We read much about the current American intervention in Korea, but little has been written about our first intervention there seventy-six years ago. This interests us today not only as the first American intervention in Korea but also as the largest single naval operation between the Civil and Spanish-American Wars and as an example of an early amphibious operation, this first intervention was occasioned by two factors: first, an attempt to open trade, and second, to secure satisfaction for the loss of the American trading schooner General Sherman in Korean waters.
In 1871 Korea, “The Hermit Kingdom,” was under the suzerainty of the Manchu Emperor of China but had pursued a policy of complete seclusion since the invasions of Hideyoshi in 1592 and 1597. By Korean law any violation of this seclusion was punishable by death, as several French missionaries discovered in 1866 when the government took steps to combat the spread of Christianity. This led to the French punitive expedition under Admiral Roze which in October, 1866, attacked the Korean positions on Kang-wha Island and was badly beaten. However, when the American ship Surprise was shipwrecked on the coast in June, 1866, the crew was well treated and returned to the outside world through China.
The immediate cause of the American expedition was the destruction of the American trading schooner General Sherman in Korean waters in September, 1866. This vessel was owned and commanded by an American, W. B. Preston, and carried a mixed crew of Americans, Englishmen, Malays, Chinese, and Portuguese. The ship left Chefoo on August 8, 1866, in an attempt to open trade with the Koreans at Heijo and was able to penetrate well inland on the Ping-yang River because of the very high water. This was done over the strenuous objections of the Korean officials. However, when the water receded, the ship was left stranded on a sand bar. This presented a very serious problem to the Korean authorities: how to keep these foreigners from contaminating the natives, since it would take considerable time before the General Sherman could be gotten out. This dilemma was settled by an order from the King- Regent to burn the ship and kill the crew. Consequently fire rafts were sent down upon the ship and the crew killed as they attempted to escape ashore.
News of the destruction of the General Sherman did not reach the outside until November, 1866. Then word was received through Chinese officials at Peking that the ship had been wrecked on the Korean coast, while later word from the French punitive expedition was more accurate. Consequently Commander Robert W. Shufeldt, U. S. Navy, who was later to negotiate the first treaty between Korea and a Western Power, was ordered with his ship, the Wachusett, to Korean waters to investigate, but he found the Korean authorities uncooperative and was able to do little more than confirm what was already known.
In April, 1868, Commander John C. Febieger in the Shenandoah was sent on the same mission, but he met with like failure as the Koreans refused to deal with anybody who did not come under direct instructions from “the sovereign of the United States.” On the strength of this apparent willingness of the Koreans to negotiate with a special envoy and a persistent rumor that four of the General Sherman’s crew were still alive but held in captivity, and on the advice of Frederick F. Low, the Minister to China, and George F. Seward, the Consul General at Shanghai, both of whom felt that a strong show of force would have a restraining effect on the anti-foreign feeling then prevelant in China, an expedition was authorized. Rear Admiral John Rodgers, Commanding the United States Asiatic Squadron, was ordered to convey Minister Low, as special American envoy, to Seoul, the capital of Korea, and to support him with force if necessary. Low was instructed to demand an audience with the King-Regent of Korea and to secure satisfaction for the destruction of the General Sherman. Low was also instructed to arrange and conclude, if possible, a convention for the protection of foreigners shipwrecked in Korea.
As a consequence of their orders Rodgers and Low conferred at Peking in November, 1870. They agreed to follow a plan based on the one used so successfully by Commodore Perry in Japan. According to this plan, after Low had informed the Korean authorities of the purpose of the visit, the fleet would sail away, to return in a month for the Korean answer. The following May was set as the opening of the operation.
Consequently, Admiral Rodgers ordered a force consisting of the flagship Colorado (Captain Cooper), Alaska (Commander Blake), Benicia (Commander Kimberly), Monocacy (Commander McCrea), and Palos (Lieutenant Rockwell) to assemble at Nagasaki in late April and early May. On May 2 the last ship, the Colorado, arrived carrying Minister Low and his party of two secretaries, two Chinese interpreters, and five shipwrecked Koreans.
