Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry’s opening Japan in 1853 triggered a reaction in that nation which lasted for several years. The staunchly conservative Japanese took an anti-foreign stance and responded vehemently to what they perceived as the West’s intrusion into their heretofore isolated feudal society. This xenophobia manifested itself in the killing of foreigners and the disruption of trade—violent and destructive acts that frustrated western diplomats and east doubts about the about ability of the Tokugawa Shogunate to establish and maintain control over its more reactionary subjects.
In April 1862, when the Honorable Robert Hewson Pruyn arrived in Yedo (Tokyo) to assume his post as minister resident, Japan was at the height of anti-foreign agitation Secretary of State William H. Seward had given Pruyn broad discretion to carry out the United States's moderate and independent” policy toward Japan, but the diplomat knew that backing up the policy with a naval force equal to the task would not be easy.
The U. S. Navy was occupied by the American Civil War. Because it had summoned home most of its warships from overseas stations to blockade the coast of the Confederacy, it could spare few ships to “show the Hag.” The primary mission of the Navy in the Far East was the important, but frustrating, task of protecting Yankee whalers merchantmen from Confederate cruisers such as the Alabama. While coping with the secessionist South, the American government simply could not spare the naval forces necessary to make sure that Japan, which was also in the midst of domestic turmoil, would observe its treaties with the West.
In 1863, the daimyo of Choshu, one of the more recalcitrant and powerful of the feudal nobles, fortified the northern side of the Strait of Shimonoscki, a major waterway transited by ships engaged in the lucrative Nagasaki trade. That summer, forces of the daimyo, acting on what they claimed were orders of the Shogun to expel foreigners, fired on the American merchant steamer Pembroke and a vessel, thus serving notice that the strait was closed to foreign ships. In response to the Pembroke incident. Pruyn authorized the American steam sloop Wyoming, then on the East India station, to seek out and punish the guilty party. On 15 July 1863, the Wyoming, in a skillfully fought action, sank two of Choshu’s armed steamers, damaged a third, and exchanged fire with shore batteries. The French mounted a similar small-scale punitive expedition of their own. and a Dutch man-of-war, also attacked on passage through the strait, exchanged lire with the daimyo’s gunners.1
The western powers soon perceived that security for their ships transiting the strait depended on their ability to defend themselves, because the Japanese central government afforded no help. Reparations demanded of the Japanese for the attacks on western shipping did not come, and the strait remained closed. Then, in June 1864. Choshu's cannoneers fired on the American steamer Monitor. Another crisis loomed.
On 22 July. Minister Resident Pruyn and his western colleagues met to discuss measures to break the impasse. Agreeing that the existing situation was intolerable, these statesmen submitted a joint memorandum to the Shogun.' The British, American, French, and Dutch ministers promised to adopt a more energetic attitude to disabuse the daimyo of Choshu of the notion that western inactivity had been based on weakness or fear. They predicted that removing the obstructions to free navigation on the Inland Sea and destroying the batteries that menaced shipping would "ruin the prestige of the aggressor, open the eyes of the daimyos deceived by our inaction, and show the inanity of their means, and their incapability of standing before the science and military resources of the treaty powers.”3 The diplomats warned that if the Japanese made no changes in their policy within 20 days, they would place the resolution of the problem in the hands of the western military forces. Pruyn joined with the others in this memorandum, and then appealed personally to the daimyo of Choshu to heed the West’s warnings.
The daimyo’s response to Pruyn and the diplomats was not long in coming. On 10 August he sent two English-educated retainers, who told the officers of the British frigates Barrosa and Cormorant that the daimyo had been acting on the orders of the Emperor in obstructing the strait. The tenor of their responses convinced the Barrosa’s captain that force, not diplomacy, would open the strait. Soon afterward, on 12 August, the officers commanding the naval forces of the treaty powers convened in a council of war on board the British screw frigate Euryalus at Yokohama.
