Korean war of 1871, Part 2

In 1871 a number of Western countries, including the U.S., attempted to open up trade in the east.  One event in that effort was the 1871 Korean expedition, which was termed a military success and a diplomatic failure.

American ships and representatives were sent to Korea with several openly stated goals (I don’t know if they had some ulterior goals as well)- they were to explore a bit, sounding the waters and mapping some rivers and coastline for the purposes of future trade, they wanted to establish diplomatic relations and open up Korean ports for trade with American ships, and they wanted to establish the fate of The General Sherman, a merchant ship that had disappeared in Korea a few years before.

The purpose and fate of the General Sherman is a longer story, but briefly, it was not a government sanctioned expedition, and probably was not an innocent trading vessel, either, but was  seeking to plunder some treasure believed to exist in a burying ground for royalty.  It was more heavily loaded with weapons than the usual trade ship.  In 1861 it sailed into Korea and headed upriver.  Its captain ignored all orders to turn back, and refused to recognize anybody who contacted him as high enough ranking officials to be worth listening to, and when it was stranded on a sandbank during a storm,  it was destroyed, dismantled and the all the crew killed.  That treatment of the General Sherman itself raises suspicions about its real mission since there were other incidents both before and after where western trade ships were treated politely.  In some cases, ships arrived and their captains attempted to establish a trade relationship and they were politely declined and redirected home.  In several cases western ships were shipwrecked on Korean shores and the survivors were treated well and then sent to China, where they could be returned to their own governments as China had opened some trade with western nations and had settled trading companies and government representatives in the country. Only the General Sherman was destroyed.

The U.S. had sent another ship to inquire after it, led by Captain Shufeldt.

“According to Welles, the US Secretary of Navy at the time, Shufeldt’s inquiry went something like this:

Commander Shufeldt: Have you heard or do you know anything about the ship that was wrecked?

Corean official: I know nothing about it whatever. I only hope you will immediately leave and return to your native land.

Commander Shufeldt: What objection can there be to our waiting? If I am obliged to leave without an answer to my dispatch, many more armed vessels will return to your country.

Corean official: To return with many armed vessels would be exceedingly unjust. To return to your country would be praiseworthy.

Commander Shufeldt: To allow your country to murder our men without cause or provocation cannot be passed over uninvestigated.

Corean official: I do not know anything about this business.

Commander Shufeldt: If you know nothing, I have nothing more to say to you. (Welles, 1867)

The Corean official’s account of this meeting differs. He told Shufeldt that he had no authority to talk to foreigners and that he had sent a messenger to Seoul for the official permission and instructions, and that the messenger would be back in a few days. He told the Americans to wait but the Americans left without waiting.”

It’s impossible to know how much of this failed communication was a result of poor translations and interpreters, how much was a result of a lack of cultural intelligence on both sides, and how much was fudging on the part of officials involved for reasons of their own.

So a couple years later, the U.S. sent another envoy- the General Sherman inquiry was only part of their mission, and likely not the most important part.

“The 1871 US Occupation of Kanghwado – Shinmi-yang-yo
Commander Shufeldt’s threat to return with more warships was no idle threat. In the spring of 1868, the USS Shenandoah under Captain John C. Febiger reached the Daedong River’s mouth and received an official letter acknowledging the death of all crewmen of the General Sherman. The Coreans wondered why the Americans wanted to make a treaty: “We have been living 4,000 years without any treaty with you, and we can’t see why we shouldn’t continue to live as we do.” (Sterner, 2003)

In April 1870, the U.S. State Department told Frederick F. Low, the US minister in Beijing, to negotiate a treaty with Corea that would secure the safe treatment of shipwrecked American sailors, to establish trade, and to look into the murder of the General Sherman crew. ”

Incidentally, according to one account, when the General Sherman found itself stranded after having flouted directions not to proceed into Korean territory, the captain sent some of his men out to hunt up some food supplies to steal and hostages to kidnap in order to negotiate.  They were unsuccessful but I am not clear the resulting deaths could strictly be called murder.  But it’s likely the American government didn’t know that’s what had happened since all the surviving witnesses were Koreans and there were no diplomatic relations between Korea and the U.S.

Rear Admiral John Rodgers was in charge of the small group of ships that carried Minister Low to Corea, and the following information is taken from his reports, either summarized (by myself) or quoting.

The ships arrived and Rodgers chose a suitable anchorage for his ship and promptly renamed it after a French minister, Korea’s own history and place names notwithstanding.  He sent other ships ahead to take surveys and soundings of the water passages and reported they were unmolested. His own ship sent a landing party to the nearby port and he says the Coreans seemed of pleasant disposition and :

"A paper with written Chinese characters was handed to one of the officers, and its contents,
being translated, conveyed inquiries as to our nation and the purpose of our coming.  The paper
was without signature or indication of official character.  An informal reply was sent to it by the
minister, giving only the information that we were Americans; that our purpose was friendly, and
that we had come to seek an interview with the governing authorities."

