated. A story was invented making an ancestor of Kim Il Sung, the founder of the People’s Republic of Korea and of the dynasty that has ruled ever since, the local commander who sank the General Sherman. The American spy ship then USS Pueblo which was captured by the North Koreans in 1968 is now anchored at the site of the destruction of the General Sherman. And the fallen garrison of Gwangseong are celebrated as martyr/heroes like the Texicans at the Alamo.
Which is why you probably never heard of America’s first Korean War.