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The Citadel

Valor on Both Sides

 

 

 

Assault on Kanghwa

Reveille sounded with a drum roll at four o'clock in the morning. The respite had been all too brief for the weary marines and bluejackets who had struggled ashore through a sea of mud the previous day. With pickets to the front, they had divided into three reliefs so that at all times one third of the force would be prepared for any attack. Captain Tilton noted in his official after-action report that: "We bivouacked with our arms by our sides."

At midnight when Saturday turned to Sunday morning the Coreans fired a few shots into the American camp from a distance. The exchange was brief and was halted promptly by answering rounds from American howitzers, but it served to remind the landing force that danger was close by.

Each member of the American expedition came ashore with a blanket roll and two days provisions. As they ate their first breakfast ration inside the captured Choji Fortress they could see their 22 landing boats, the two steam launches, and the USS Monocacy anchored in the river below. A short distance behind these was the USS Palos. During the night the swift currents had carried it into shallow water where it ran aground on the rocks.

The weary Marines could also see the earthen works of the Dukjin Fortress up the Salee River about a mile from the encampment. That would be their next objective. When the main body of the landing force moved up to join them, the Marines were ordered forward. Captain Tilton led his men toward the Dukjin Fortress while the newly arrived bluejackets entered to the Choji Fortress to finish dismantling the enemy's works.

Nearby, a small, heavyset man took photographs. Felice Beato, and he had joined the expedition as its official photographer before it sailed from Japan. Already world renown for his photography, Beato may have in fact been the world's first war correspondent. In 1855 he photographed the Crimean War, then captured the Indian Mutiny of 1858, before taking his lens to China to cover the Anglo-French expedition. In 1863 he moved to Japan and achieved new acclaim for his photographs of the Oriental landscape. It was from there that he was invited to join the expedition to Kanghwa Island, going ashore with the landing force and preserving for posterity some vivid images of the Shinmiyangyo. (Ironically, Admiral Rodgers refused to allow a special correspondent from the New York Herald, who was working out of Nagasaki, to join the expedition. In one of his letters to Nannie, Captain Tilton remarked that the correspondent, in his ire, was sure to file disparaging reports about the expedition.)

When the bluejackets completed their work at the Choji Fortress they prepared to move on up the river behind the Marines. Standing atop the works they looked into the lens of Beato's camera long enough for him to capture them on film. At the front of his men stood a young Naval Lieutenant who had been tasked with leading the ground element from the USS Colorado. He was Lieutenant Hugh McKee of Kentucky.

Two nights previously Lieutenant McKee had visited with Rev. John Rutherford Matthews, the fleet chaplain, long enough to present him with a letter home to his mother and his fiancé. He parted after indicating to the chaplain that he felt he would not return alive from the expedition. Such premonitions are not uncommon among men facing certain battle, and Lieutenant McKee left his ship the following day to lead his element of the landing party with the confidence of a man destined to live to a ripe old age.

 

Tiger Hunters

With the Palos aground, only the USS Monocacy remained to provide heavy fire on the enemy positions. While the Marines continued their trek north the latter carefully wended its way through the shallow waters. The small side-wheel gunboat opened fire on the Dukjin Fortress, her big guns turning the fortress walls into rubble. 

Nearing the fortress from the rear, Captain Tilton formed his Marines in a skirmish line while awaiting arrival of the main force. When the bluejackets arrived, one third of the Marine force went forward to reconnoiter the walled position. The remainder of the Marines was held in reserve. The fort was silent and the advancing Americans took no fire. Upon completion of the recon, the full force of Marines and bluejackets entered the fort. It too, was deserted.


 

From the Official Report of
Captain McLane Tilton, commanding United States Marines

We entered this second place, after reconnoitering it, without opposition, and dismantled  the battlements by throwing over the fifty or sixty insignificant breech-loading brass cannon, all being loaded, and tore down the ramparts on the front and right face of the work to the level of the treat of the banquette.

