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Amphibious Assault

The Landing at Kanghwa Island

 

 

 

 


Captain McLane Tilton
USMC

 

May 16, 1871

My dear Nannie,

We are really on our way to Korea.  I hope what you have read in the papers about the Expedition has not allarmed (sic) you as I do not think we are to have any trouble to speak of, our mission being a peaceful one, and for the purpose only of exacting a reasonable promise from the Korean Govt. that Christian seamen wrecked on their coast may be treated humanely.  We have no knowledge of the country, and only very unreliable information in regard to the coast.

We are all quite jolly, and every day the crews of our fleet are exercised in the Infantry drill & firing with small arms.  Some months ago a Schooner came up here to trade, and the natives are said to have cut them up, and pickled them, took thgem in the interior and set them up as curiosities!  The French came 3 years ago to avenge their priests, who had been murdered, when they skinned a french (sic) doctor, and crucified him on the beach under the eyes of the Frenchmen who had been driven off, and who were unable to help their friends.  Whether this is positively true or not I can't say; but you may imagine it is with not great pleasure I anticipate landing with the small force we have, against a populous country containing 10,000,0000 of savages.

 

Note:
The letters of McLane Tilton as used here have been edited for brevity.  Notwithstanding, however, the text is presented exactly as the Marine commander wrote them in his letters home.

(From the personal papers of Captain McLane Tilton, USMC - Archives and Library, Historical Branch, HQ, USMC)

The Shinmi Year (1871)

The traditional Korean calendar was based on two sets of zodiac cycles (which make a complete cycle every 60 years), and is counted starting from the beginning of the king's reign. Five years had passed since the year Byungin. The year 1871 was the year called "shinmi".

In the intervening period, the United States government took a personal interest in the unknown fate of the General Sherman. Six months after the incident on the Tae-dong River, the USS Wachusett was dispatched to Corea under Captain Robert Schufeldt to inquire into the merchant ship's fate. The mission was aborted due to bad weather. Then in 1868 Captain John C. Febiger steamed the USS Shenandoah to the mouth of the Tae-dong River, again seeking information on the fate of the General Sherman and issuing demands for reparations.

Corean officials were hesitant to release very much information about the destruction of the ship, fearing any acknowledgement might require them to pay those reparations. They did send an official letter to Captain Febiger confirming the death of the ship's crew. The Coreans also asked Captain Febinger why the Americans wanted to come so far to make a treaty. 

"We have been living 4,000 years without any treaty with you, and we can't see why we shouldn't continue to live as we do." They stated.

Finally, in April 1870, the U.S. State Department instructed its foreign minister in China Frederick F. Low to depart for Corea to negotiate the safe treatment of shipwrecked sailors. He was also empowered to establish a trade treaty with the Hermit Kingdom, and to pursue the investigation into the loss of the General Sherman. Rear Admiral John Rodgers, commander of the Asiatic fleet based in Japan, was tasked with supporting the diplomatic mission. Minister Low was perhaps the ideal diplomat to negotiate with the elusive Hermit Kingdom, having gained uncommon understanding of the Orient after serving an apprenticeship with the Boston firm of Russell, Sturgis and Company that traded extensively there. Perhaps because of this insight into the Oriental culture, Low was not optimistic about his mission but dutifully set about to increase the chances of success by enlisting the support of the Chinese government.

By May of 1871 Admiral Rodgers had assembled the five ships of his fleet and a force of 1,230 men. The USS Colorado, a pre-Civil War steam screw frigate that had seen action in the Union blockade off Mobile, Alabama, served as the Admiral's flagship. Also quartered on the Colorado were Minister Low and Captain McLane Tilton who commanded the Asiatic Fleet's Marine Guard.

The Alaska and Benicia were near sister ships, each 250 feet in length, heavily armed and boasting a powerful 60-pounder, rifled gun. Only two years old, they were the most modern ships of the fleet. Palos, an iron-hulled, screw-driven tug had been converted to a gunboat and joined the Asiatic Squadron in 1870. En route it became the first U.S. Warship to pass through the newly constructed Suez Canal. The Monocacy was a side-wheel gunboat that mounted six big guns and was capable of heavy bombardment.

