Responding to attacks on foreign shipping, in 1863, the sloop Wyoming engaged three Japanese warships at Shimonoseki. This engraving shows the sinking of one, the brig Kosei.
During the American Civil War, the Union sloop Wyoming was assigned to patrol western Pacific waters in search of Confederate raiders—the infamous Alabama in particular. The search proved fruitless, however, and the Wyoming’s captain, Commander David S. McDougal, was preparing to return home from Hong Kong when, on 4 April 1863, he was summoned to Yedo (Tokyo) by U.S. Ambassador to Japan Robert Pruyn.
Since 1854, when Commodore Matthew Perry forced the opening of Japan to foreign interaction, tensions had run high among various Japanese warlords, some of whom advocated expulsion of the “hairy barbarians.” In March 1863, Emperor Komei joined the calls for expulsion, decreeing “the ugly barbarians are watching the Empire with greedy eye, and you will . . . perform the exploit of sweeping them away.”
In late June, the Choshu clan responded to the emperor’s decree by attacking several European and American ships in the Shimonoseki Straits, a vital trade route between the main Japanese islands of Honshu and Kyushu. McDougal and Pruyn agreed a U.S. response was needed, and the Wyoming headed for the straits, arriving two days later.
The U.S. ship was a 1,457-ton screw sloop just under 200 feet in length and was capable of 11 knots under ideal conditions. With a crew of 200, she was armed with two 11-inch Dahlgren smoothbores, a 60-pound Parrott rifle, and three 32 pounders.
The Choshu clan had three ships—ironically, all originally were American: the barque Daniel Webster with six guns, the brig Lanrick (renamed Kosei) with ten guns, and the steamer Lancefield (renamed Koshin) with four guns. They also possessed numerous shore batteries along the straits, including five 8-inch Dahlgren guns that had been presented to Japan by the United States as a gesture of goodwill.
McDougal saw the three Japanese ships were at anchor and decided to attack while they still were in this vulnerable position. As he bore down on the enemy vessels, he observed a line of stakes protruding from the water that he correctly guessed had been placed there as an aiming point for the shore batteries. Steering inside of the stakes, closer to the shore, he caused the shore batteries to miss doing serious damage, their heavy barrage passing relatively harmlessly through the Wyoming’s rigging.
McDougal passed among the anchored ships, engaging the barque and the brig to starboard and the steamer to port, passing so close that the Wyoming’s guns nearly touched muzzles with some of the enemy guns. The proximity gave the embarked U.S. Marines the chance to pick off some of the Japanese gunners with small arms fire.
The brig Kosei poured three broadsides into the Wyoming, causing considerable damage and killing or injuring six Americans manning the forward battery and killing one of the Marines. The Wyoming responded with her port battery, doing serious damage to the brig. At this point, the Wyoming—which had been relying on navigational information from hired Japanese pilots who now were too terrified to be of any help—ran aground. Continuing to fight, she fired a well-placed round into the steamer Koshin at her waterline, exploding her boilers and causing her to heel over and begin to go down, her crew rapidly abandoning ship.
After freeing his ship from the bank, McDougal reengaged the brig with his 11-inch guns, and a cloud of smoke and steam momentarily masked the ship from sight as she too headed for the bottom. The barque Daniel Webster and the Wyoming now exchanged heavy fire, with the barque taking the worst of it and her guns falling silent. McDougal next engaged a number of the nearby shore batteries, ultimately silencing them as well.
In little over an hour, the Wyoming had defeated the enemy, sending a strong message to the recalcitrant Japanese while suffering considerable, but not critical, damage and losing five killed and seven wounded. Had this engagement occurred closer to home and at a different time, it might well have entered the annals of famous battles, but the Battle of Shimonoseki Straits occurred in the same month as the Battle of Gettysburg and the fall of Vicksburg and so was largely lost to history.
Lieutenant Commander Cutler is the author of several Naval Institute Press books, including A Sailor’s History of the U.S. Navy and The Battle of Leyte Gulf, and is the U.S. Naval Institute Gordon England Chair of Professional Naval Literature.