Seventy-nine years before American troops launched the landing operation at Inchon during the Korean War, U.S. troops were involved in another amphibious assault in that corner of Korea. The Korean Expedition of 1871 sought to open trade with the insular Asian nation—and avenge the destruction of an American ship crewed by kidnappers and pirates. Fifteen American sailors and marines won the Medal of Honor in the brief war, the first such medals awarded for service overseas. Though their actions were skillfully executed, the lamentable political context of the conflict may explain why their deeds are not exactly celebrated in the history textbooks.
The “Hermit Kingdom” of Korea was renowned for its isolationist policies, a result of it having sustained repeated invasions from China and Japan. By the 1860s, the ruling Joseon dynasty was in no way encouraged to change its ways by the example of China, then a nominal ally. Western influence in China had seriously undermined the Chinese Qing dynasty’s authority, and led to two humiliating defeats in the Opium Wars begun in 1839 and 1856. The British felt perfectly justified in going to war to defend their right to a free trade in dope in Chinese territory. Furthermore, the spread of Christianity in China, transmitted by European missionaries, indirectly led to the even more calamitous Taiping Rebellion.
As a result, Korean regent Heungseon Daewongun instituted a crackdown that killed thousands of native Christians and all but two of the Catholic missionaries in Korea—leading to heightened tensions with France, whence many of the missionaries came.
Traders who attempted commerce in Korea were more politely shown the door. The Korean government exchanged cordial welcome to the USS South America —the first official contact between the two nations—and repatriated shipwrecked U.S. sailors on several occasions. However, American ships had intervened repeatedly on behalf of the British during the Second Opium War, and the Korean government remained wary of their presence.
In 1867, the crew of a heavily armed U.S. ironclad steamship attempted to force the issue, while involved in the Taiping Rebellion and acts of piracy.
On August 9, 1866 it sailed from Tianjin, China under command of three Americans, including Captain Page and owner Preston. The crew also included Welsh missionary Robert Thomas, fifteen Chinese and Malaysian crewmen, and a British pirate. The ship’s hold was full of cotton, tin and glass. It was its owner’s ambition to open trade with a closed-off Korea.
The General Sherman began sailing up the Taedong River on August 16, its crew handing out Bibles and impressing Korean villagers along the way. Local officials repeatedly informed Captain Page he was not authorized to trade in Korea and should not proceeded further upriver, but the American sailed his vessel onward towards Pyongyang. Finally, regent Daewongun, believing the General Sherman to be a French ship seeking to avenge the deaths of Catholic priests, told Governor Park Gyu-su to inform the ship’s crew that they must either leave or die.
By then, the General Sherman had run aground, its crew having misjudged the depth of the river due to a temporary rain swell. On August 27, attempting to forage, the crew sent out a dinghy to which was intercepted by a junk carrying Yi Hyon-ik, the deputy of Governor Park, with two guards—all of whom were subsequently taken hostage by the boat’s crew. When Park attempted to negotiate for their release, the kidnappers demanded a ransom of rice, gold, silver and ginseng. A crowd of civilian onlookers grew so incensed they began pelting the vessel’s crew with arrows and stones and even hwajeon “fire arrow” rockets. In the ensuing chaos, Korean Sergeant Park Chongwun managed to hijack a dinghy and rescue Yi Hyon-ik. Meanwhile, the boat’s twelve-pound cannons began blasting the civilian crowd with shrapnel, killing seven.
By September 2, the regent had dispatched state troops armed with matchlocks to destroy the stranded vessel. First, the Koreans tried cobbling together an armored “turtle boat” protected by metal sheeting and cowhides, with a narrow slit concealing a cannon. However, the turtle boat’s gun could not penetrate the iron ship’s armor, while the American ship’s deck guns killed one of the boat’s crew in return.
The Koreans then tried roping together three small boats loaded with firewood, saltpeter and sulfur, lighting them on fire, and sending them drifting off towards the General Sherman . While the first trio of boats missed its target and the second bounced off, a third brace of fire ships set the American vessel ablaze. The crew abandoned the flaming ship, and were soon hacked to death by the enraged mob on the shore. Reverend Thomas’s death, supposedly while handing a Bible to his executioner, was later cast as an act of martyrdom.
The General Sherman ’s guns were subsequently salvaged, its anchor hung up at Pyongyang, and its defeat celebrated in the capital of Seoul. Unsurprisingly, the incident remains well memorialized in North Korea today. State textbooks even claim an ancestor of Kim Il-sung participated in the attack, and until recently, the captured U.S. spy ship USS Pueblo was moored at the site of the General Sherman ’s grounding.