In 1854 less than 20 years earlier Commander Matthew Calbraith Perry had steamed into Japan with a far less impressive fleet of warships. He had intimidated the Japanese into negotiating the Treaty of Kanagawa which opened Japanese ports to American shipping and guaranteed the safe treatment of shipwrecked sailors. Minister Low's misgivings about the success of negotiating a similar treaty with Corea aside, Admiral Rodgers had certainly developed an armed force capable of intimidating the Hermit Kingdom into acceding to the American demands.

 

 

The Alaska and Benicia were near sister ships, each 250 feet in length, heavily armed and boasting a powerful 60-pounder rifled gun.  Only two years old, they were the most modern ships of the fleet.  Palos, an iron-hulled, screw-driven tug had been converted to a gunboat and joined the Asiatic Squadron in 1870, becoming the  first U.S. Warship to pass through the newly constructed Suez Canal en route.  The Monocacy was a side-wheel gunboat that mounted six big guns and was capable of heavy bombardment.

Less than 20 years earlier, in 1854, Commander Matthew Calbraith Perry had steamed into Japan with a far less impressive fleet of warships, intimidating the Japanese into negotiating the Treaty of Kanagawa opening Japanese ports to American shipping and guaranteeing the safe treatment of shipwrecked sailors.  Minister Low's misgivings about the success of negotiating a similar treaty with Corea aside, Admiral Rodgers had certainly developed an armed force capable of intimidating the Hermit Kingdom into acceding to the American demands.

Shortly after Captain Tilton penned his May 16th letter home the five ships steamed out of Japan. They sailed around the Corean peninsula, past Inchon, and towards the mouth of the Han River leading to Seoul.

 


May 26, 1871

My dear Nannie,

We moved a little nearer our destination since I last wrote, and are now at anchor in a sort of Bay filled with islands where we will remain until we find out by surveying, which is the most practicable way to get over the next 20 miles, which will bring us to our journey's end.  The middle of next week will no doubt find us in communication with the (Corean) authorities.  The islands in our vicinity are inhabited by a few people only, living in thatched huts in the valleys, and all dress in white.  They are seen every day clustering on the hilltops, where they squat and I suppose wonder what we are about to do.  When our boats are sailing about & meet native boats, the latter always change their course, not appearing to desire any communication; and upon our boats landing on the beach, they get in theirs.

Captain Tilton wrote this letter from the squadron's temporary anchorage near Eugenie Island (Ipp'a-do), where the ships arrived on May 23. For several days after arrival, soundings were taken and the unstable waters off the western Corean coast were charted for safer navigation. On May 29 Admiral Rodgers steamed his ships north, past Inchon and towards the entrance to the Han River. The squadron reached Boise Island the following day. As Captain Tilton had surmised in his letter home, the Americans received their first official visit from the Coreans.

That first visit was cordial but tense. Three Corean diplomats of the 3rd and 5th ranks were welcomed aboard the Colorado. Minister Low opted not to meet with them himself, deputizing his acting secretary Edward B. Drew to conduct the interview. Mr. Drew assured the Coreans that the American squadron's mission was of the "non-aggressive disposition". He also informed them that "Only (Corean) officials of the first rank, who were empowered to conduct negotiations, could be received (by Minister Low) and to such alone would a full statement of the objects of the expedition be made."

Before the Corean delegation departed, Mr. Low further informed them that the Americans intended to take soundings of the nearby waters and survey the shores. He advised that the effort would not commence for 24 hours, enabling the inhabitants to be notified of the purpose for which the Americans were entering their waterways. When the Coreans failed to protest this intrusion it was erroneously perceived as acquiescence to the American plan.

The Kanghwa Strait (also known as the Salee River) flows between Kanghwa Island and the Korean mainland. It was this area of the Corean coast that Admiral Rodgers wished to sound and chart. On the morning of June 1, assuming he had the consent of the Corean officials, Rodgers dispatched a survey party aboard steam launches from the USS Alaska, Benicia, and Colorado. Joining the steam launches was a steam cutter from the Colorado, and tailing the survey crew at a safe distance were the Palos and Monocacy. The remainder of the squadron remained at anchorage some six miles away, the draft of their hulls too deep to safely navigate the straits or the shallow waters around Kanghwa.

