War With Korea, 1871, Part VII



On the tenth of June, 1871, at 10 a.m. the expedition of retaliation began.  The Americans had decided to pursue a humane policy of attacking only the forts, not the civilian population or sites.

They moved on, an expedition of two steamlaunches, several ships, 22 boats, several hundred men,  and an array of artillery that included seven howitzers which were landed along with over six-hundred men (105 of them marines).
They shelled the first fort and so withering was the fire that the defenders fled.  When the Americans landed, they discovered:

“The character  of the  shore… proved   to be most unfavorable for  our purpose.  Between  the water  and the  firm  land a broad belt of soft mud, traversed by deep  gullies, had to be passed. The men stepping from the  boats, sank to their  knees, and so tenacious  was the clay,  that  in many   cases they lost   gaiters and  shoes, and   even trowsers’ legs. The guns  sank above the axles  of their carriages, and  it required the strenuous exertions of many men to get them through.”
They reached the largely empty fort and continued its destruction, throwing most of the guns they found in the river, spiking the larger cannons,      knocking over the walls and burning all the clothes and provisions they found. They were so worn out by the time this was done (mostly from the slog through the knee deep mud) that they camped that night, rebuffed a lackluster midnight attack, and in the morning continued to the next fort.


It was also abandoned by the time they arrived. They dismantled it as they had the previous one, and continued marching, over steep hills divided by deep ravines, exhausting to foot soldiers, an even more difficult passage with great guns.  Sometimes they had to widen paths (‘where there were paths.’).  Other times they filled up gullies to drag the guns over, or lowered them by ropes from the steep hillsides. They had several skirmishes with Korean soldiers, but the superior firepower of the Americans mean the Koreans couldn’t get close enough for their own weapons to have much effect.  More Americans were prostrated by heat stroke.

The next fort would have been nearly impossible to reach, perched as it was on a sheer hillside with sheer walls.  But the American ships had been shelling from the river, so the walls and hillside were no longer sheer, but liberally scattered with freshly made hand and foot holds.

The Americans came on so fast that the Koreans had no time to reload their guns and defended their position by hurling rocks at the invaders,  and though their weapons were inferior, the soldiers were not.  Even in this ridiculously uneven fire fight the Korean soldiers continued “fighting’ acknowledged Rodgers, “with the greatest fury.”


The walls were breached. Americans rushed over  the parapet. Rodgers says, “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.”


In total, Rodgers reported that they had captured   and destroyed  five  forts. Fifty   flags were  taken, and several hundred ordinance.


“Two hundred and forty-three  dead Coreans were  counted in the works.  Few prisoners were  taken, not  above twenty,  and some of  these were wounded. Thus was a treacherous attack upon our people and an insult to our flag redressed,” said Rodgers.

Rodgers believed what he said, but again, it was a complete cross cultural fiasco.  There had been no treachery and the Koreans believed the insult was to them- the Americans were in violation of Korean law and the Korean forts had always had orders to fire on any foreign ships that crossed into the Han river because from the Han River, ships could fire directly on Korea’s capital city.  Rodgers didn’t know that, and he didn’t realize that he had been denied permission to sail on the Han River because he didn’t know that in Korea, silence was a strong denial.

It’s fascination to read the account of the battle of Ganghwa Island on Wikipedia, because it’s clearly written from the American PoV.


Previous posts on this event in history:

How a cultural misunderstanding started a war, part 1

Korean war of 1871

1871, An America War in Korea, part II

1871, American War in Korea, part III

The 1871 War with Korea, part V

War with Korea in 1871, Part VI


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One Comment

  1. Cat
    Posted July 31, 2021 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

    If only we’d put as much effort into cross-cultural communication as we did into redressing a supposed insult…!

    I wonder how many things in Korean are the opposite of how we do them in English? It’s interesting to me that in Korean, to agree with a negative question you answer “yes” while in English you answer “no.” When I think about it, the Korean way makes more sense to me and I don’t know why we do it the way we do it in English.

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