The next two weeks were spent in training the squadron, particularly the landing force. According to Admiral Schley, who was there, after this training period “It is doubtful if there was a more efficient, better trained, or more capable squadron afloat.”
On May 16, 1871, the squadron cleared Nagasaki and headed west across the East China Sea until it was off Quelpart Island. There it headed northwest until it touched the Korean coast. On reaching the coast the squadron proceeded slowly and with the utmost caution, as the charts with which the squadron had been provided were found to be practically useless. The charts were from a set made up by the French punitive expedition of 1866. On May 19 the squadron anchored in the Ferriéres Islands. It then moved slowly up the coast in dense fog to Roze Roads off Eugenie Island, where it arrived on May 23. Here the first communication was established with the Koreans. An unofficial note from the Koreans was sent to the squadron requesting the nationality of the squadron and the purpose of the visit. Minister Low and Admiral Rodgers sent back a note stating that the squadron was American and its mission friendly, and requesting an interview with the proper officials. This American note was sent by the Korean officials ashore to the authorities at the capital, but no immediate answer was forthcoming. The squadron waited a week in Roze Roads for the answer, spending the time surveying the route to Isle Boisée.
The squadron then moved up to the Isle Boisée anchorage, arriving there on the morning of May 30. This anchorage is just inside the mouth of the Salée River not far from the present day city of Jinsen. All the ensuing operations of the expedition were based on this anchorage.
Later, on the 30th, a Korean junk was sighted bearing down on the squadron. It came to anchor amid the squadron and proved to contain four lesser Korean officials who bore a letter stating that high officials were on the way from Seoul and that they would probably arrive the next day, which they did. When these officials arrived, however, they were a great let-down, as it turned out that they were only officials of the third and fifth rank, without any credentials and quite evidently without any plenipotentiary powers. Minister Low refused to see them, sending instead his secretaries who informed the Koreans that only officials of the first rank, empowered to conduct negotiations, would be received, and that only to such officials would the full purpose of the American mission be made known. The Koreans on their part stated that if the squadron was in Korean waters because it lacked provisions, then the Korean government would be glad to furnish them. They requested in any event that the squadron please leave Korean waters, as the Koreans had no interest in foreigners. The Americans were also informed that if their mission was to change the Korean way of life they would not succeed, as the Korean civilization had stood for 4,000 years against all comers. Admiral Rodgers feared the approaching typhoon season and wished to move his force farther up the Salée River away from the open anchorage off Isle Boisée, and so informed the Korean officials. No objections were raised by them, so preparations were made to begin surveying the river the next morning.
A well armed surveying expedition was organized under Commander H. C. Blake in the Palos. He had with him the Monocacy and four steam launches under Lieutenant Commander H. F. Picking. This force left the Isle Boisée anchorage at about 1200, June 1. It worked its way about ten miles up the Salée to a point where the river takes a sharp double bend between high banks. Here the current, which below the bend was very swift because of 20 to 30 foot spring tides and high flood waters, was about eight knots, or just fast enough that the larger ships could not go slow enough for the launches to take accurate soundings or sights. The current was also swift enough to throw the force almost out of control under Point Sun-tol-mok. This was a distinct disadvantage as the Koreans chose this time to open fire from the forts that lined the river. The Koreans fired first on the three launches that were in the lead and then on the two larger vessels as they swept past. The Benicia's launch had fallen behind with a fouled screw and had to run this gauntlet alone a little later. The surveying force immediately returned the fire, the ships having cleared for action when the fortifications were sighted and seen to be manned. The fire of the surveying force drove the Koreans from their guns, and the force was able to anchor around the second bend, in the calm water under Hydrographer’s Fort, with only two men wounded, one of whom had lost two fingers when a launch howitzer recoiled on his hand, and a few rigging lines cut in the larger vessels. It was discovered later that one of the chief reasons for the phenomenally poor shooting of the Koreans was their guns. These lacked any lateral train and were set for a fixed range.
