The 1871 U.S.-Korea Conflict: Cause and Effects

Thomas Duvernay


             The 1871 United States-Korea conflict is one of the least known and understood actions in both Korea and the United States.  At the same time, it was a pivotal event in not only the histories of the United States and Korea, but arguably in the world.  The failed diplomacy that led to the Weekend War set Korea up for a fall just a few short years later, which forever changed the direction of life in Korea, Asia, and the rest of the world, as Japan gained a foothold on the Asian continent.  Korea, the xenophobic society, was forced into international relations, which ultimately led to its colonization, then division.  Asia saw the rise of Imperial Japan after that point, and then the world was led into a global war.  In this paper, I would like to show a few of the main events in the years leading up to the 1871 conflict and how they impacted upon it, including the opening of Japan, the European/American disturbances in 1866 and also initial United States military contact in the years between 1866 and 1871.  Also, I would like to introduce some of the main participants, on both sides of the issue.  Even though there were a couple thousand people involved, there were certain names that appear time after time, especially on the American side.  As the papers core is related to the military conflict between the United States and Korea in 1871, I will go over the course of events before, during and after the fighting.  I have often thought about how history might have changed if the meeting in 1871 had concluded amicably, instead of in bloodshed; I will give a short supposition of how history might have changed, if that had been the case.

             I became interested in the 1871 action, known by the Koreans as the Shinmiyangyo (Ź̾: ڱ), literally Western Disturbance in the Shinmi (1871) Year [Eckert, et al (Korea Old and New: A History 1990, 195) termed it the American Disturbance of 1871]. quite by accident.  I have had a great interest in Korean traditional archery since 1993 and, after getting involved with it, I started research into its history.  I was trying to find the last military use of the bow in Korea.  I had heard about the 1871 action, so I guessed the bow must have been used then.  No matter how much I searched, I could find no evidence to support my theory.  I found it exceedingly strange, as the bow was a military weapon in Korea until the 1890s, when it was finally removed from military tests.  Still, there was no mention of its use in either the United States or Korean records.  What I did find, however, was a very fascinating and compelling story about a country just getting back on its feet militarily, after a devastating fratricidal war, and flexing its new-found muscle on a small secluded country half a world away.  Being an American citizen, I partly saw the conflict through that cultural viewpoint.  However, having lived in Korea for many years, I also looked at it through Korean eyes.  What became clear to me was that through misunderstandings, the United States and Korea encountered each other in a most unfriendly way.  Even though the two sides had met briefly before, this was a first impression for both, militarily.


             Since American expansion to the Far East truly started with Commodore Matthew Perrys expedition to Japan in 1853, under the Manifest Destiny policy, that would be a good place to start.  Perrys gunboat diplomacy proved very effective in opening up Japan to the West, as Western arms were far superior to those of the Japanese.  However, it is likely that Japan was ready to be opened up, albeit reluctantly.  One young officer under Perry at that time was Lieutenant John Rodgers, who would one day become a rear-admiral and command the United States Asiatic Squadron and the controversial 1871 U.S.-Korea Campaign (Shinmiyangyo).  Rodgers most likely fancied himself being the one who opened Korea, just like his predecessor Perry did with Japan.  The things he did not realize were that Korea was different from Japan, and 1871 was a bad year to try anything with Korea, as that country had had previously bad experiences with Westerners.

             People commonly associate the actions in 1871 with the intrusion in August 1866 by the American-owned ship General Sherman.  Indeed, the Sherman Incident (Ÿȣ ), as the Koreans call it, was used as a pretext by the United States government to intrude into Korea, but it was not that important a factor to them, as it was privately known by officials that the Sherman was little more than a piratical vessel (Shufeldt Annual Report of the Secretary of the Navy 1867; Febiger Annual Report of the Secretary of the Navy 1868; Y.K. Kim The Five Years Crisis, 1866-1871 2001, 77; Lee, Y.B., et al. Korean-American Relations, 1866-1997 1999, 38), with few Westerners aboard; most of the crew was Asian (W.M. Kim Contemporary Korean-American Relations History 1992, 168; Y.K. Kim 2001, 61).  The actions in 1871 are referred to as being punitive by the United States forces.  They are talking about their being in retaliation for the Koreans opening fire on the ships in June 1871, not for the General Sherman incident in 1866; this is often confused by historians.  Still, from all reports at that time, the United States government did try to ascertain the fate of the General Shermans crew, and to gain the release of any survivors.  Here are excerpts from an account from 1867 as an example of what the United States knew about the General Sherman:

The people here(Ta-tong) all say that the crew of the General Sherman were all murdered by the people on the river, and not by order of the mandarins.

