In 1866, barely a year after the end of the American Civil War, a U.S. merchant vessel, the General Sherman, anchored in the Taedong River downstream from Pyongyang. The ship had come to open trade with this mysterious land, known as the “Hermit Kingdom” because of its resistance to foreign influence. American trade entrepreneurs—supported by a sizable portion of Congress—who wanted to open the way to trading with Korea, had recently been encouraged when the Koreans had saved the crew of the American merchantman Surprise after she had been wrecked off the Korean coast.
But shipwrecks and traders were apparently two different things to the Koreans. As the General Sherman made her way up the river, the crew saw signs posted along the banks warning them to leave. Ignoring these, the American ship continued upriver, taking advantage of the favorably high tide. But the flood did not last, and the ebb left the ship stranded in the mud.