The ramparts consisted of a pierced wall of chipped granite, with a filling of earth in the interstices and coated over with mortar, giving it the appearance of being more solid than it really was.  The cannon were rolled over the cliff into the water...without much trouble.  I can not give the weight, but the bore was not over two inches diameter.

A photographer...succeeded in taking a negative picture of the place.

Commander Kimberly's 651-man landing party of Marines and bluejackets had survived the awful landing at the mud beds without opposition. They had then taken the first enemy fort just above their landing point without a shot, and now had taken yet another. It was a great testament to the effectiveness of the offshore naval gunfire. In tribute to prowess the small warship that had delivered the bulk of it the Dukjin Fortress was renamed Fort Monocacy by the Americans.

From Fort Monocacy the Americans had a beautiful view westward across the Salee River and into the Corean mainland. Southward they could see the Marine redoubt (Choji Fortress) which they had left in ruins only hours before. Eastward rose the high mountains of Kanghwa Island. It was the view to the north that might have been most disturbing.

Fort Monocacy sat at the south end of a sharp bend in the Salee River, beyond which the island jutted sharply into the river. Along the shoreline was the Elbow Fort that had been first to fire on the American survey party eleven days earlier. Rising 150 feet above it was a cone-shaped hill. At the top of that hill stood Kwangsungbo, a prominent horseshoe shaped fortress. The sight of a large yellow flag quickly erased any doubts that it too would fall without a fight. Nearly 12 feet square it was easily visible from a distance.

In the center of that flag were the characters: .   Interpreted, they read "Generalissimo". The commander of the Corean forces himself had pulled his soldiers together for a climactic stand at the Kwangsungbo Fortress, the place the Americans called the Citadel.

That commander was General Uh Je-yeon. He had marshaled a force of 3,000* Corean soldiers, including legendary Tiger Hunters from the Yalu River region on the mainland. All of them had sworn to fight to the death against any power that dared to invade the privacy of the "Hermit Kingdom". Later, following the battle, Captain Tilton wrote home that these soldiers: "Fought like tigers, having been told by the King if they lost the place the heads of every body on Kang Hoa (sp) Island on which the forts stood, should be cut off."

*It is difficult to accurately determine the actual numbers of soldiers involved on the Corean side.  The American force numbered 651 men, though Corean accounts of the battle recount how 350 Corean defenders of the Citadel fought more than 1,000 invading Americans. The American count of the Corean force on the island is probably also rather inflated.  Certainly, no more than 500 Coreans and probably far fewer, defended Kwangsungbo. 

 

It was still early in the morning; the Dukjin Fortress was only about a mile from the point at which the American force had bivouacked the previous night. While the newly arrived the main assault force continued the work of destroying the fortress, Captain Tilton's Marines were ordered to form a skirmish line and begin the arduous task of leading the way to the Citadel. They would also cover the flank of the rest of the assault force.

Slowly they worked their way through dense foliage encountering only a few unarmed natives from the local villages. These were ignored as the Marines turned their attention to a more formidable foe, the inhospitable terrain and a rapidly warming sun. Admiral Rodgers later wrote: 

"The country is a succession of steep hills, with deep ravines between, over which foot soldiers passed with great fatigue, while the guns (howitzers) were got on only by widening the paths, where there were paths, and by cutting out the bushes and filling up gullies in other places. They were dragged up steep acclivities, by whole companies detailed to help the artillerists, or lowered down from the heights with ropes."

Captain Tilton later remembered the terrain simply as being: "Indescribable, resembling a sort of 'chopped sea,' of immense hills and deep ravines lying in every conceivable position." Despite this the Marines and bluejackets forged ahead, carefully insuring that their bigger artillery pieces were ever close behind.