The Coreans report that the Chinese descend upon this coast in junks and rob the inhabitants. Last year six young men were killed by these plunderers on the island of Neu-to, opposite our present anchorage.

The head men of two villages have stated that the General Sherman was burned in the Ping-Yang river in the month of September last, and the officers and crew, consisting of twenty-seven persons, were murdered by the people, and not by order of the mandarins. This fact, they state, is known all through Corea.

The Coreans say that ten of the crew of the Sherman were Canton Chinamen, and that these people have been in the habit, for years, of coming to this coast to rob and plunder, to the great dread of the whole seaboard. This is confirmed by our pilot.

Mr. Hogarth, an English subject on board of the Sherman, was known throughout China for his reckless character; and his acquaintances suppose that if riot occurred, he would be very likely to be one of the means of causing it. (Schufeldt 1867).

As can be seen, the Koreans allude to the fact that most of the Shermans crew was Asian and that they had had problems with them in the past.  Also, that one person aboard the Sherman (Hogarth) was especially known in the region for his trouble-making. 

            The year 1866 was a busy one for the government of Korea.  The General Sherman caused it one headache, while the French were causing it another.  In the spring of 1866, nine French missionaries were executed by the Korean government, as foreign influence, especially religious, was being repressed and any followers were being persecuted.  In October 1866, the French invaded Kanghwa Island, in retaliation for the executions, with about 500-1,000 troops.  The Koreans call this the Pyǒnginyangyo (ξ: ܰ), or the Western Disturbance in the Pyǒngin (1866) Year [Eckert, et al termed it the French Disturbance of 1866].  They also had battles with Korean forces as far up as the Munsu Mountain Fortress ().  However, by early November, the French started experiencing heavy casualties in fighting near the southern part of Kanghwa Island.  By the third week of November, the French forces left Korea.  They took with them many war prizes, including 340 volumes from Koreas archives on Kanghwa Island.  In the past decade, Korea and France have discussed the return of the books, but none have come back so far.  In a personal note, about three years ago I came into possession of a Korean horn bow that was captured by the French in 1866.  The person I received it from wished for it to be returned to Korea, so I brought it with me.  I turned it over to the Korea Military Academy Museum, where it is now housed.  As far as I can ascertain, it is the only war prize ever formally returned to Korea.

             If those intrusions were not enough, the Koreans were to have another one two years later in 1868.  Ernst J. Oppert, who was originally from Germany, was contacted by a French priest, Father S. Féron, who had escaped execution by the Koreans that spring. Féron gave Oppert the idea of exhuming and holding for ransom the corpse of Namyǒn Kun, the father of the Tae Wǒn Kun, the regent of Korea (the Tae Wǒn Kun, Yi Ha- ǔng was the father of King Kojong).  The misadventure was supposedly financed by an American, Frederick Jenkins, an interpreter at the United States Consulate General in Shanghai.  About 120-plus men took part in the scheme, with most being Chinese and Filipino.  They made their way to the tomb, located in Tǒksan County, in Chungchǒnnamdo and proceeded to dig it up.  They got as far as the coffin, but didnt realize how complete and complicated Korean burials could be.  The noise and commotion they created got the attention of the local population who chased them away.  They escaped to Yǒngjong Island but were also opposed by locals there.  Again, they fled.  Oppert made it back to Germany and later wrote a book about his failed mission (A Forbidden Land: Voyages to Corea 1880).  Jenkins was put on trial by a United States court, but was acquitted (Y.K. Kim 2001).

             It is easy to see why the Koreans, by 1871, were not all that eager to enter into discourse with the Americans or any other foreigners.  In fact, it just reaffirmed the Tae Wǒn Kuns resolve to exclude foreign contact, which reinforced the meaning of Koreas nickname of The Hermit Kingdom.