The fleet continued to travel, to map the channel and surrounding shores and bodies of water for about a week , when
They were the bearers of a letter which stated that from our former
communication it had been learned that we were Americans, and announced that three envoys had
been appointed by the Sovereign to confer with us.  These messengers were persons of inferior grade,
and came merely to announce the approach of the superior officials.  They were assured of our desire
to preserve peaceful relations, and our purpose not to commit any acts of violence unless we are first
attacked.  This assurance was received with great apparent satisfaction.  The next afternoon, May
31, the envoys previously announced made their appearance.  The minister, deeming it proper not
to receive them in person until their positions and powers were ascertained to be such that he could
do so without derogation to the dignity of his own rank as minister plenipotentiary, deputed Mr.
Drew, his acting secretary, to conduct the interview.  Mr. Drew conversed with the envoys in the
Peking dialect.  The conversation elicited the fact that the Coreans were officials of the third and fifth
rank, and that they brought with them no credential letters, and, so far as could be ascertained, that
they were not intrusted with any authority to initiate negotiations.
     Under these circumstances, Mr. Low determined not to see the envoys, and they were informed
that only officials of the first rank, who were empowered to conduct negotiations, could be received;
and to such alone could a full announcement of the objects of our coming be made. Their object
appeared to be to learn all they could of our purposes and intentions, without committing themselves
by the direct expression of assent or dissent to what was said to them; but their manner of
non-objection conveyed the impression of actual compliance with our wishes. They were assured of
our non-aggressive disposition, and were distinctly told that only to resent assault should we resort
to arms.  They were informed that we wished to take soundings of their waters, and to make surveys
of the shores.  To this they made no objection.  We expressed the hope that no molestation would be
offered to our parties in landing or passing up the river, and requested that word be sent to their
people that they might preserve the friendly relations which were desired.  It was further stated that
twenty-four hours would be given to make this announcement to people along the river, before any
movement was made.  To all this they made no reply which could indicate dissent.  So, believing that
we might continue our surveys while further diplomatic negotiations were pending, an expedition was
sent to examine and survey the Salee River, which empties into this bay, and leads into the River
Seoul, which passes near the city of Seoul, the capital and residence of the Sovereign.  
     The force dispatched consisted of the Monocacy, Commander E. P. McCrea; Palos, Lieutenant
C.H. Rockwell; Alaska's steam-launch, Lieutenant Commander C. M. Chester; Colorado's
steam-launch, Lieutenant W. W. Mead; Colorado's steam-cutter, Lieutenant G. M. Totten; Benicia's
steam-launch, Master S. Schroeder; all under the command of Commander H. C. Blake, who went
on board the Palos.
     What followed is detailed in Commander Blake's report, herewith inclosed.  As is therein related,
at the forts which defend a short bend in the river, not far from its mouth, the Coreans unmasked
batteries, and, without any previous intimation of their objection to our approach, or warning of their
intention, opened a heavy fire upon our boats and ships.  The steam-launches were in advance, and
but a few hundred feet from the forts.  The first fire was directed upon them, from cannon and from
gin-galls arranged in rows, one tier above another on the hill-side, and fired by a train of powder. 
This sudden and treacherous assault was not expected by our people, but they promptly resented it. 
The Palos and Monocacy coming up, opened fire with their heavier guns, and the tide, sweeping with
great velocity up the river, bore our force rapidly past the batteries and around the point on which
they are erected.  Here the Monocacy and Palos anchored, and from this position the retreating enemy
was shelled again.  Unfortunately, the Monocacy was carried by the current upon a rock and had a
hole broken through her bottom, which caused her to leak badly.  This being reported to Commander
Blake, he deemed it imprudent to proceed, and therefore returned with his command to this
anchorage.  The Monocacy was temporarily repaired, and her leak stopped without difficulty.  It was
our good fortune to have but two men slightly wounded, James A. Cochran and John Somerdyke,
ordinary seamen, in the Alaska's launch.  Our exemption from serious loss is only attributable to the
bad gunnery of the Coreans, whose fire, although very hot for the fifteen minutes in which they
maintained it, was ill-directed, and consequently without effect.  The vessels, in their return, received
no reply to the fire they directed against the batteries in passing.
     In accordance with my instructions not to pursue any advantage which might be obtained in case
of an attack upon him, and in view of the small force available for the purpose of landing in the face
of the large force of the enemy, Commander Blake did not deem it prudent to send a party on shore
to destroy the guns.  At once, upon the return of the expedition, it was determined to equip the
available landing force of all the ships, and to return in the morning to attack and destroy the
fortifications.  Preparations for this purpose were made, but upon consideration it was concluded to
wait for the next neap tides, when the currents will be less violent than during the prevalence of the
spring tides, which are now running.  At the present time the water rises from 30 to 35 feet with each
flood tide, and the velocity of the stream at the point at which the attack must be made renders the
management of vessels extremely difficult.  In this affair the greatest gallantry was displayed by all
engaged.  Commander Blake conducted his command with discretion, and his action meets with my
highest approbation in all respects.