Pruyn knew the limits of any possible American participation in an allied venture. The previous summer, he had been able to count on the presence of the modem screw sloop Wyoming; at this juncture, the U. S. Navy’s sole warship in Japanese waters was the sloop-of-war Jamestown. She was 20 years old and did not have an auxiliary engine, a shortcoming in the three-knot currents of the Strait of Shimonoseki. Pruyn had already complained about the Jamestown to Secretary Seward, and on the day after the council of war met, he sent off another request for a better suited ship, though he admitted it would not arrive “in time for this movement.”4
Vice Admiral Sir Augustus Leopold Kuper, Knight Commander of the Bath, Royal Navy, commanding his navy’s East Indies and China Station and Rear Admiral Claude Jaures, commanding French naval forces in the China and Japan Seas, shared the American minister’s low estimation of the Jamestown's utility. Both flag officers agreed that the ship would be unsuited to operate in the strait. She would instead be more useful guarding Yokohama against violence directed toward foreigners. The British admiral feared that, should the Jamestown undertake anything more than a guardship role, embarrassing results would be inevitable. The New York Times correspondent in Kanagawa observed acidly: “It is a burning shame, and a great source of mortification to all Americans, that our government can furnish nothing better for our protection and support of our flag, in the whole East, from Bherring’s [sic] Strait to the Cape of Good Hope, than an old superannuated sailing vessel.”5
Despite the embarrassingly accurate appraisals of the Jamestown, it was apparent that the European commanders ardently desired American involvement. On 18 Au- ( gust, Pruyn, operating resourcefully within his broad discretionary powers and singularly unfettered by bureaucratic red tape, joined with Captain Cicero Price, the Jamestown's commanding officer, in chartering the Ta-Kiang. The latter was a 154-foot, 600-ton barkentine- rigged steamer, owned by one of the oldest American trading houses in the Orient.
Before a joint expedition could set out, however, a mail steamer arrived at Yokohama bearing Japanese diplomats home from Europe. They carried a copy of the recently ' signed convention with France that stipulated that the Japanese Government would open the Strait of Shimonoseki in three months. Word of the peaceful resolution of the problem prompted a suspension of the war plans and, accordingly, caused Pruyn to annul the Ta-Kiang's charter.
The Jamestown’s captain, however, labored under no ( illusions. Shrewdly recognizing the inability of the Shogun to control his unruly daimyo, Price wrote: “The opinion is entertained generally that the thing will have to be done vie et armis by the treaty powers,” the Shogun not having enough strength to “overcome the rebellious Prince of Nagato unaided.”6 Subsequent events proved Price’s skepticism well-founded, for the Shogun, instead of commending his envoys, condemned them and refused to acknowledge the convention. The abrupt cooling of the diplomatic climate revived plans for the expedition, and i Pruyn rechartered the steamer.
To command the chartered ship, Price selected a new Jamestown officer, Ensign Frederick Pearson. The 22- year-old Pennsylvanian was a recent Naval Academy graduate who had had extensive Civil War service. He was now instructed to proceed with the Ta-Kiang “to act in concert with the treaty powers ... to show the American flag . . . and to manifest to the Prince of Nagato that we are in accord with the other treaty powers and equally demand with them the right of passage through the strait without let or hindrance.” Price reminded the young officer that his ship was “not a man-of-war or prepared to attack the forts,” and defined his mission as “rendering any or other aid in your power to promote the common object,” such as towing boats, landing men, and receiving wounded on board. He further instructed him to consult with his seniors, particularly Vice Admiral Kuper, who would command the expedition.7
On the afternoon of 28 August, the Ta-Kiang warped alongside the Jamestown. The sloop-of-war transferred to the chartered steamer a 30-pounder Parrott gun, one of the most reliable and versatile rifled cannon of the period, one month’s rations for 15 men, 15 Sharps rifles, ordnance stores, and her completely outfitted fourth cutter. The next morning, Ensign Pearson, Surgeon Alexander M. Vedder, Master’s Mate James Butts, and 15 men from the Jamestown went on board the Ta-Kiang, augmenting the vessel’s 40-man merchant crew.8 That same day, the British squadron weighed anchor and sailed. The French frigate Semiramis and the Ta-Kiang followed later, proceeding independently.
Pearson’s improvised warship reached Hime Shima, the rendezvous point, on 1 September and anchored in company with the Dutch sloop-of-war Djambi at 8:00 P.M. By the next evening, the entire fleet had arrived: ten British, three French, four Dutch, and one American ship.9 Then, two hours before noon on the fourth, the combined fleet sailed, and soon transited the Inland Sea in three columns according to nationality, with the Ta-Kiang in the wake of the French ships.
Later that day, Kuper’s force reached its destination and dropped anchor off Shimonoseki. The hills concealed batteries which lay among the thick foliage halfway up the hillsides. Vice Admiral Kuper and Rear Admiral Jaures reconnoitered the terrain from offshore, and agreed that the fleet would attack the next day, “as soon as the tide should serve.” 10
At 4:10 P.M. on 5 September, a gun boomed from the Euryalus—a challenge to the daimyo that was immediately answered. The Japanese replied “smartly and with spirit” and took the western ships by surprise.11 The western sailors had imagined that their oriental foe “would not show fight.” 12 Flashes and puffs of smoke darted from the concealed batteries on the forest-cloaked hillsides as the Japanese served their guns with deadly efficiency, hulling many of the closer-in western ships.
