War with Korea in 1871, Part VI

Mr. Low and Rear Admiral Rodgers decided the Koreans had “declared the attitude they intend to take toward us, and that it becomes us to reply to them as frankly in the same way.”
They believed failure to retaliate firmly would cause a ‘loss of prestige’ to all westerners in the East, and would cause Korea to view westerners with contempt and place westerners in greater danger in the future as the Koreans might feel they could continue to attack western travellers with impunity.   Rodgers at first wanted a full war, including the capture of the Korean chronicle, but he seems to have decided not to request that. Instead he gathered supplies and captured and destroyed several Korean forts along the river to make his point.  This is from his report on those attacks: (I wish I could give you the Korean side, but I don’t know it)


Rodgers gave the Koreans ten days to apologize, although that was a bit coy of him.  I don’t know if he honestly expected he might get an apology.  He did need that ten day grace period for his own purposes.  He needed the ten days to repair one of his ships that had been fired on and gotten a hole when it floundered on a rock, and to wait for more advantageous tides for his men to launch an attack.  The Koreans did not apologize, as they didn’t believe they had done anything wrong.  Rear Admiral Rodgers write that “the ambushed  attempt to cut off and  destroy our whole   surveying party  was assumed by  the Corean  official  to  be  entirely  in  accordance  with  the  proprieties  of intercourse between civilized people,  their own civilization being,  as was somewhat   proudly  stated,   four  thousand   years   old.”


At the end of the ten days the Americans did receive a communication which one Captain McLane Tilton described in a letter to his wife:

, “Today we got a communication from the Head Man at the fort referred to, who stated that when Capt. Febinger of our Navy came up here, he did not make war on them, and didn’t see why we wanted to come so far to make a treaty.  They had been living 4000 years they said, without any treaty with us, and of course they couldn’t see why they shouldn’t continue to live as they do!” (Tyson 1966).


I do see their point of view.  But on the other hand, a lot of things can change in 4,000 years, and that upstart, brash, young nation did have some technology, ideas, and skills that Korea could have used.  Among the most the historians I have read on this period in Korea’s history, the consensus is that had both sides understood each other better and been more flexible and culturally aware, it’s unlikely that Korea would have ended up under the heavy handed Japanese control just a dozen years or so later.   But hindsight, we all know the rest.  History is full of might have beens and it’s a hard and not altogether just thing to judge the actions of the people at the time based on what we know now. Korea had seen nations come and go and there were no reasons for it to have been obvious to them that they were viewing the last days of their form of government and the rise of democracies.  They had no way of knowing for certain they were at a crossroads, and even if they had, it’s not clear America would have been that helpful to themlater, based on the west responded for Korea’s warnings about Japan later.


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


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