All seemed well when the steam launches entered the strait and began taking soundings and measurements. Along the coast of Kanghwa Island to the survey party's left ran a series of Corean fortifications, but all were quiet...at first. Slowly the survey party continued northward past a sharp bend in the river. Then, without warning, cannon fire erupted from an elbow shaped fort on the island. An intense fifteen-minute volley of Corean bombardment followed it. Looking to their left the survey party could see the walls of the Kwangsungbo Fortress. Known to the Americans as the Citadel, the heavily armed fort sat at the top of a conical hill providing an unobstructed view of the straits below. Fortunately for the American survey party, the big guns that protruded from the edges of the fortress were anchored with huge logs, making it difficult for the Corean gunners to lower their barrels. The enemy fusillade, for the most part, sailed harmlessly over the heads of the Americans.

Two seaman from the USS Alaska's launch were slightly wounded in the attack, but during the opening volley the Palos and Monocacy steamed rapidly up the strait and around the bend to rake the Kwangsungbo Fortress with their heavy guns. The fire from the American gunboats drove the Coreans from the walls and the shelling stopped. Then the steam launches, along with the Palos, returned to the rest of the squadron's anchorage. The fearless Monocacy had pushed its attack too far and was carried by the swift currents around the bend beneath Kwangsungbo. There it ran aground on the rocks. A small hole in the hull of the Monocacy was quickly repaired so when the water rose with the incoming tide, the valiant side-wheel warship pulled back to anchorage near Boise'e Island.

Admiral Rodgers initially considered preparing his forces for a ground assault the following day upon the return of his survey party and after hearing about the attack made on them. "Preparations for this were made," he later wrote in his official report, "but upon consideration it was concluded to wait for the next neap tides, when the currents will be less violent than during the prevalence of the spring tides, which are now running." After conferring with Minister Low, Rodgers elected to set aside a brief period of time for the Corean government to offer an official apology. The time limit set was TEN DAYS, after which, if no apology was forthcoming, the fortifications on Kanghwa Island would be assaulted and destroyed.

On the island itself, Colonel Ching sent a courier to Seoul with a message for the king. It stated:

"Two sailing vessels with two masts (Palos and Monocacy) have suddenly forced their way into Sun-shih Passage.  As this is a most important pass leading up into the river, ever since the attack on our troops in Byuing in, we have increased the guard, and done everything to make it secure:  even our own public and private vessels, if they have no river pass, are not allowed to go rushing about...The forces stationed in the Pass accordingly opened their guns to prevent them going by."

 


June 4, 1871

My dear Nan,

We are all as hearty as bucks, and full of having a bang at the Koreans before very long.  On June 1st we started our Gunboats "Palos" and "Monocacy", with four little steam launches, to make soundings higher up the River Salee, and when they reached a mud fort on a point of the River, the Koreans opened on them without a moments warning.

Their guns are very rude, seemed to be lashed to logs, and cannot be trained except on a point beforehand, which, when the vessel nears, they touch them off!  The vessels were not struck at all.

I was not with the party, but you may be sure we all will be, when we make our next advance up the river, which we probably will very soon, and give them a good drubbing too, for firing on our little vessels, without giving any warning.

Most affectionately Your husband,
McLane Tilton

 

Yangyo 
(The Disturbance)

 

 

At ten o'clock on Saturday morning, June 10, 1871, the USS Palos and Monocacy departed the squadron's anchorage near Boise'e Island for the Kanghwa Strait once again. This time the Palos towed a long line of smaller boats... twenty-two of them in all, each loaded with US Marines and Navy bluejackets. An apology from the Corean government had not been forthcoming so Admiral Rodgers had assembled a force to teach them a lesson.

Overall command of the expedition was under Commander Homer C. Blake of the U.S.S. Alaska, who was to direct the expedition from the Palos. His adjutant general was Lieutenant Commander W. Scott Schley, who decades later would become a leading figure in the Spanish-American War. At his own request, ground forces were placed under Commander Lewis A. Kimberly of the Benicia. The landing force was led by Captain McLane Tilton who, with four junior officers, led the 100-man Marine detachment ashore. From the ranks of every ship in the squadron Lieutenant Commander Silas Casey had assembled a bluejacket battalion of 542 sailors. An artillery detachment with seven twelve-pound guns completed the force and was sent ashore under the command of Silas Casey.

The order of battle called for the Monocacy to enter the southern opening of the Kanghwa Strait, preceded by two steam launches, and commence bombardment of the Choji Fortress that guarded the mouth. While the Corean forces were occupied by naval gunfire, the Palos would swing in beneath the fort to unload Marines and Navy bluejackets, then join the Monocacy in the middle of the channel to continue the bombardment.