The Ta-Kiang took part in the bombardment, her captain acting in conformity with the spirit of the orders given him by Captain Price several days before. Eighteen times the little ship’s Parrott gun spoke as Pearson brought his command within 2,000 yards of the Shimonoseki batteries. In an engagement more important for its symbolism than for its military aspects, Pearson, his bluejackets and merchant sailors, through the Ta-Kiang, identified the United States with the western effort. As Pruyn proudly reported to Secretary of State Seward, the ensign had conducted himself well, using the 30-pounder Parrott “with such precision and efficiency as to command universal admiration.” 13
The combined effect of the heavier Armstrong and Krupp guns soon forced the Japanese fire to slacken noticeably until it died out altogether by 5:30 P.M., when Pearson, from his vantage point, could see “that all batteries in sight were silenced.” 14 By nightfall on 5 September, the Ta-Kiang was anchored near the Nagato shore just beyond the British sloop Perseus and the Dutch gunboat Medusa. That evening, British and Dutch sailors from those two ships pulled ashore boldly and spiked the guns of one of the batteries before returning without loss.
The next morning, the Japanese initiated action at about 6:00 A.M., scoring hits on HMS Tartar and the French sloop Dupleix. The combined fleet returned the fire and maintained it intermittently throughout the day. At that point, Sir Augustus ordered a landing force ashore, composed of British, French, and Dutch sailors and marines.
The Ta-Kiang did not contribute any men, since she did not have enough to form a landing force, but she nevertheless took part in this phase of the venture. As one of the seven ships detailed to this task, she towed boats with French marines from the sloop Dupleix embarked. By noon, the landing force, under Vice Admiral Kuper’s personal direction, had taken the principal batteries, dismounting and spiking the guns, burning the carriages and platforms, and blowing up the magazines. The work of destruction completed, the British admiral, “deeming it inexpedient, from the very rugged and impenetrable nature of the country, to retain possession” of his position ashore during the night, ordered the landing force to embark at 4:00 P.M.15
As the French and Dutch contingents began moving back to their ships, the British forces lingered on shore. The battalion of Royal Marines marched down the line of deserted batteries toward the town of Shimonoseki, found it uninhabited (“a more desolate looking place can hardly be imagined,” a marine wrote afterward) and then retraced their steps back to the beach. To most of the British, “all thoughts of a skirmish” had “quite subsided” as each step took them closer to their boats.16
A strong force of Japanese, however, entertained other ideas and, determined that the British were not going to get off without a fight, suddenly attacked a column of bluejackets. As the sailors under Captain John H. I. Alexander, Kuper’s flag captain, crossed the foot of a marshy ravine flanked on each side by dense, wooded hills, the battalion of marines joined them. The scarlet-coated marines headed up the left side of the valley and the sailors took the right, advancing through a veritable hail of shot and arrows that “whizzed about pretty freely.”17
The British found a “strongly-placed stockaded barrack” protected by an 8-foot log palisade, and stormed it amid heavy fire. The attack carried the fort, but at a cost of seven dead and 26 wounded. As the sailors and marines swept into the position they found scores of dead Japanese, several clad in armor, but no wounded (the latter having been dragged off). Setting fire to the barracks and laying a trail of powder to the magazine (which, as one observer noted, “went off grandly when we were some little way off”), the British retired to the beach and reembarked in their boats.18
That night, the Ta-Kiang anchored near the French frigate Semiramis. Over the next two days she took on 23 of the 48 British sailors and marines who had been wounded in the course of the operation, along with a surgeon and several attendants to look after the casualties. On 8 September, an envoy from the embattled daimyo visited the Euryalus and produced letters and documents that induced Admirals Kuper and Jaures to allow two days’ truce. “On the afternoon of the 8th,” Pearson observed, “hostilities ceased, and the white flag was shown by all vessels of the fleet.”19
No further fighting occurred for several days as working parties ashore collected 62 Japanese guns of varying sizes. Meanwhile, Vice Admiral Kuper and Rear Admiral Jaures ordered Ensign Pearson to take the Ta-Kiang to Hime Shima to direct any vessels which might have arrived there to the strait. Under way on the ninth, the Ta-Kiang proceeded as directed but, finding no vessels waiting, returned to the fleet, having performed her part in the expedition “to the satisfaction of all concerned.”20
By the time the Ta-Kiang dropped anchor back off Shimonoseki on 10 September, the demonstration of western military power had achieved its desired effect. An envoy from the humbled daimyo, beset now by his own central government (which had deemed this an opportune time to bring Choshu to terms), returned to the Euryalus bearing written assurances that the kinds of things which had prompted the need for international force would never happen again. In addition, he proffered a ransom in gratitude for Kuper’s not putting the torch to Shimonoseki.