Winding their way inland as they fought the terrain, the Corean forces began to probe the advance from the flank. Passing beneath the high hill called Daemoson (Big Mother Mountain), only a short distance from their final destination, the Marines began taking heavy fire from the Coreans above them. Tilton's Marines rushed upward to engage the enemy, reaching the crest of the hill to see the Corean forces on a ridge to their left. With great effort one of the howitzers was moved up the incline to return fire, chasing the Corean soldiers back from their ridge and enabling the advance.

The Citadel was now easily visible, only a few hundred yards distant atop the high hill that rose above the island's peninsula. From the ridge on which the Marines gathered they could see the rugged valley below that gave way to the steep incline to the enemy walls. Along a path leading to the fortress could be seen some 50 yellow flags in a single file, spaced only a few feet apart.

The appearance of the Coreans along the left flank became further cause for concern. If the battle did not go well and these forces moved in behind the Americans there could be no retreat. Commander Kimberly set up his artillery in two positions to cover the rear, dispatching two big guns to cover the advancing assault. Three of the nine infantry companies were also held in the rear to defend the artillery and cover the flanks, while six companies prepared for the assault on Kwangsungbo.

In the river the Marines and bluejackets could hear the boom of the Monocacy's guns as shells rained in a torrent on the enemy fort. It was nearly 11 o'clock in the morning when the main force reached the Marine position opposite the fort. The real disturbance in the Shinmi year was about to begin.

 

 

The Citadel

Navy Lieutenant Hugh McKee wiped the sweat from his eyes as he looked intently across the ravine at the fortress the Americans were preparing to attack., it would be Lieutenant McKee's honor to lead the advance as the commander of D Company. This was fitting for the young graduate of the US Naval Academy and son of an American soldier. His father Colonel McKee had commanded soldiers at Buena Vista during the war with Mexico. Leading his soldiers into battle, he first to enter the enemy's works. There Colonel McKee had given his life for his country decades before this moment. Hugh later wrote, "There never was a McKee that went into battle that was not killed."

Noting the small yellow flags that flanked his position, Lieutenant McKee turned to Lieutenant Bloomfield McIlvaine who was charged with leading Company E. "Mac," he said bluntly, "we must capture one of those flags."

And they did! While the force rested on the ridge from their trek to reach the Citadel, four men were dispatched from the companies. They returned with two flags for each of their commanders. Along the line, some 15 more of these smaller flags were taken before the battle began. But the flag that really mattered was still flying. It was the large yellow flag bearing the mark of General Uh Je-yeon, still flying over the earthen works of the Citadel.

The Americans began to fire on the fortress from the ridge as the large shells from the Monocacy slammed explosively against the earthen walls. Two of the howitzers were brought forward to support the bombardment. The shapes of Corean defenders could be seen darting along the ramparts as the enemy fired back at the ridgeline. When all was in place the Americans slipped down the slope from their ridge to take up positions in the valley below. From there they would make their charge. Enemy bullets whined overhead but most were most poorly aimed. None-the-less, one enemy round reached out to take the life of Marine Private Dennis Hanrahan. He was the first casualty. 

There would be more.

 

As the American commanders aligned their companies in the valley for the final assault, from inside the fortress came the sounds of trumpets and drums, followed by an eerie chanting. The Coreans knew that the Americans were positioning below them for the attack, and their death chant seemed to signal that they were prepared to die in defense of the island. Rising in crescendo over the valley, the chilling sound had a morose effect upon the Americans, causing man to later write: "It was like nothing human and rang in our ears longer than the terrible clashing of bayonet, cutlass and spear." 

Then, along the line in the valley below came another sound, the command to ATTACK!

Rising up the bluejackets and Marines forged their way up the steep hillside. The firing was fierce on both sides, "The air seemed literally alive with whistling projectiles," wrote one veteran. Despite their fatigue, the Americans climbed the steep hill with grim determination. The advance was so intense; inside the Citadel the Coreans did not have time to reload their ancient rifles. With a determination equal to that of their attackers they began to throw stones down the mountainside.