             From the unfortunate meetings of Westerners and Koreans in 1866, to the confrontation between the Americans and Koreans in 1871, there was sporadic contact.  Most of the contact was with American warships, which came to the waters of Korea to try and ascertain the fate of the crew of the General Sherman.  Each of those times, the Americans were given little information and were simply asked to leave Korean waters and go home.  Here is the exchange between Commander Schufeldt and a Korean official (type and spelling are copied from the original text):

Memorandum of an interview between Commander R. W. Schufeldt, of the

United States steamer Wachusett, and a Corean official from the district

city of Hae-Chow-Poo, on the Tai-tong river.


  At Neu-to ISLAND,

  January 29, 1867.


  Commander Shufeldt.  Where are you from and on what  business have you



  Corean official.  My name is Le-Ke-Yung;  I reside  in the  district of

Hae-Chow, at Kee-Chen (village;) where  I am the ruler; I have come to see

your ship.


  Commander Shufeldt. This vessel came here January 24th. and sent a letter

by  the  people  of  Neu-to  island  to  the officer  of  Chang-Yuen-Heen,

accompanied with a communication to  the King from which no answer has yet

been received. Do you know anything about this?


  Corean. I know nothing about it whatever. On what business have you



  Commander Shufeldt. An American vessel was  wrecked in  the Ping-Yang

river in the  month of September, and it is  reported that this vessel was

burned and all  on board  put to  death by  the Coreans.  I have come to

investigate this matter and have sent a despatch  to the King to inquire

whether the  report is true  of false, and  whether any of  the people are

still living.


  Corean. How many li is it to your country? As it does not become your

excellency to remain long at  this place, I earnestly hope you will depart

speedily and return to your own country.


  Commander Shufeldt. The ship is merely a waiting an  answer  to the



  Corean. You ought not to delay, but leave at once.


  Commander Shufeldt.  Have you heard or do you know anything about the

ship that was wrecked?


  Corean.  I know nothing about it whatever.  I only hope you will

immediately leave and return to your native country.



  Commander Shufeldt. I an auxious to depart speedily, but I wish first to

ascertain the  truth about  the ship  wrecked in  the Ping-Yang  river. No

answer has yet been received.


  Corean. I do not  know whether  this report  is true  or false.  Do not

delay; but  leave at once;  by so  doing your honorable  country will have

great praise.


  Commander Shufeldt. What objection can there be to our waiting? If I am

obliged to leave without an answer to my despatch, many more armed vessels

will return to your country.


  Corean. To return with many armed vessels would be exceedingly unjust To

return to your own country would be praiseworthy.


  Commander Shufeldt. To allow your country to murder our  men without

cause or provocation cannot be passed over uninvestigated.


  Corean. I do not know anything about this business.


  Commander Shufeldt. If you know nothing, I have nothing more to say to


             It is interesting to note that Commander Schufeldt (also spelled Shufeldt; different historical sources, including official United States government records, have some discrepancies) never got the answers to his questions in 1867 yet, in 1882, was the key United States representative when the treaty between that country and Korea was signed.  Coincidentally, 1882 was also the year that Rear-Admiral John Rodgers, who commanded the Asiatic Squadron in 1871, died.

Main Participants in 1871

             Most of the main people involved on the United States side in the 1871 action are well-known through United States historical records.  Let us first start with the political figures that first conceived of the expedition.  That takes us to Washington, D.C., where the initial plan to approach Korea was drawn up. 

The first person is Hamilton Fish, the Secretary of State in the Ulysses S. Grant administration.  There were two Sewards who were instrumental in the action: William H. Seward, former Secretary of State and his nephew George F. Seward, United States Consul-General in Shanghai, China.  Frederick Low was appointed United States Minister Plenipotentiary to China, and was also given diplomatic and political control of negotiations with Korea.  Rear-Admiral John Rodgers, who would lead the expedition, was in Washington, D.C. to meet and discuss the matter with the politicians and diplomats.  Also in attendance was the Assistant Secretary of State, J.V.B. Davis.  Not in attendance at the meeting, but an important person, was Secretary of the Navy, George M. Robeson.  The purpose of the meeting was to discuss objectives of the mission to Korea.  At the conference, Seward is on record as having proposed that a treaty protecting shipwrecks should be procured since an insistence on a commercial treaty would likely result in hostilities (Y.K. Kim 2001).  At least on its face, the United States seemed as though it wanted to avoid hostilities.

On the military side, the United States has many names that are well-known from the 1871 action.  Aside from Rear-Admiral John Rodgers, several officers (United States Navy, unless noted) were of special note:

l        Blake, Homer C., Commander: USS Alaska

l        Casey, Silas, Lieutenant Commander: Commanded the infantry in the ground assault on the fortresses.

l        Cassel, Douglas P., Lieutenant Commander: Commanded the artillery in the ground assault.

l        Kimberly, Lewis A., Commander: Commanded the combined landing forces.

l        McCrea, Edward P., Commander: USS Monocacy

l        McIlvaine, Bloomfield, Lieutenant:  Best friend of Lieutenant Hugh McKee.

l        McKee, Hugh Wilson, Lieutenant:  One of three United States personnel to die in battle, June 11, 1871.

l        Mead, William W., Lieutenant:  Left battery of artillery.

l        Rockwell, Charles H., Lieutenant:  USS Palos

l        Schley, Winfield Scott, Lieutenant Commander:  Adjutant General of landing forces.

l        Tilton, McLane, USMC Captain:  Company I and commander of Marines.

l        Totten, George M., Lieutenant:  Company C

l        Wheeler, William K., Lieutenant Commander:  Commanding left wing.

             Another person of note:

l        Felice Beato:  Famed photographer.  He accompanied the Americans on their expedition and took photos before and after the fighting. 

             The Korean forces are not as well represented, as the identities of most all those involved are unknown.  However, there are a few notable Koreans.

l        Ŏ Chae-yǒn (: )Commander of Korean forces on Kanghwa Island; killed fighting American forces, June 11, 1871.

l        Ŏ Chae-sun (: )Younger brother of Ŏ Chae-yǒn; killed fighting American forces, June 11, 1871.

Other involved Koreans of note:

l        Pak Kyu-su (ڱԼ: Ш) Scholar of Pukhak (Northern Learning), who was involved in not only the 1871 action, but also the 1866 intrusion by the General Sherman.  He was the author of much of the correspondence with the Americans.

l        Chǒng Ki-wǒn (: ) Prefect of Kanghwa Island.


Course of Events

             The 1871 action, although a relatively unknown event, has been written about several times over the years, both fictitiously (Werstein The Trespassers 1969) and also factually in many periodicals.  In every account I have read, the bulk of the information came from one source, The Annual Report of the Secretary of the Navy (1871).  Because of that, most every account also varies little, although the viewpoint might be slightly different, depending upon what the author was trying to highlight.  As the Korean side did not record the events like the American side did, most all accounts tend to be a bit biased towards the American viewpoint.  I intend to present not only the American record, but also I will approach certain aspects from the Korean perspective, whenever possible.  Also, as I have visited Kanghwa Island many times over the years and have researched the battle areas in detail, along with having cultivated friendships with officials from the Kanghwa County Office, I will interject my own understanding of what happened in June 1871.

             The political reasons for the expedition, as we have seen, started in Washington, D.C. some time earlier.  The United States already had diplomatic and trade relations with both Japan and China; Korea was a missing puzzle piece.  For years, countries tried to pry open the society with little luck; Korea was probably little more than a trophy to be won, although it did—and does—have a very strategic position between Japan and China.  I am not overly concerned with the motives for the United States action in Korea, but instead I will discuss the action itself, along with its subsequent ramifications.

             As I mentioned above, it had been only six years since the United States ended its bloody civil war.  It was now looking to flex its new-found unified military muscle.  However, in comparison to other navies of the world, the United States was lagging behind (Canney The Old Steam Navy: Frigates, Sloops, and Gunboats, 1815-1885 1990, 145).  While its ships had steam-powered screws, most were still wooden vessels that were aging and did not offer much armor defense.  In contrast, European navies started to employ iron dreadnoughts.  Also, as coaling stations were few and far between, the Asiatic Squadron relied mostly on sail.  In the case of its involvement in Korea though, it was more than a match for Korean forces with their centuries-old military technology.