On the evening of the 21st, the Ta-Kiang made port at Yokohama, and, after transferring casualties from the ship, moored triumphantly alongside the Jamestown the next morning to turn over all unused equipment and the Parrott rifle. That same day, the 22d, the Ta-Kiang's brief career in the U. S. Navy came to an end, and she was returned to her shipping agents.
For its part in the operations at Shimonoseki, the United States received an equal share of the indemnity exacted from the Japanese, but Americans recoiled at what they perceived as European nations extorting treasure from the humbled orientals. Ultimately, nearly all of the American share went back to Japan, where it was used to build a breakwater at Yokohama.
In the eyes of Admiral Kuper, the American contribution to the success of the expedition had been significant enough to send a personal letter of thanks to the young American naval officer who fought his little chartered steamer like a man-of-war. The British also nominated Pearson for inclusion as a “Companion of the Military Division of the Order of the Bath,” but since the Constitution (and the U. S. Navy) looked askance at the decoration of an American naval officer by a foreign sovereign, he could not accept the honor.
Frederick Pearson rose to the rank of commander in the post-Civil War Navy, alternating his service afloat with ordnance duty ashore over the ensuing decades. His final command was the screw sloop Wachusett, before resigning his commission in 1885. He died of heart disease at his home in New York City two days before Christmas 1890, at the age of 48.
And what of the little ship he had fought so well? After Shimonoseki, the Ta-Kiang resumed merchant service, under the Japanese flag, as Oye or Ooe Maru. Some sources indicate that she may have returned to American registry as Peiho, under consular documents, in 1869. She apparently reverted back to her original name, Ta-Kiang, shortly thereafter, for that is the name under which she foundered and sank off Cape Inaboye, Japan, on 8 October 1869. All on board reached shore safely.
1. Report of Commander McDougal, U. S. Navy, commanding USS Wyoming, of the Engagement Between That Vessel and the Japanese Forces off Shimonoseki,” in U. S. Navy Department, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume 2, The Operations of the Cruisers, from I January 1863 to 31 March 1864 (Washington, D. C.: Government Printing Office, 1895), pp. 393-396. (Hereinafter the Official Records series will be abbreviated as ORN. with the pertinent series, volume, and page references).
2. Memorandum, Enclosure 2 to Letter, Pruyn to Seward, 10 August 1864, in Papers Relating to Foreign Affairs Accompanying the Annual Message of the President to the Second Session, Thirty-Eighth Congress, Part III (Washington, D. C.: Government Printing Office, 1865), pp. 531-532. (Hereinafter the Foreign Affairs volumes will be abbreviated as FRUS, with the year following; since the series came to be called Foreign Relations of the United States subsequently. This particular volume referred to above will be hereinafter referred to as FRUS 1864).
3. Ibid., p. 532.
4. Telegram, Pruyn to Seward, 13 August 1864, in FRUS 1864, p. 532.
5. New York Times, 4 November 1864. The Times correspondent’s letter from Kanagawa was dated 13 August 1864.
6. Letter, Price to Welles, 23 August 1864, in ORN Series I, Volume 3, The Operations of the Cruisers from 1 April 1864 to 30 December 1865, p. 193.
7. Letter, Price to Pearson, 18 August 1864, in ORN, Series I, Volume 3, p. 202.
8. Deck logs, USS Jamestown, 28-29 August 1864, in RG-24, Military Reference Branch, National Archives.
9. Letter, Pearson to Price, 21 September 1864, in ORN, Series I, Volume 3, p. 203. (Hereinafter, Pearson.)
10. Kuper's report of the Battle of Shimonoseki is contained in William Laird Clowes, The Royal Navy: A History from the Earliest Times to the Death of Queen Victoria (London: Sampson, Low, and Marston and Co., Ltd., 1903), Volume VII, p. 204. (Hereinafter, Clowes, with pertinent page reference.)
11. Clowes, p. 204.
12. Cyril Field, Britain’s Sea Soldiers: A History of the Royal Marines and Their Predecessors and Of Their Services in Action Ashore and Afloat, and Upon Sundry Other Occasions of Moment, Volume II (Liverpool: The Lyceum Press, 1924), p. 148. (Hereinafter, Field.)
13. Letter, Pruyn to Seward, 1 October 1864, FRUS 1864. p. 553.
15. Clowes, p. 205.
16. Field, p. 148.
17. Ibid., p. 148.
18. Ibid., p. 149.
20. Pearson. See also Price to Welles, 23 September 1864, in ORN Series I, Volume 3, p. 204.