While running through the second bend, the Monocacy hit a large uncharted rock but was able to get off almost immediately, although leaking badly. When the tide turned, Commander Blake returned to the main force at Isle Boisée anchorage without meeting any further opposition from the Korean batteries.
When Admiral Rodgers received Commander Blake’s report he issued orders to Lieutenant Commander W. S. Schley to organize a force to return the next morning and destroy the Korean batteries. However, these orders were cancelled later in the evening, it having been decided to postpone the attack for ten days. Several factors contributed to bringing about this delay. First, it gave the Koreans more time to answer Minister Low’s demand of May 31, that they send a high official to negotiate. Secondly, it gave them more time to make a suitable reply to Low’s most recent note of June 2, demanding amends for and disavowal of the attack on the surveying force. Thirdly, in ten days neap tides would occur which would reduce the strength of the current. The delay also gave the squadron more time to prepare the attack.
No answer was made by the Koreans until June 9, when an answer arrived to Low’s note of June 2. The Korean answer stated that it was the practice of the Koreans “to fire upon all who attempted to pass the gates of their empire,” and that the commander of the forts only did his duty. The Korean note again pointed out that if the squadron needed supplies, the Koreans would be glad to furnish them, but that Korea had no interest in intercourse with the outside world.
The attack was set for the next afternoon, June 10. It was decided to confine the punishment to the destruction of the forts which had fired on the surveying party. This was undoubtedly due to an unwillingness on Rodgers’ part to allow his landing force to get out of range of the supporting naval guns, in view of the earlier defeat of the French punitive expedition when it pursued the Koreans inland.
The landing force was organized into ten infantry companies of about fifty men apiece, and two batteries of artillery. These were supported by the Pioneers and the Hospital Corps. The whole force was under the command of Commander Blake, with his headquarters aboard the Palos, while the landing force was under the command of Commander L. A. Kimberly. The whole landing force numbered 651 men, including 105 Marines, it carried seven 20-pound rifled howitzers, and it was embarked in 22 ship’s boats. The force was armed with the new Remington 1867 Navy Rifle, which proved very effective. The Palos and Monocacy were detailed to give fire support.
At 1000 Saturday, June 10, the Monocacy and two of the steam launches got under way. This force was to carry out the bombardment of the first of the forts, the Marine Redoubt. The landing force got under way at 1030, with the Palos towing the boats carrying the landing force and with the two remaining launches bringing up the rear.
At about 1300 the Monocacy reached the Marine Redoubt, a square stone fort with walls about twelve feet high. From its left side stretched a long water battery mounting about thirty guns, including five or six 18-pounders and two 32-pounders. The rest of the guns were small ones, 2 and 4 pounders, of a very primitive breechloading type. In these guns the top of the breech was closed only by a hinged bronze flap extending for the length of the chamber. A small gun, loaded before insertion, was placed in the chamber, the flap was closed, and the gun fired.
The Monocacy passed the Marine Redoubt at about 300 yards distance, and the Koreans opened a heavy fire on her which she immediately returned. The Monocacy then anchored about 550 yards northeast of the water battery, and from there kept up a steady fire until the Koreans were forced from their guns at about 1345.
At 1335 the Palos arrived off the mud flats below the Marine Redoubt where the landing was to take place. Commander Kimberly and Lieutenant Commander Picking decided upon the landing point, and the boats were cast off from the Palos. The force landed at 1345 and formed into companies at once. The infantry immediately advanced on the right flank of the redoubt, which the Marine advance guard entered without opposition as the Koreans had evacuated the fort on the approach of the landing force. The artillery, however, did not reach the higher ground back of the redoubt until 1600 because of the soft mud in which the landing had been made. Although from seaward the landing place looked like a good one to Kimberly and Picking, it was really a band of soft mud, interlaced by tidal gullies five to eight feet deep and almost imperceptible until they had been reached; these gullies extended a quarter or a half mile to higher ground. The mud was so soft that the men sank up to their thighs and the guns up to their axles. The guns could be moved only by putting a gang of seventy to eighty men on each.
After casting off the landing force, the Palos weighed anchor and stood through the narrows off the Marine Redoubt to join the Monocacy. But when opposite the redoubt she hit an uncharted rock and stuck there until 2100, when she was floated off with the aid of the high tide. She suffered several plates stove in and could be kept afloat only by constantly using her pumps. She was too badly damaged to take an active part in the remainder of the operation except to guard the boats.
Meanwhile, in the redoubt two companies were detached to destroy the fortifications and four others to assist in bringing up the guns. The rest of the force turned to and prepared an encampment for the night on a plateau that rose behind the Marine Redoubt and was protected by a rice paddy in front, mud flats on the left, and an outpost encampment of Marines on the right. At 1630 the companies left to demolish the redoubt were recalled and pickets placed.
During the evening the Koreans were noticed gathering in large numbers on the right flank of the encampment, and at 2400 they were observed making a great amount of noise, whence it was concluded that they they were preparing to attack. Consequently the Marine outpost was withdrawn and a few rounds fired by the artillery which drove the Koreans off into the woods.
The next day, June 11, was Sunday, but the force was awakened at 0400. In the first streaks of the dawn of a beautiful but very hot day, the force, except for Lieutenant Totten with one company of infantry and some Pioneers who were detailed to complete the destruction of the Marine Redoubt and its stores, took up the advance on the next fort, Fort Monocacy. This advance was across terrain as bad as that of the day before. The country was a succession of steep hills with deep irregular gullies between. The artillery was got through only by widening the trails and filling in the gullies wherever possible. Where this was not possible, the guns were lowered by ropes down one side of the gully and hoisted up the other. The artillery was a great handicap to the speed of movement that Kimberly wanted, but the guns were necessary because they kept the large force of Koreans on his left flank from attacking until the landing force had reached better defensive positions.
Late the evening before, the Monocacy had moved up to a position 500 yards northeast of Fort Monocacy. Here the Monocacy’s fire forced the Koreans from their guns and they evacuated the fort during the night. When the landing force began its advance in the morning, the Monocacy furnished fire support, shelling the woods ahead of the advancing troops and firing occasionally into Fort Monocacy to ensure that the Koreans did not return. The other fortifications were also shelled occasionally as a harassing measure.
At 1715 the Marine advance guard of the landing force entered Fort Monocacy, a square stone fort similar in construction to the Marine Redoubt and mounting four 32-pounders and 53 of the small breechloaders. Here the force halted only long enough to demolish the works and to allow Totten to rejoin.
On leaving Fort Monocacy, Kimberly headed for the main Korean positions around Fort McKee on the peninsula that formed the second bend in the river. To do this Kimberly had to swing to the right, which would expose his rear to the Korean force on his left flank, However, Kimberly discovered a hill on his right that controlled the only good approach to Fort McKee and covered his line of advance. Kimberly threw forward his right wing under Lieutenant Commander Silas Casey to seize the hill. This was done easily as the Koreans had neglected to occupy it. On this hill Kimberly posted Lieutenant Commander W. K. Wheeler with three companies of infantry and a section of artillery under orders to hold it at all costs. Wheeler immediately threw up earthworks which were put to good use, as the Koreans, the moment they realized their mistake in allowing the Americans to occupy the hill, launched two separate attacks in an attempt to dislodge Wheeler. Both attacks were beaten back with considerable loss to the Koreans.
At 0700 the Monocacy moved to a point 1,200 yards south of Fort McKee where she kept up a strong fire on Fort Palos, the fort across the river on Point Suntol-mok, until 1000, driving the Koreans from their guns. This kept Fort Palos from firing on the landng force as it advanced. At 1000 the Monocacy shifted fire to Fort McKee and kept it up until 1100, when fire was stopped on signal from shore as the landing force prepared for its assault on Fort McKee. At 1120 the batteries at Fort Palos opened again, and again the Monocacy returned the fire and silenced the guns.