             The United States Asiatic Squadrons contingent that headed for Korea consisted of five warships: USS Colorado (flagship), USS Alaska, USS Benicia, USS Monocacy, and USS Palos.  The first three ships were large sailing vessels, while the last two were side-wheel gunboats.  Only the two gunboats had a draught sufficiently low enough to navigate up the Kanghwa Straits (also known as the Rivière Salée [French] and Yǒmha/ [Korean]—both terms mean Salt River).  The original armament on the ships was as follows:

l       USS Colorado: (2) 10-inch, (28) 9-inch, (14) 8-inch guns

l       USS Alaska: (1) 60-pdr., (1) 11-inch, (10) 9-inch guns

l       USS Benicia: (1) 60-pdr., (1) 11-inch, (10) 9-inch guns

l       USS Monocacy: (2) 60-pdr., (4) 8-inch guns

l       USS Palos: (4) 24-pdr. howitzers, (2) 24-pdr. rifled howitzers (Canney 1990; ARSN 1871).

Along with those ships were several launches, cutters and whale-boats, which were used to ferry troops and supplies to shore and back. 

             The fleet left Nagasaki, Japan on May 16 and headed for Korea.  It arrived in an area called Roze Roads, the United States forces named in honor of the French admiral who was in command of the failed French invasion in 1866, on May 23.  That area is in the vicinity of what is known by Koreans as Asan Bay (ƻ길).  The Palos was sent to scout an anchorage for the fleet on May 24, at what the French called Isle Boisée, which literally means Woody Island, due to the dense growth of trees there.  The Americans kept the French name for their use, although they slightly anglicized it as Boisée Island.  The modern Korean name is Chakyakdo (Peony Island, due to its shape); it is located a short distance from Inchǒn, next to Yǒngjongdo.

             The Koreans who lived in the area of Roze Roads were curious as to whom the Americans were and why they were there.  A paper, written in Chinese, was handed to an officer and was translated.  The fleet had no native Koreans to translate for them; however, Minister Lows secretary, Edward B. Drew, could speak, read and write Chinese, so translating the letter was not a problem.  Along with Mr. Drew were two Chinese scribes.  As written communication in Korea during the Late Chosǒn Dynasty was still conducted in Chinese, exchanging messages with the Koreans was not nearly as difficult as it could have been.  Still, being able to communicate linguistically and culturally are two completely different tasks.

             The fleet got under way on May 30, heading for the new anchorage.  However, as they were met with a thick fog, they had to anchor south of their destination for the night.  The next day, they made their way to the anchorage point and were soon greeted by a Korean junk.  The crew of the junk just delivered a dispatch, telling the Americans that three Korean government envoys would be visiting them soon.  The next day, May 31, the envoys arrived.  According to the official American reports, they were of the third rank (ǰ), so Minister Low would not meet with them, saying he would only meet with officials of the first rank.  Here is an interesting thing I found:

In Felice Beato's pictures, KWG-8 was captioned as "Corean
officials on an interview on board the USS Colorado."  While they
may have indeed been officials aboard the USS Colorado, they were
assumed to be the three officials who met with U.S. officials the
day before the first shots of the Shinmiyangyo were fired. This is
not the case.  I uncovered the log entry for the USS
Colorado for that day and the officials' descriptions were quite
clearly given:

The 3 Corean officials who visited the ship came in a junk from the
direction of the terminus of the road to Seoul. They had another
junk and sampan in company and were attended by about 20 other
Coreans of inferior rank. They represented themselves as attaches
to the foreign office at Seoul and claimed to have been sent by the
King of Corea. They were received at the gangway by the officer of
the deck, Lieut. Cmdr. Wheeler and Mr. Cowles acting Secretary of
Legation and conducted by the latter to the Admiral's office where
their communication was received and read by Messr. Cowles & Drew
acting secretaries of legation, and the two Chinese interpreters.