[Note: the following was not in the letter to the Secretary of the Navy, as published, but in
the original letter written by Adm. Rodgers]

     Mr. Low agreed with me that the Coreans have by their hostile action frankly declared the attitude
they intend to take toward us, and that it becomes us to reply to them as frankly in the same way.
     Very ill effects resulted from the French Expedition to this country in 1866, in which hostile
movements were carried to no conclusion.  The Tien-tsin massacre has been attributed by some to
the contempt with which the French were regarded, in consequence, of their failure, by the natives,
who in their ignorance supposed that they, the French, had in that expedition put forth their utmost
     Our failure to prosecute this war will cause a loss of prestige, not only to ourselves but to all
Europeans in the East, deeply to be deplored.  And in the opinions of the foreign residents in these
countries, will be held as a cause of future difficulties.  The national loss will therefore be not only
immediate but prospective.
     A land force which I estimate at five thousand men would be needed to carry the war promptly
to a conclusion by taking the Capital and the fortresses in its vicinity.  With a few hired tugs, and a
few junks for transports, our present naval force may be made to answer all requirements afloat.  But
small vessels of our own, needed in any case in China, would be useful here.
     Meantime, the Palos is sent to Chefoo to convey dispatches and mail for the United States and
to obtain those which will be waiting for us at that port to which I have ordered that they be
forwarded to [ ] and been sent to Paymaster Eldredge in charge of stores at Hong Kong, to ship five
hundred (500) tons of coal; one hundred thousand rations, and a supply of ammunition to Chefoo;
and a present supply of about five hundred tons of coal has been sent for to Shanghai.
     I have sent a dispatch concerning the events here to Shanghai to be transmitted by telegraph to
the Department.
Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
Rear-Admiral, Commander-in-Chief of Asiatic Fleet

Hon. Geo. M. Robeson,
Secretary of the Navy, Washington, D.C.

Report of Rear Admiral John Rodgers,

Detailing the Capture and Destruction of Korean Forts

                     Report of Rear-Admiral John Rodgers.
                      FLAG-SHIP OF ASTATIC FLEET,
                           Chefoo, China, July 5, 1871.
     SIR: In a  telegraphic message, under  date of June  3, and  again in my dispatch No.38 of the
same date, I had the honor of conveying His Excellency Mr. Low, United States Minister  to China,
to Corea, for the purpose of negotiating a treaty in accordance with the instructions received from
the Government. In the dispatches referred to, I informed the Department of the unprovoked and
treacherous  assaults made  on the  1st of  June, by  the forts in Kang-Hoa Island, upon a portion  of
the squadron engaged in an examination of  the Salee  River, and   of my intention   to resent  the
insult offered to our flag, should no sufficient apology or satisfactory explanation be offered for the
hostile action of the Corean government.

The Koreans were disinclined to discuss the General Sherman possibly because they thought compensation would be demanded and they didn’t feel they should have to compensate a nation over dispensing with a ship of thieves.  They were even less interested in establishing trade with foreign governments.  Not for nothing were they known as The Hermit Kingdom.  China had established trade, and Koreans watched the resulting Opium Wars and the disruption of China’s ruling class and social structure and the introduction of western practices and values which seemed incompatible with the strict Confucianism which was the basis for social and political structure of Korea.

So the trade expedition arrived, and here is part of the American report back to Washington (I wish I could give you the Korean side, but I don’t know it):



 Our men kept up a fire from their resting place upon the fort whenever an enemy exposed 
himself, and  this they  did constantly  and with  the most reckless courage,  for they  maintained an
incessant  fire, mounting the wall and discharging  their pieces as fast  as they could load.  There was
no artillery  in the  citadel. When  all was  ready, the  order was given to rush forward down the slope
and  up the opposite hill.  The enemy maintained their fire with  the utmost rapidity  until our  men
got quite  up the  hill, then, having no time to  load, they mounted the  parapet and cast stones upon
our men below, fighting with the greatest fury. Nothing could check our men;  on they  rushed. The 
 heroic McKee was  first to  mount  the parapet, and the first to leap into  a hand-to-hand conflict.
There he fell, as his  father fell  in Mexico,  at the  head of  his men, first inside the enemy's stormed
works.  Other officers  and men  were quickly  over  the parapet. The fighting inside the fort was
desperate.  The resolution of the Coreans  was  unyielding;   they apparently   expected  no   quarter,
and probably would  have given  none. They  fought to  the death,  and only when the last man fell
did the conflict cease. The point to the river was opened to  a rear attack by the capture of  the
citadel,  and the garrison  fled.  Many  of  them,  however,  fell  under  the  fire  of  our musketry and
howitzers, which had nearly cut them off from retreat.

Series of Posts:

How a cultural misunderstanding started a war, part 1
Korean war of 1871, Part 2
1871, An America War in Korea, part III
1871, American War in Korea, part IV
The 1871 War with Korea, part V
War with Korea in 1871, Part VI
War With Korea, 1871, Part VII
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japan%E2%80%93Korea_Treaty_of_1876 https://web.archive.org/web/20190111155601/http://www.asianresearch.org/articles/1462.html

(from an archived article titled The early US-Korea relations
Excerpt from “A Brief History of the US-Korea Relations Prior to 1945”
Kim Young-Sik, Ph.D.)

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