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A Marine never received his Medal of Honor because he deserted before it was presented

marine medal of honor
Aboard USS Colorado in 1871 with a sujagi: (right to left) Cpl Charles Brown, Pvt Hugh Purvis, possibly Cyrus Hayden. Photograph by Felice Beato.

This Marine has very little in common with the Charlie Brown from the Sunday funny pages. Cpl. Charles Brown was a New York-born Marine who enlisted in British-held Hong Kong. He would see action aboard the USS Colorado when the United States sent its Navy to Korea in 1871. 

Korea at that time was an extremely isolated country (even more so than North Korea is today), but the United States wanted to know what happened to a merchant ship that had visited the country in 1866. When they didn’t get satisfactory answers from the Koreans, the sailors and Marines in the new expedition took decisive military action.

The SS General Sherman steamed into Korean waters with a cargo hold full of cotton textiles, tinware, mirrors and glassware. The Koreans informed the crew they were not welcome to trade and were asked to leave the Taedong River. The American merchants didn’t leave, however, and the Koreans, believing the ship was actually a warship, attacked the ship.

The General Sherman fought off the early makeshift attacks, but things escalated and the Koreans dispatched fireships to sink the General Sherman. It worked. The American merchant ship was destroyed and its crew killed when they abandoned ship. The Koreans hid the fate of the ship from the Americans for five years, until the U.S. sent a military expedition to learn what happened to it. 

American ambassador to China Frederick Low led the U.S. Asiatic Squadron in an attempt to ascertain the General Sherman’s fate and open up trade agreements with Korea. The Koreans rejected the trade offer and fired on the American ships. Low demanded a formal apology for the attack and when one didn’t come, he decided to inflict pain on the Korean forts that dotted the coastlines. 

uss general sherman marine medal of honor
The only known existing photograph of USS General Sherman.

More than 500 sailors and 100 U.S. Marines were sent to Korea aboard five warships, Colorado, Alaska, Palos, Monocacy, and Benicia.When they arrived in Korea, the Koreans were reluctant to talk about the merchant ship. The Navy informed the Korean government they would be sailing up the Han River toward what is today Seoul, whether the Koreans liked it or not. That’s when the Koreans opened fire on the warships. 

On June 10, 1871, the Americans landed at what was then called Pointe Du Conde, the first in a series of six. As the warships pummeled the fort, the landing party seized it easily. They then fought their way to the next fort, which also fell. The Americans spent the night ashore, the first time Western troops held a piece of Korean soil. 

The next morning, the refreshed Americans continued their attack. The first fort, defended by 300 Koreans, fell within 15 minutes. One by one, the forts fell to American attack, each was looted and destroyed in turn, in a battle that would see eight sailors and Marines receive the Medal of Honor for their actions that day. During the Battle of Ganghwa, the final fort, Cpl. Charles Brown of the USS Colorado would personally fight his way to the center of the fort’s citadel, and remove the Sujagi, the personal flag of the fort’s commanding general, Gen. Eo Jae-yeon. Pvt. James Doughtery would kill Eo and Cyrus Hayden, a U.S. Navy Carpenter, would plant the stars and stripes atop the fort where the Sujagi once flew. All three men would receive the Medal of Honor. 

In spite of the lopsided victory that saw only three Americans killed, the Koreans would still refuse a trade agreement with the U.S. until 1882. Cpl. Brown would never actually receive his Medal of Honor, because he deserted at the Chinese port of Shanghai later that year.