Two of the officials were of the third order distinguished by their
dress of dark blue gauze and the number of blue jade stone buttons
worn behind the ears, as attachments for the hat and the third was
of the fifth order having a dress of light blue or lavender and a
less number of buttons. Their rank was also indicated by the color
of the umbrellas carried by their retainers & by the difference in
the quality of the bamboo hats peculiar to the country.
H.W. McKee

[from the U.S.S. Colorado's ship's log, May 31, 1871, 8 p.m. to
midnight watch—written verbatim]


As is noted, the officials wore blue dress, while the ones pictured
were in white.  It should also be noted that the officer making the entry,

Lieutenant Hugh W. McKee was one of three United States personnel killed in action on June 11.

             It was during the meeting between the Korean officials and those from the United States where probably the most serious miscommunication happened. 

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 (Report by Rear-Admiral John Rodgers, ARSN, June 3, 1871).

The simple, but very serious miscommunication was that the Americans took the Koreans silence for compliance, while it was actually disagreement.  To Koreans, unless specific permission is given to do something, it is not allowed.  Specifically, in regards to the Kanghwa Straits, even Korean vessels were not allowed to sail it without written permission by Korean authorities.  Also, the Korean laws prohibited foreigners to pass a barrier of defense (Paullin 1910, as quoted in W.M. Kim, 445).  Captain McLane Tilton wrote to his wife, Indeed the people we have communicated with, altho they did not say they would not fire upon us, should we continue up the River, let us infer they wouldnt, and we were obliged to return their fire to maintain a dignified position (Tyson Amphibious Landing in Korea, 1871 1966).

On June 1, the Americans sent up the Monocacy, Palos, and steam launches and cutters, under the command of Commander Blake.  When they came to a bend in the straits, near what the Koreans call Yongdu Fortress (ε) and the Americans called Elbow Fort, they came under fire by Korean cannons and gingals (small cannon-like portable guns, called chongtong () in Korean).  They were lined up along the shore and fired by a train of powder (Rodgers in ARSN 1871, 276).  The Americans immediately returned fire, which proved difficult as the current at the bend is very swift.  The Monocacy was carried upon a rock across from the Elbow Fort, next to a small island the Koreans call Puraesǒm (Floating Island).  It sustained a hole, which was temporarily repaired, but the ship had to return to the anchorage for further repairs.  The expedition that day only had two slight casualties, a gunshot wound to the shoulder of one sailor and another with a loss of two fingers.  As Commander Blake was under orders to not pursue any advantage in case of being attacked, along with their only having a small force and limited supplies and ammunition, he did not land any troops, but instead returned to the anchorage.

             The United States sent word to the Koreans that they would give them ten days to make an apology for the attack on them; after which, they would attack the fortresses involved in the assault  They had an ulterior motive for waiting, as the tides would be much more favorable at that time.  The ten days came and went, with no apology from the Koreans.  There was a message from the Koreans, however, on June 4; Captain McLane Tilton wrote 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 didnt 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 couldnt see why they shouldnt continue to live as they do! (Tyson 1966).

             Much of the following comes from the officers reports from the Annual Report of the Secretary of the Navy, 1871.  At 10:00 a.m. on June 10, the assault on the forts began. The landing forces consisted of about 650 men (over 500 sailors and 100+ Marines).  In this fight, the US had .50 caliber Remington rolling block carbines, the Marines had muzzleloading Springfield muskets and Navy Plymouths; the Koreans had matchlocks. They landed at Choji Fortress, which the Americans called Marine Redoubt, with no opposition; they camped nearby overnight. The next morning, they finished destroying the fort, dumping or spiking cannons and then moved on, with Marines traveling ahead as skirmishers.

The Korean forces banded together as guerilla units but, armed with only matchlocks, and being kept in check by US artillery (12-pdr. howitzers on field carriages), they could not get within effective firing range. The US troops moved on toward the next objective, Dǒkjin Fortress (Fort Monocacy). 

The Korean forces had, likewise, abandoned the second fortress, choosing to mass together farther north. The Marines quickly dismantled this fortress, too.  Like the past fortress, they dumped and spiked cannon, burned stores, etc.  Next, they went onward toward their main objective, a small fortress attached to Kwangsungbo (), called Sondolmok Dondae (յ񵷴).  The Americans originally referred to it as the citadel, but later renamed it Fort McKee, in honor of the Navy lieutenant killed in the fighting there. The Korean forces had regrouped there, en masse.  Along the way, some Korean units tried to flank the US forces; they were checked, again, by strategic placement of artillery on two hills nearby the Citadel.