"McKee got the start of all of us in the commencement of the charge and kept it," Wrote Lieutenant McIlvane eleven days later. "I think his heart was set on being the first man in the fort. I was with my company, close behind and a little to his left. My men did their best, but we could not overtake him."

Lieutenant McKee was indeed the first to scale the walls, along with Marine Private Hugh Purvis. Closely following was Boatswains Mate Alexander McKenzie, Quartermaster Samuel Rogers, and Ordinary Seaman William Troy. Standing on the wall, sword in one hand and pistol in the other, Lieutenant McKee fired two shots and then dropped into the midst of the Coreans. Almost immediately the enemy was on him, one of them shooting McKee in the groin as McKenzie, Rogers and Troy leaped from the wall to assist their commander. 

A short distance away Landsman William Lukes saw his Lieutenant being swarmed by the enemy and engaged in fierce hand-to-hand fighting. The enemy had thrown down their empty guns and taken up swords and spears. One of the spears pierced the side of the already wounded Lieutenant McKee. At his side Alexander McKenzie fought fiercely to protect his commander. He fell with a blow to the head from a Corean sword. Simultaneously, Samuel Rogers and William Troy also fell severely wounded by the swarm of Corean defenders. Before Lukes could rush to their aid he found himself heavily engaged in a battle for his own life.

Meanwhile the stream of Marines and bluejackets coming over the wall continued. Lieutenant Commander Schley who reached the ramparts just as Lieutenant McKee fell. Quickly Schley shot and killed the man who had thrust his spear through the side of the brave young lieutenant.

Private Hugh Purvis who had been first to scale the wall with McKee. He advanced toward the Korean standard flying from a short pole nearby. As he worked at the halyards to loosen Corporal Charles Brown raced to his side and reached up to assist in tearing the yellow flag down. Moments later Ships Carpenter (and the bluejacket's color bearer) Cyrus Hayden was planting the Stars and Stripes on the Citadel wall. Even so, the battle was far from over and Hayden stood at his post next to the American flag to defend it against the enemy rush to remove it.

On the ground inside the fort Quartermaster Frederick Franklin assumed command of Company D, leading "with courage and skill". More and more of the Marines and bluejackets streamed over the wall. Landsman James Merton was wounded in the arm forcing his way into the enemy stronghold. Marine Private Michael McNamara reached the parapet only to be confronted by the muzzle of an enemy matchlock. With great determination the young Marine grasped the barrel and wrested the gun from the enemy, then swung it like a club to kill him before continuing his advance. Private John Coleman fought his way towards the wounded Lieutenant McKee as the Coreans were dragging his body further into their ranks. Struggling against them he was unable to reach his commander but succeeded in rescuing Alexander McKenzie who had fallen beside Lieutenant McKee.*

Such was the nature of the half-hour battle inside the Corean fort. Smoke filled the enclosure and the Corean ammunition dump burned. Bodies littered the ground as the battle became a hand-to-hand melee. Marine Private James Dougherty was wounded repeatedly yet ignored his injuries to continue to fight. Nearby Private Michael Owens likewise fought on despite serious wounds. Corean Fire cut down Seaman Seth Allen of the USS Colorado as he stormed the fort.

Slowly the tide began turned in the favor of the Americans. Realizing defeat was imminent; some of the Coreans leaped to their deaths or pierced themselves upon their own swords to honor their vow to fight to the death. Marine Private James Dougherty sought out and killed General Uh Je-yeon, an act that would earn him the Medal of Honor. With the Corean commander dead and his flag in the hands of the Americans, the battle for the Citadel was quickly over.

Years later an artist's rendering of that battle depicted the ferocity of the struggle as three bluejackets went hand-to-hand with a large enemy force. In the center of the drawing was a sketch of Landsman William Lukes who had earlier witnessed the fall of his Lieutenant. When the battle finally ended, Lukes was found unconscious on the ground and bleeding from eighteen spear and sword wounds.

