In 1871, an American fleet led by a diplomatic and merchant ship entered Korean waters and were fired upon by antiquated shore batteries, leading to a battle where 650 Marines and sailors landed on one of the island and fought against Korean personnel to capture five forts.
Officers of the USS Colorado pose on the ship in Korean Waters near the end of the Korean Expedition in 1871.
The mission of the fleet was to open up trade and diplomatic relations with the Korean people, a mission that was fraught with dangers stemming from a bloody history.
The expedition is sometimes known as the Punitive Expedition and may or may not have come as a result of a previous expedition in 1866 where the USS General Sherman sailed upriver to Pyongyang, clashed with local authorities, and fought with large crowds of Koreans before Korean people managed to burn the vessel and kill the survivors.
Meanwhile, the General Sherman incident followed years of Korean atrocities against their Christian populations, largely a response to perceived encroachment by missionaries and other western influences.
U.S. Navy officers pose during a council of war aboard the USS Colorado in June 1871 while preparing to make landfall on a Korean island.
So, when the fleet arrived in Korea, they shouldn’t have expected a warm welcome. But they were still surprised when the lead vessel, an unarmed merchant ship, came under a sustained 15-minute barrage from shore batteries.
But the American fleet was only moderately damaged from the fusillade and the Americans simply withdrew. They returned 10 days later, made landfall, and spoke to Korean authorities.
The Koreans refused to apologize, and the Americans launched a concerted assault on Ganghwa Island, the source of the earlier fire. The island boasted five forts, but they were mostly armed with outdated weapons and the troops lacked training in the tactics of the day.
Marine Corps Cpl. Charles Brown and Pvt. Hugh Purvis stand in front of a captured Korean Military Flag in June 1871 following the capture of Korean forts on June 11. Brown and Purvis received Medals of Honor for their actions during the short conflict.
(National Museum of the U.S. Navy)
Approximately 650 Marines and sailors, nearly all the men of the expedition, attacked one fort after another, pushing the Korean forces back and inflicting heavy casualties while suffering relatively little in return. The fighting was over before nightfall, but the Americans achieved a dramatic success.
They captured five forts, killed 243 Korean troops, and suffered three deaths and little damage to equipment.
The Koreans refused to enter negotiations with the Americans, and simply closed themselves back off for another two years.
Korean troops killed during the 1871 Korean Expedition.
(Ulysses S. Grant II Photographic Collection)
While the force failed to meet its political and strategic goals, it had been a smashing tactical success. This was partially thanks to the superior American weaponry, but also thanks to the bravery of individual fighters.
Fifteen Medals of Honor for actions in the one-day battle were approved. They range from citations for fighting hand-to-hand with the enemy to save a fellow American like Marine Corps Pvt. John Coleman to “carrying out his duties with coolness” like Quartermaster Patrick Grace did.
This engagement took place before the Battle of Little Bighorn triggered a review of the Medal of Honor standards, resulting in a slow increase in what was necessary to earn one of the medals.
As for Korean relations, they wouldn’t take off until the 1882 Treaty of Peace, Amity, Commerce, and Navigation. Relations under the treaty continued until 1910 when Japan established colonial rule, which didn’t end until 1945 and Japanese capitulation in World War II.