Jul 3

Our First Korean War

Wednesday, July 3, 2019 12:01 AM

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As we remember the 69th anniversary of the start of the Korean War, many Americans forget that it was by no means our first Korean War. That title belongs to a conflict involving the 1871 Korean Expedition. In the period between the Civil War and the Spanish-American War, the Navy’s purpose shifted to various peacetime operations. During this time, the United States sent its Navy to far foreign stations and exerted its power with greater authority than ever before. The 1871 Korean Expedition exemplified the role of the Navy during this time period, as it involved both an attempt at achieving trade agreements and a punitive expedition.

Eager to expand foreign trading relations, the United States took it upon itself to open up the “Hermit Kingdom,” as it had done with Japan. The opportunity to do so presented itself in 1868, when the American merchant ship General Sherman was attacked near Pyongyang, with Koreans burning the ship and killing her entire crew.[1] The reasoning behind this attack varies by source, with some claiming the ship took a Korean hostage and fired into a crowd, and others claiming the mainly Chinese and Malay crew of the ship made the Koreans suspicious the vessel had sailed to Korea in hopes of robbing royal grave sites.[2],[3] Either way, Secretary of State William H. Seward, outraged by the attack, ordered his nephew George Seward, the consulate general at Shanghai, to launch an expedition to Korea to obtain a formal apology. However, by the time the orders had reached Shanghai, George Seward had been replaced by Hamilton Fish. Fish realized that the mission’s objective could be expanded, and in 1870 he ordered Fredrick Low, the United State’s minister to China, to accompany the Navy’s Asiatic Squadron to Korea to a negotiate a trade agreement and an assurance that future shipwrecked American sailors would be treated well. Low and Rear Admiral John Rodgers of the Asiatic Squadron spent a year collecting information on Korea, but to their dismay, the nation’s isolationist policy made useful information difficult to find. Low decided to use China and Korea’s special relationship to his advantage, and he sent advanced notice of his arrival to the Korean King through Chinese channels. On May 8, 1871, Low and Rodgers finally departed for Korea with a squadron consisting of three steam propelled ironclad gunboats—the Ashuelot, Monocacy, and Palos— along with three wooden steamers—the Colorado, Alaska and Benicia.[4]

The U.S. attempt to establish a diplomatic relationship in Korea, however, quickly evolved into a military campaign against the Koreans. The Squadron’s first interaction with the Korean people was quite friendly; greeted at Kanghoa Island near the mouth of the Han River, the Americans gave gifts to the indigenous people.[5] The foreigners gave a letter to a local government official stating their reason for coming to Korea and asking to see emissaries of the King. They were approached on 30 May by four locals who confirmed their message had been received and that noblemen where coming to negotiate with Rodgers and Low. The aforementioned noblemen arrived the next day, but they were part of a ruse by the Korean government. They were very low ranking; in fact, they did not even have the authority to approve a treaty and were only an attempt to stall, hoping the Americans would eventually go home.[6] Before the negotiations had begun, Low had sent the Palos and Monocacy to survey up the Han River, to assure the safety of the U.S. flotilla.[7] The Han River, which flowed past the capital of Seoul, was of great strategic importance, and the U.S. encroachment was seen as an act of aggression.[8] They began on a tributary of the Han, the Salee. The surveying ships approached a fort on the island of Ganhwa, and were fired upon by Korean artillery. The canons did little damage however, as they were of small caliber and were fixed in place, reducing their accuracy when firing upon the moving ships. The Americans returned fire of much greater caliber and accuracy, causing their Korean assailants to flee. The surveying party was forced to halt its mission and regroup with the main fleet, not because of the attack, but because the Monocacy had damaged herself on a rock. On 7 June, a Korean junk sailed to the ship with a letter from the local governor and a letter from the King of Korea. The King’s letter denied culpability regarding the General Sherman incident, stated that Korea already treated shipwrecked Americans well, and asserted that Korea would maintain its policy of limited cooperation with foreign governments. The governor’s letter stated that the commander of the fort that attacked the surveying group was simply following protocol, but offered conciliatory chickens, bullocks, and eggs.[9] Insulted by the stalling nobles, the assault on the surveying ships, and the two dismissive letters, Low and Rodgers decided that a message had to be sent to the Korean government.