Artillery, both from the ground forces and also from the USS Monocacy, offshore, pounded the citadel and the hill directly west of it, in preparation for an assault by US forces. The US forces, made up of nine companies of sailors and one company of Marines, grouped on the facing hill, keeping cover and firing at any defender who showed himself.

When a signal was given, firing stopped and the US forces charged toward the Citadel, with Lieutenant Hugh McKee in the lead. The Koreans fired as fast as they could, but the US forces gained ground before they could reload; the Koreans ended up throwing rocks at the attackers.  Lieutenant McKee was the first in the citadel, with a sword in one hand and a revolver in the other. He was shot in the groin and speared in the side by Koreans inside.  After him came Commander Schley, who shot and killed the Korean who speared Lieutenant McKee.  An interesting anecdote about Lieutenant McKee was a story that might shed a little light on why he raced ahead of everyone in the charge on the citadel.  For a long time, I wondered why he did something that was seemingly suicidal.  Then, one day I received e-mail from a distant descendant of his, William C. McKee.  He transcribed a newspaper clipping from that time.  In it, was the story of how word got back to his ship, the USS Colorado, the day before it left for Korea that his fiancée, a socialite, ran away with a career diplomat.  Lieutenant McKee overheard crewmembers talking about it and, when someone noticed him standing there, he had a clenched fist, like he wanted to strike someone.  He spent the entire night pacing the deck, according to the story.  It might explain his feelings on June 11, where he was probably still very emotionally distressed over losing his fiancée.  Also, in an event related to Lieutenant McKee, I got to know his great-great-great nephew, James Wardrop quite well.  I arranged for him to visit Kanghwa Island for the chesa (: ancestor memorial ceremony) for General Ŏ Chae-yǒn back in 2000.  Jamie was a focal point of the ceremony that year and became quite close to Ŏ Yun-wǒn, the elderly grandson of the general.  A rift between two families had been healed.  I was very glad to have been part of a chapter in Korean history that was finally closed.  The fighting went on for only fifteen minutes or so and all the defenders were killed, wounded and captured or escaped. When the fighting was over, about 350 Koreans and three Americans, Lieutenant McKee, landsman Seth Allen and Marine Denis Hanrahan, were dead.  Lieutenant McKees body was shipped back to his hometown of Lexington, Kentucky, in the United States, for burial.  The other two KIA, plus one sailor, Thomas Driver, who died from a fever, were buried on Chakyak Island.  I petitioned the Central Identification Laboratory, Hawaii (CILHI) to search for the remains and, after a couple years, back in 2002, they did indeed start a search, which I joined them in.  However, they did not get the proper permits from the Korean government and the United Nations Command which had operational control over the searches was having political problems at the time, so the search was postponed.  Hopefully, it can be restarted someday.  I would not expect to find much, if anything, however, as the small island (about 500 meters from one end to the other) has had improvements.  Also, there is a report that after the Americans left Korean waters in July 1871, locals dug up the corpses, beheaded them, presenting the heads to the Tae Wǒn Kun, after which they were displayed on posts outside the palace.  Whether the story is true or not, I am not sure, as it evidently came from a Japanese functionary in Korea, in the 1930s (Annual Report; Inchǒn Pusa [õλ] 1933).  However, it would not be without precedent, as there was a ritual in the Chosǒn Dynasty called pukwanchamsi (ΰ; β), in which a corpse was dug up after a period of time and re-executed.  This happened when someone did something that offended the king so much that one execution was not enough.


