Marines in turn-of-the-20th-Century Peking found themselves outnumbered and surrounded in the foreign diplomatic section of the capital. Anti-foreign Chinese Boxers threatened to overrun their position and kill everyone inside: troops, diplomats, and civilian refugees. One Marine Corps officer, Capt. John T. Myers, added to the USMC’s steadfast reputation of attacking in the face of insurmountable odds by leading a daring counterattack with American, British, and Russian Marines that would save the garrison.
John T. Myers was born into a family with an impressive legacy of military service. His great-grandfather John Twiggs served as a militia general during the American Revolution. One of John Twiggs’ sons, General David E. Twiggs – known as the “The Bengal Tiger” for his fierce temper – forged a reputation for stubbornness and bravery during the antebellum period until his death in 1861. Another son, Major Levi Twiggs, was a Marine officer killed while storming the castle of Chapultepec during the Mexican-American War. Myers’ father Abraham fought in the Seminole and Mexican Wars. Abraham married the “Bengal Tiger’s” daughter in 1853 and served as Quartermaster General for the Confederacy during the Civil War.
Abraham fled to Germany after the South collapsed in 1865. John T. Myers was born there in 1871 and returned to the U.S. with his family at age six. Ten years later, he attended the Naval Academy at Annapolis. He graduated in 1892, after suffering from a lingering illness and outlasting his tendency for poor behavior.
Myers served in the Navy Engineer Corps before being transferring to the Marines in September of 1895. He first “saw the elephant” – an American expression of the time, meaning he gained experience at significant cost – during the Spanish-American War and the Philippine Insurrection. In March of 1899, the Marines promoted him to captain for his service during the Spanish-American War. The apex of his career came when the Navy sent him to Peking (modern-day Beijing) to protect the American Legation from violent anti-foreign sentiment brewing in China.
On May 31, 1900, he led 48 Marines and two officers of the USS Oregon and USS Newark from Tientsin to Peking. He and his Marines fought behind stacked sandbags and barricades alongside British, Austrian, Italian, French, German, Japanese, and Russian troops to beat back numerous attempts to overrun the garrison.
“It was all a matter of ‘sitting tight’ behind a barricade, constant vigilance night and day and firing promptly at such of the Chinese as had the temerity to expose themselves,” Myers wrote.
“There was scarcely an hour during which there was not firing on some part of our lines and into some of the legations, varying from a single shot to a general and continuous attack along the whole line,” as U.S. Minister Edwin Conger described it.
On July 2, Myers discovered that “during the preceding night and day the Chinese had succeeded in building a wall into and across the bastion and were then busily engaged in erecting a tower directly on my left flank, the fire from which, when completed, would reach all parts of our position.” The English and Russian ministers and military officers inside the Legation Quarter gave Myers the go-ahead to storm the enemy’s barricade and drive them from the menacing tower.
Myers reinforced his 14 U.S. Marines with 16 Marines from Russia and 25 from Britain for the counterattack. It was set for July 3rd.
“These men arrived between 2 and 3 a.m., and as the Chinese had almost finished their tower and were amusing themselves throwing stones into our barricade, I at once made the dispositions for the advance.” With sword unsheathed, Myers led the multinational detachment into the enemy’s barricade in a surprise assault.
During hand-to-hand fighting, Myers received a severe wound from an iron-pointed Chinese spear below the right knee but refused to leave the field. He reluctantly handed over command once his force pushed the Chinese Boxers back from their barricade.
Despite downplaying the severity of his wound, Myers could not return to the front line. He was moved to the Russian Legation to recuperate but continued to issue orders to his men from this position. At some point septicemia set in, and “considerable quantity of pus discharged from counter-opening made about 4 inches below original wound,” forcing him to hand over command of the U.S. Marines to his deputy. Not until the end of July was he was “able to hobble about with aid of crutch.” He soon fell victim to a bout of typhoid fever.
Eventually, the European defenders of Peking were relieved by a multinational column on August 14 after a 55-day siege. Captain Myers returned home to a hero’s welcome in January 1901. He served the U.S. military for another 34 years and rose to the rank of Major General until placed on the retired list in February of 1935 at the mandatory age of 64-years-old. He died in April 1952 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
John Twiggs Myers’ counterattack was immortalized by Charleton Heston 11 years later in the 1963 film “55 Days at Peking.”