Low and Rodger meet with Korean noblemen (NHHC)

On the morning of 10 June, the wooden steamers travelled back up the river they had been assaulted on, this time accompanied by a landing party of 105 Marines and 546 Sailors. The objective was simply to show U.S. might by destroying all the forts on along the river. When they reached the island’s southernmost fort, the Monocacy opened fire, while a detachment led by Commander Lewis A. Kimberly landed, assaulted the fort, and occupied it. The Monocacy continued upstream and reached a second fort. There she was met with artillery fire and responded in kind. The ship fired until midnight, resuming the next morning. Soon Kimberly’s group, advancing northward, captured the fort, but the Palos was forced to turn back after she ran into an underwater rock.

The final fort the Sailors and Marines captured was also by far the most difficult. They nicknamed it “the Citadel,” and it was defended by elite Korean forces known as “Tiger Hunters.” As the U.S. landing force approached the Citadel, an artillery battle ensued. Then Kimberly’s advancing forces fought a surprise attack comprised of Korean soilders from other forts downriver. Whilst dealing with the ambush, Kimberly split off two-thirds of his force, under the command of Lieutenant Commander Silas Casey, to directly attack the Citadel. These men were positioning themselves below the fort, the Koreans charged them. Repelled by howitzer fire, the Koreans retreated to the Citadel. The howitzers then joined the ships in their bombardment of the fort, continuing until the Korean artillery ceased replying. Casey’s men then charged up the hill, and were met first with musket fire, then with spears, swords, and stones. A melee ensued until it was clear that a U.S. victory was eminent, at which time most remaining Tigers, bound by their honor code, committed suicide by drowning, cutting their throats, or self-immolation. With the Citadel captured, all of the river forts had been conquered. Roughly 350 Tiger Hunters died in the fighting; 20 were captured but were released later. In the entire operation, the Americans suffered only 3 deaths and 10 wounded. The U.S. squadron remained for three weeks, hoping that its attack might bring Korea to the bargaining table, but set sail back to China on 3 July, after receiving no further contact from the Korean government.[10]

Sailors and Marines stand atop the conquered Citadel
(Library of Congress)

Most observers deemed the mission a U.S. failure at trade diplomacy, but it in fact had consequences within Korea that aided the United States in the long run. Many in Korea saw the defeat at the hands of the American Navy as proof Korea needed to abandon its isolationist policies and modernize if it was going to survive. This led to the removal of the notoriously isolationist Taewongun from his position as regent of Korea and reforms aimed at greater globalization under King Kojong.[11] This would eventually result in a trade treaty between the United States and Korea in 1882. It is, however, possible that the Koreans chose to create their first trade agreement with Japan in 1876, rather than with the United States because of lingering resentment from the 1871 expedition.

While the 1871 expedition might not seem like much of a war when compared to the Korean War of the early 1950’s, the Sailors and Marines who fought in it clearly took great pride in their accomplishments, as demonstrated by their war trophies. They brought home numerous flags, including a one-of-a-kind Korean general’s standard, which was returned to South Korea in 2007 after years of petitioning by its government. Some of the flags are still in the United States. In 2017, the United States Naval Academy uncovered a series of battle standards that previously had thought to be lost. Once restored, they will be on display at the Naval Academy Museum, to help us remember our first Korean War.

The General’s Standard (U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archive)

[1] Yur-Bok Lee, Diplomatic Relations Between the United States and Korea, 1866-1887 (New York: Humanities Press, 1970), 26-30.

[2]Max Book, The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power (New York: Basic Book, A Member of the Persus Book Group, 2002), 57-59.

[3] Andrew C. Nahne, “Our Little War With The Heathen,” American Heritage, 19, no.3 (1968).

[4] Max Book, The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power (New York: Basic Book, A Member of the Persus Book Group, 2002), 57-59.

[5] Andrew C. Nahne, “Our Little War With The Heathen,” American Heritage, 19, no.3 (1968).

[6]Andrew C. Nahne, “Our Little War With The Heathen,” American Heritage, 19, no.3 (1968).

[7] Max Book, The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power (New York: Basic Book, A Member of the Persus Book Group, 2002), 57-59.

[8] Yur-Bok Lee, Diplomatic Relations Between the United States and Korea, 1866-1887 (New York: Humanities Press, 1970), 26-30.

[9] Andrew C. Nahne, “Our Little War With The Heathen,” American Heritage, 19, no.3 (1968).

[10] Andrew C. Nahne, “Our Little War With The Heathen,” American Heritage, 19, no.3 (1968).

[11] Yur-Bok Lee, Diplomatic Relations Between the United States and Korea, 1866-1887 (New York: Humanities Press, 1970), 26-30.