             In the end, the Americans won the battle militarily, but lost diplomatically.  Korean history books say things like, Koreans drove the Western invaders away.  After that, the Tae Wǒn Kun even had stone markers set up on the main thoroughfare in Seoul and at other important sites throughout the country, incised with this admonition: Western barbarians invade our land.  If we do not fight, we must then appease them.  To urge appeasement is to betray the nation (Eckert et al, 1990).  While not militarily true, the result was the same; because the Koreans refused to negotiate, the Americans left a couple weeks later.  The Americans, for their part, stayed as long as they did for appearances sake; if they left too quickly, it would certainly look as if they had been driven off.  They had to be careful, as the foreign communities in such places as China were already having problems and, if it appeared that the Americans could be pushed away by the Koreans, it might have encouraged rebel forces to strike out in places like China.  That was a big reason for the United States retaliating for the attack on their forces on June 1; if they had not responded, it might have encouraged further attacks not only in Korea, but elsewhere, too. 

Effect on Later Events

             The United States really had bad timing.  Of course, it would have been next to impossible for them to have known that.  In 1871, the Tae Wǒn Kun was still strongly in power, as King Kojong was not yet of age to take the throne.  However, after 1873, when Kojong finally did ascend to the throne, the Tae Wǒn Kun lost power and was ultimately exiled.  King Kojong was much more progressive than his father and wanted to have relations with foreign countries.  The Japanese took advantage of this when they attacked in 1875 and forced Korea into a treaty in 1876 (Eckert et al, 1990).  This paved the way for diplomatic relations with other countries, including with the United States (1882). 

Japan was now in a position of power and dominance, as it had a head start, by several years, on the other countries.  The United States became deeply involved after its treaty, but really did not take full advantage of the situation.  King Kojong wished to have United States military advisors, but the Americans were slow to provide them (Lee, Y.B., et al. 1999, 41).  The Chinese, for their part, were trying to hold onto some type of suzerain relationship with Korea, but they found that quickly eroding.  In the end, China was looked at as a relic.  They still had some effect on events happening in Korea, but few were beneficial (Lee, Y.B. Diplomatic Relations Between the United States and Korea, 1866-1887 1970).

As Japan had a foothold in Korea, it led to Koreas annexation (1905) and eventual colonization (1910).  It really is a what-if scenario, but if the United States had been able to successfully negotiate with the Koreans in 1871, instead of having a useless fight, might the course of events have been different?  Maybe, if the United States had a position of power in Korea in 1871, the Japanese would not have had the chance to gain a foothold on the peninsula and the colonization and subsequent expansion of the Japanese Empire might have been precluded.  Maybe the Pacific War of 1941-1945 would not have happened.  Of course, that is just conjecture, with no way of ever knowing.  However, the 1871 action was, indeed, a pivotal point in Korea-Western relations.  Even around the time of the 1882 treaty, the 1871 action caused emotions to surface.  America is the enemy of Korea, and once threatened to bombard our cities, a Korean official told the Japanese in 1880.  We will never accept any proposition made to us for friendly intercourse with America.  Hundreds of Confucianist conservatives, in mourning clothes, held vigil outside the royal palace in an effort to persuade the king not to abandon Koreas traditional isolation (Lee, Y.B., et al. 1999, 40).


             In this paper, I have just scratched the surface regarding early United States involvement in Korea.  The subject is too deep and complex to completely explain in such a short paper.  Still, I have endeavored to show as much as possible regarding the major events in this pivotal part of Korean-American relations.  We have seen that the early meetings between the United States and Korea were neither very smooth nor friendly.  Although this event happened 1-1/3 centuries ago, and most Americans have no idea it ever happened, to some Koreans it is like recent history; Koreans learn little about it in school, but enough to inflame a feeling of nationalism in some of them.  For those who feel that the current United States military presence on the peninsula is just a continuation of 1871, the event is as powerful as Remember the Alamo is to Texans.

             The Shinmiyangyo was an ill-conceived and ill-timed action that amounted to basically nothing for the United States.  It was probably the first, but not last time the United States won the battles but lost the war.  After causing great destruction on Korean forces, the United States primary goal of establishing a treaty with the Koreans was left undone; it would not be for another eleven years before it was finally accomplished.  When the United States finally did conclude a treaty, it did not pursue any advantage with King Kojong, who desired close relations, and even forbid its agents from doing so (Lee, Y.B. 1970).  Japan was allowed to gain a foothold in Korea, which directed the course of history on the peninsula and possibly the world.






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Copyright © 2004 Thomas Duvernay