Meanwhile the main body of the assault force pushed forward to the crest of the last hill before Fort McKee where it rested for fifteen minutes to recover from the excessive heat of the day. Fort McKee was a slightly irregular fortification built of stone like the rest of the Korean fortifications, but mounting no artillery; it was constructed on the apex of a steep conical hill rising about 150 feet above the ravine that ran along its front.
Kimberly gave the command of the attack on Fort McKee to Lieutenant Commander Casey so that he himself could remain on a hill about midway between Casey and Wheeler with the reserve of one company of infantry and a section of artillery. Kimberly chose this hill because it gave him a commanding view of the battlefield and both Casey’s and Wheeler’s forces.
At 1115 Casey gave the order to rush the Korean works, an order that was carried out with “splendid dash and courage.” The Koreans kept up an incessant small arms fire from their antiquated weapons on the six companies that charged up the hill. In spite of this fire and the rocks that the Koreans rolled down the hill to make up for their lack of artillery, the Americans reached the parapet of Fort McKee at 1120. The first man into the fort was Lieutenant H. W. McKee, who immediately fell, mortally wounded. At the same time Captain Tilton with the Marines on the right and Master McLean with one company on the left were able to turn the Koreans’ flanks and open an enfilading fire on the defenders in the fort. Then followed a series of hand to hand struggles with no quarter given and no quarter asked in which the Koreans suffered heavy losses. By 1150 the Koreans were so disheartened by their heavy casualties and the fire that broke out in their barracks that they broke and fled from the fort. One large force tried to escape by the road that ran along the south side of the point but was met by the fire of Lieutenant Commander Cassell and the reserve force. Cassell’s fire forced the Koreans back, leaving their dead piled two and three deep. The remnants of this force attempted to escape by swimming the river, but many were drowned. Those Koreans that attempted to escape along the northern shore of the point were met by a force under Master McLean and driven back. This almost complete annihilation of the Korean forces around Fort McKee following the two unsuccessful Korean attacks so completely demoralized the force before Wheeler that it broke and fled in confusion.
The losses in these battles were most unequal. This was due in great part to the excellence of the new Remington rifles carried by the landing force and the lack of adequate modern weapons by the Koreans. The Koreans left 243 dead and about 20 wounded on the field around Fort McKee alone. How much greater the Korean losses were is not known, but they were considerable. Fifty flags and 481 guns were captured by the U. S. Navy landing force. The landing force lost a total of only three killed and ten wounded.
As soon as the Koreans had left the scene, Kimberly called in Wheeler’s and Cassell’s forces and set about destroying the fortifications. There was no further contact with the Koreans except for a short exchange of fire at about 1200 with the batteries of Fort Palos.
Orders arrived during the evening to reembark the landing force and return to the Isle Boisée anchorage the next morning. The force was recalled because it had accomplished its mission and because Admiral Rodgers did not want to risk the Monocacy and the Palos any longer than necessary in the uncertain currents of the river.
The landing force was re-embarked by 0730 June 12, taken in tow by the Palos and Monocacy and reached the main squadron at 1030. The men were then returned to their respective ships and the few prisoners were taken aboard the Colorado for questioning. These prisoners were released after questioning and medical attention.
The squadron waited until July for some communication from the Korean authorities, as it was expected that the show of force in the destruction of the forts would cause the Koreans to open negotiations; but no communications came, and neither would the Korean officials on the scene undertake to forward Low’s notes to Seoul. Rodgers felt that the approach of the typhoon season made it improvident to hold the ships on the unknown coast any longer. He felt also that his force was too small to force its way to Seoul, and that it could probably be better employed elsewhere. Consequently the force put to sea on July 3 and set sail for Chefoo, except for the Palos and the Monocacy, which went to Shanghai for repairs.
Thus ended the first American intervention in Korea. While this expedition failed to accomplish any of its aims except possibly to enhance the prestige of the United States in the Far East because of the decisiveness of the destruction of the forts, it did prepare the way for the negotiations of Commodore Shufeldt in 1881-1882 which led to the Shufeldt Treaty, which was the first treaty signed by Korea with a Western Power.