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SS General Sherman Incident

Korean leaders were aware that China's position had been transformed by the arrival of powerful Western gunboats and traders, but they reacted to the Opium War (1839-42) between China and Britain by shutting Korea's doors even tighter. In 1853 United States Navy Commodore Matthew C. Perry and his "black ships" entered Edo Bay, beginning the process of opening Japan to foreign trade.

Korea, however, continued its isolationist policy. Japan's drastic reform of its institutions -- the Meiji Restoration of 1868 -- and subsequent industrialization was attributed by Korean literati to Japan's alleged inferior grasp of Confucian doctrine. Through its successful rebuff of French and American attempts to "open" Korea, the regime was encouraged to think it could hold out indefinitely against external pressure.

In late 1865 the US Navy gunship Princess Royal, an armed American merchant-marine schooner and formerly a Confederate blockade runner, was dispatched to China to help protect the US interests in China. The American merchant W.B. Preston arranged with the Meadows & Co., a British firm in Tientsin, to send the ship [renamed the SS General Sherman - SS = Steam Ship, not USS = United States Ship] to Korea. The SS General Sherman steamed up the Taedong River almost to P'yongyang. In August 1866 the General Sherman became stranded in the river. Shortly thereafter, the Korean governor ordered his troops to attack. The Koreans burned the ship by the use of a fire raft and when the ship's crew reached shore, they were massacred. Other foreigners, including French missionaries, had suffered the same fate at different times.

Kim Il Sung claimed that his great-grandfather was involved in this incident. Historical fabrications in the North go so far as to portray Kim Il Sung's great grandfather Kim Ung-u as a brave fighter against the "U.S. imperialists," maintaining that he destroyed the USS General Sherman, and that Korean anti-American struggles began as early as the 1880s. Kim's father Kim Hyong-jik and his mother Kang Ban-sok are depicted as "indefatigable fighters" who led the anti-Japanese civilian movement of "March 1, 1919," which are historical fabrications.

In January 1867 the USS Wachusett under Captain Robert W. Schufeldt arrived to investigate General Sherman's demise. But foul weather turned her back. In the Spring of 1868 the USS Shenandoah under Captain John C. Febiger reached the Taedong River's mouth and received an official letter acknowledging the death of all crewmen of General Sherman.

In an effort to obtain some assurance for the protection of American lives and open up the country to trade, Frederick Low, the American Minister to China, was sent on a mission to Korea. Mr. Low arrived on the west coast of Korea during the latter part of May 1871 on board the flagship Colorado, along with four other ships of the Asiatic Fleet under the command of Rear Admiral John Rodgers. Having anchored off the mouth of the Han River, and desiring to examine approaches to Seoul, Rodgers sent out a Navy surveying party on one June. The survey party, while working its way up the channel (Salee River), was fired upon by one of the five forts which protected the approach to the Han River. After waiting 10 days to give the Korean officials time to apologize, Rodgers and Low decided to carry out punitive measures in response to the hostile action.

On 10 June, Marine Captain McLane Tilton with 3 officers and 105 Marines, who comprised part of the landing force, led the assault against the Korean forts. After taking two of the forts without much difficulty, Tilton then led his Marines against the heavily fortified "Citadel." During the ensuing battle, which required hand-to-hand combat, Marine Corporal Charles Brown and Private Hugh Purvis made their way to the flagstaff and tore down the enemy flag. As a result of this heroic act, both Marines were subsequently awarded the Medal of Honor. With the battle for the "Citadel" ended, over 200 Koreans lay dead and a total of 6 Marines were recommended for and ultimately received the Medal of Honor for their gallant efforts.

There is no doubt that the Americans felt themselves victorious; they had lost three men, the Koreans 350. Although no successful treaty was immediately negotiated, hostile activity towards the Americans ceased. When the American ships left Korea on 3 July little had been accomplished, and the Koreans were able to regard it as a great victory because the Americans had sailed away without gaining any particular advantage, just as the French had done in 1866.

Japan succeeded in imposing a Western-style unequal treaty in February 1876, giving its nationals extraterritorial rights and opening three Korean ports to Japanese commerce. China sought to reassert its traditional position in Korea by playing the imperial powers off against each other, with the result that Korea entered into unequal treaties with the United States, Britain, Russia, Italy, and other countries. On 22 May 1882 Korea capitulated and signed the Treaty of Chemulpo. Commodore Robert W. Schufeldt presided over this surrender.

The USS Pueblo is now moored at the spot where the SS General Sherman was sunk in the 19th century.

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One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger - by Matthew Yglesias

Page last modified: 28-06-2015 21:15:01 ZULU