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.
The Koreans sent burning rafts across the shallow water, deliberately aimed at the American vessel. When she caught fire and the crew tried to swim ashore, they were slaughtered by the waiting Koreans.
Six years later, the Americans tried again, this time with a naval expeditionary force under the command of Rear Admiral John Rodgers. Anchoring near Chemulpo (later renamed Inchon), the squadron consisted of the frigate Colorado (serving as flagship), gunboats Monocacy and Alaska, sloop Benicia, and tug Palos.
Embarked was Frederick Low, U.S. minister to China, hoping to smooth over hard feelings and negotiate a commerce treaty. Before any negotiations could be arranged, however, the Hermit Kingdom again expressed its desire to remain in solitude. One of the five forts along the river opened fire on the Palos. A subsequent exchange of gunfire wounded two Americans.
Admiral Rodgers demanded an apology and when none was proffered, he sent a landing force of 109 Marines and 575 sailors ashore. Supported by gunfire from the Monocacy and Palos, the Americans advanced on the forts. On the first day, the defenders of the first two forts withdrew without much of a fight, but on the second day, the American Bluejackets and Marines assaulted the main fort—known as “The Citadel”—and its two supporting fortifications. A fierce battle ensued and a Navy lieutenant leading the assault was run through with a spear as he came over the wall. At the end of the struggle, 243 of the Korean defenders lay dead and the remaining 20, some of them wounded, surrendered. The victorious Americans suffered three killed and seven wounded, while capturing 481 cannon and hundreds of matchlock muskets. Six Marines and nine sailors were later awarded the Medal of Honor for their valor. Despite this American victory, the Korean king obstinately rejected all further attempts by Low to negotiate. Rodgers decided that his force could do no more, and the expedition got under way, leaving a still-closed Korea in its wake.
Reaction to the incident back in the United States was less than enthusiastic. The heroes of the battle were acknowledged, but the American press criticized the government for sending a force “altogether too large for the delivery of the message of peace and too small for the prosecution of war.”
No further attempts at opening trade with the Hermit Kingdom were attempted by the United States until after Japan had negotiated a treaty in 1876 that at last forced Korea to open its doors to the world. The United States would eventually become the first Western power to negotiate a treaty with Korea when the two nations finally signed an accord in 1882.