The first phase went well, the Monocacy's armament enhanced by two nine-inch guns that had been transferred from the Colorado. Leading the way into the channel, Ordinary Seaman John Andrews of the launch from the Benicia coolly dropped his lead-weighted line into the water and called out soundings to guide the force around shallow shoals, deadly rocks, and into deeper water. Though cannon fire from the Monocacy was met with return fire from the Choji Fortress, Andrews ignored the danger to stay at his post. The first of fifteen Americans to earn the Medal of Honor during the "weekend war in Corea", his citation states: "Stationed at the lead in passing the forts, Andrews stood on the gunwale of the Benicia's launch, lashed to the ridgerope. He remained unflinching in this dangerous position and gave his soundings with coolness and accuracy under a heavy fire." After a short time the furious pounding of the Monocacy's guns drove the Coreans back, and the Choji Fortress fell silent.

The amphibious assault did not go as well. The site for the landing south of the Choji Fortress had been chosen because it flanked the enemy's position and left nothing to be feared from the rear. Additionally, the beachhead sloped gently towards the body of the island, as opposed to the sharp rocks and high hills elsewhere along the strait.

The Palos swung in towards the shoreline and released its twenty-two small boats. Then she moved back into the strait to join the Monocacy. The tide was out so when the landing force reached shallow water, they were faced with a 200-yard beachhead. When they stepped out of the boats to charge the island, the Marines and bluejackets sank up to their knees in the soggy mud flats. Along the east of their line where the artillery landed, the howitzers sank up to their axels.

Had the Coreans anticipated the landing and lain in wait, the first Marines to step ashore would have been quickly cut down as they struggled through the mud. Fortunately, the only opposition the landing force met came from the terrain.

So thick and sticky was the mud flat that it sucked boots, socks, and even pants from the Americans struggling to reach firmer ground. Leading the way, McKee's muddy Marines formed a skirmish line and advanced on the Choji Fortress. As they struggled through the brush towards the 100-meter oval wall on the hill overlooking the river, an occasional round peppered their ranks. From time to time movement could be seen in their periphery. Upon reaching the 12-foot stone walls, much of it was found to be in ruin, testament to the Monocacy's accuracy. They found the fort abandoned.

 

The Marine Redoubt

Due the inhospitable terrain of the mud beds, it was beyond four in the afternoon when the last of the bluejackets reached the solid ground of the island and the last of the howitzers had been pushed and dragged through the mud. While awaiting the arrival of the rest of the force the Marines set about destroying the abandoned weapons that nearly filled the small Corean fort. Some 30 or more smaller guns were destroyed, along with half a dozen 18-pounders and two 32-pounders. The Marines spiked the larger guns and tossed the smaller ones over the walls and into the mud beds below. Stores of enemy powder, provisions, and clothing were burned, and the walls were torn down. The ancient Choji Fortress thereafter became known as the Marine Redoubt.

When the bluejackets arrived at the captured fort the Marines, moved off in advance of the main body of the force to make camp for the night. They were accompanied by one howitzer. Captain Tilton set out pickets to guard against any surprised when darkness fell.

The first day of the weekend war concluded well, no casualties, no contact with the enemy beyond the exchange between the Monocacy and the defenders on the shore, and the first of the enemy fortifications had fallen without incident. It was a fortunate conclusion considering the physical strain the landing had taken on the Americans. With the Marines at the front the remainder of the exhausted American force settled in for an all too brief night on Corean shores. 

For these men, Sunday would NOT be a day of rest.

 

 

 

In 1973 the Choji (Chojijin) Fortress was reconstructed on Kanghwa, still perched high above the entrance to Kanghwa Strait.  A single cannon is displayed inside the fort, a popular attraction to the island which sees considerable tourism.  The pine trees around the fort still carry the scars of the many battles fought by the Coreans to protect their shores.
(Click on the picture at right for a larger image.)

 

 

Shinmiyangyo
The Other Korean War

Preface
History Repeated

The Hermit Kingdom
And the General Sherman

Amphibious Assault
The Landing at Kanghwa 

The Citadel
Valor on Two Sides 


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Special Acknowledgment to Mr. Thomas Duvernay who has spent several years researching the Shinmiyangyo.  Mr. Duvernay has established contact with the surviving family of Lt. Hugh McKee, but is anxious to establish contact with surviving family of other participants in this action.  We encourage you to visit Mr. Duvernay's website at www.shinmiyangyo.org.

 

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