 

 

Victorious Failure

 

"Just before the fight was over, and as I was advancing in the fort, I looked down at my feet among the dead and saw McKee lying there.  I stopped and stooped down to him.  He looked up at me and said in his cool, clam way: 'Mac, I am mortally wounded.' 

"With assistance of two or three of his men, I carried him a little aside and looked at his wounds. It was in the stomach from a bullet. I could not and would not believe it was serious and told him so.  He smiled, and said he thought I was mistaken.

"The doctor soon came up from the rear and said he ought to be taken aboard the Monocacy. I obtained permission to go with him, the fighting being all over, but was told to come back immediately.  All the way he talked very little, but laid perfectly quiet with his eyes closed.  I am afraid the dear fellow was suffering the most agonizing pain, but no pain that human being ever endured would have made him even wince.  When we arrived aboard the Monocacy I gave him over to the care of the surgeons and then I said, 'Now Mac, you know I must go back to my company.'

"He held out his hand, smiled and said: 'Well, good-bye Mac, if I don't see you again.'  Dear noble friend, those were the last words he ever spoke to me, but I little thought so at the time.  I simply pressed his hand and rushed away.  I could not realize that he was going to die.

"At about 6 o'clock in the afternoon the boat came in from the Monocacy and an officer came up to inform me that McKee was dead.  His last words were:  'Tell the dear beloved ones at home that my last prayer is for them.'"

Bloomfield McIlvaine
In a letter home dated June 22, 1871

 

 

When the Sunday sun set across Kanghwa Island, little remained of the Kwangsungbo Fortress but piles of broken rubble and bloody Corean bodies. The Americans counted 243 corpses in and around the fortress, and took captive 20 Coreans who had been severely wounded. The American dead were Lieutenant McKee, Landsman Seth Allen, and Marine Private Denis Hanrahan. Ten bluejackets and Marines had been wounded. Following the battle the Marines renamed the fortress. They Americans called it:

Fort McKee

 

On Monday morning after spending a second night on the Island, the small landing craft that had brought the Americans ashore returned to effect their departure. The Palos had been freed from the rocks and joined the Monocacy in towing the victorious invaders back to their ships which were still at anchor near Boisee Island.

The assault at Kanghwa Island convinced Admiral Rodgers not to attempt an expedition up the Han River to Seoul. On July 3 the American squadron sailed out of Corean waters, leaving buried on Boisee Island the bodies of Seth Allen, Denis Hanrahan, and Thomas Driver (USN) who died as the result of illness during the expedition.

What had been a stunning military victory for the American sailors and marines on Kanghwa Island could not bring victory to the political process that had sent them there to do their duty. Korea remained isolated, closed to American interests. One newspaper summarized it saying that the United States government:

"Sent a force altogether too large for the delivery of the message of peace and too small for the prosecution of war."

 


Captain McLane Tilton
USMC

 

June 21st 1871

My dearest Nannie,

I am glad to say I am alive still and kicking, although at one time I never expected to see my Wife and baby any more, and if it hadn't been that the Coreans cant (sic) shoot true, I never should.  It is all over now, and as I expected, we have failed to make any treaty with the Coreans.

Poor Lieutenant McKee who was such a beau at the Naval School was killed.  He was the first to get over the wall of the redoubt when he was mortally wounded & died six hours afterwards.

As for me I am quite satisfied, 'I have not lost no Coreans', and 'I ain't alooking for none neither'--I want to go home!  The way the 'gingall' or match-lock bullets whizzed was a caution to all those innocents engaged in war.  My precious girl I am one of those innocents, and I dont (sic) want to engage in any more sick business.

Affectionately,
Mc

 

 

*In his rescue of Boatswains Mate Alexander McKenzie, Private Coleman became the first (of at least three) men in history to be awarded the Medal of Honor for saving the life of another Medal of Honor recipient.

 

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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