|The Daewongun, 1869|
A recent blog, “The French Navy in Korea, 1866”, described Korean attempts in the 1860s to retain its status as “The Hermit Kingdom”, cut off from contacts with the world outside. The key figure in this was the sinister Yi Ha-ung (1821-1898), the “Daewongun” – a title meaning “Prince of the Great Court” –who was to be a near-dominant player in internal Korean politics for four decades until the late 1890s. Adept in playing off internal and external forces against each other, his main objective was to limit external contacts and to maintain traditional structures and culture unchanged. This policy had led to large-scale and savage persecution of Christian converts and French missionaries and these in turn were to lead to a brief French punitive mission in 1866, as described in the previous blog. (Click here to read this).
|Korea, the "Hermit Kingdom", in the 1860s - exotic and isolated|
By the 1860s Western nations were already heavily engaged in trade with China, and since 1854 with Japan, which had been “opened up” to foreign merchants from 1854 and was now rapidly modernising. In Korea, however, the Daewongun, and the conservative interests allied to him, were not convinced of the merits of such contacts and were determined to preserve Korea’s isolation. It is against this background that in August 1866 an American owned vessel, the sidewheel-steamer SS General Sherman, was involved in an attempt to open trade.
The timing was ill-chosen to say the least, for feeling against outsiders had been whipped up by the Daewongun and French intervention to avenge the slaughter of missionaries and converts was imminent. Despite her American registration, the General Sherman’s mission was funded by a British commercial company, Meadows & Co., which operated in China and hoped to negotiate trading rights. Only the vessel’s Captain Page and Chief Mate Wilson were Americans and there were two British citizens on board, the owner, W. B. Preston, and a Welsh missionary, Robert Jerman Thomas, who had been brought along as a translator. The crew consisted of thirteen Chinese and three Malay seamen. Though loaded with a cargo of trade goods – cotton, tin, and glass – the General Sherman also carried two 12-inch cannon. The presence of these weapons which was to make the vessel’s mission doubly unwelcome in Korean eyes.
|A view of the Korean coast|
In mid-August 1866 the General Sherman sailed up the Taedong River on Korea's west coast towards Pyongyang. Initial contact with Korean officials were peaceful, if not cordial – permission to trade was refused – and the ship proceeded unhindered until it ran aground at Yangjak island, close to Pyongyang. Korean attitudes were now hardening and on August 27th, when an official boarded the vessel, Captain Page detained him, probably as a hostage. This worsened the situation and an order arrived from Daewongun that if the prisoner was not released, and if the General Sherman did not leave at once, all on board should be killed. Departure was not an option however – the level in the river had fallen – the ship had only reached so far upriver due to heavy rains earlier and it was now firmly lodged on a sandbank.
|A North Korean stamp commemorating the destruction of the SS General Sherman|
The details of what now followed are uncertain as nobody on the General Sherman was to survive. Hostilities erupted on August 31st and cannon were apparently fired from the ship at Korean troops on the river bank. The confrontation lasted four days and was brought to a head by fire-ships being drifted downriver towards the immobile ship. Two attempts failed but the third succeeded in setting the General Sherman ablaze. Chinese and Malay crew-members either died in the flames, or drowned when they jumped overboard or were beaten to death when they reached the shore. The captain, mate, owner and translator appear to have been murdered after capture. The Korean official they had so unwisely taken hostage survived.
A century later this incident was to attain near-mythic status under the later Communist Government of North Korea. The dictator Kim Il Sung claimed that his great-grandfather was involved as an early opponent of US imperialism. Like so much emanating from North Korea, the claim deserves to be viewed with some skepticism!
|The steam-frigate USS Colorado|
The American response was tardy in the extreme. In early 1867 an attempt by a US warship to determine what had happened seems to have got nowhere due to “foul weather” and a year later contact with the Koreans by the USS Shenandoah confirmed that all who had been on board the General Sherman were dead. Decisive action only came in May 1871 when the US American Minister to China, Frederick Low,was tasked with gaining an apology. He came in force, backed up by five warships commanded Rear-Admiral John Rodgers who flew his flag in the steam frigate USS Colorado.
|The long-lived USS Monocacy - seen here at Shanghai in 1898|
The American flotilla was a powerful one – besides the Colorado there were two sloops, Alaska and Benicia, as well as the paddle-gunboat Monocacy, and the screw-gunboat Palos. Between them they mounted 85 guns. The focus was on the Han River, on which the royal capital Seoul lay some 40 miles from the sea – the same approach taken by the French five years earlier. The warships moored at the river mouth and gunboat USS Palos was sent to assess the possibility of reaching Seoul. This vessel was fired on by Korean forts defending the Han and it retired with two men wounded. When the Palos was again fired upon, on June 1st, the paddle-gunboat Monocacy silenced the battery responsible. Further negotiation attempts failed in the nine days that followed and Minister Lowe and Rear-Admiral Rodgers finally authorised punitive action. This was to involve the capture of Korean defences on Ganghwa Island – a total of six forts and four coastal batteries.
|Officers of the USS Colorado|
The landing went ahead on Jun 10th, preceded by a bombardment by the warships. The force sent ashore consisted of 542 seamen and 109 marines, together with and six 12-pounder howitzers. The first fort to be attacked fell without significant resistance and the American force pressed on to the next, which was now labelled “Fort Monocacy”. This in turn was to fall and the landing forces spent the night in it – the first US forces to be stationed on Korean soil.
|Hand-to-hand fighting in one of the Korean forts|
The attack resumed the following day, the force offshore bombarding the forts while the landing party attacked from the land side as the barrage ended. The key to the Korean defence was a position labelled by the Americans as “Fort McKee” in honour of the lieutenant, Hugh McKee, who led the assault on it. Resistance by some 300 Koreans armed with antiquated matchlocks and swords was fierce but lasted only fifteen minutes – the fact that the Americans were armed with Remington rolling-block carbines proving a significant advantage. McKee, who was the first to enter the fort, was fatally wounded but Commander Winfield Scott Schley – who was to win renown in the victory over the Spanish fleet at Santiago in 1898 – was close on his heels and he shot the Korean who had killed him.
|Korean prisoners on the Colorado|
|Captured "Sujagi" - Corporal Brown in middle|
By the end of the day the island and its defences were in American hands. Korean casualties amounted to 243 dead, a small number of wounded and twenty prisoners. The Americans suffered three dead and ten wounded. Nine sailors and six marines were later awarded the Medal of Honor, among them a marine corporal, Charles Brown, who captured a large Korean standard or “sujagi”. These were the first Medals of Honor to be won on foreign service.
Then, after the victory – nothing. The Koreans still refused to negotiate and there was nothing the Americans could do about it. The first external treaty to be negotiated was with Japan, and not with a Western nation. It was not until 1882 that the United States finally signed a treaty with the Koreans, at a time when the Daewongun was temporarily side-lined by his equally clever and ruthless daughter-in-law, Queen Min. (This provides the background to my novel Britannia’s Spartan).
Recently published: Britannia’s Spartan
This latest novel in the Dawlish Chronicles series is set in Korea in 1882 and a sinister role is played in it by the Daewongun.
Author Antoine Vanner talks about his latest novel, Britannia’s Spartan, in a short video. Click here to watch it.
Click below for more details for both paperback and Kindle versions: