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Korea, the “Hermit Kingdom,” was— and is—the last Far Eastern nation to hold out against European influence. China had felt the shame of defeat during the humiliating Opium War in 1842. Japan had opened its doors to the modern world after Commodore Matthew C. Perry’s intimidating visit in 1854. Korea, however, continued to resist the West.

In 1864 the kingdom gained a new ruler, the regent Yi Ha-ung, who adopted the name Taewongun, or Prince of the Great Court. The Taewongun, fearing that the West would try to impose opium upon Korea as it had on China, was determined to keep his country free of “barbarian” corruption. He closed the kingdom to any outside trade except with China.

As part of his anti-Western campaign, he began a persecution of Korean Catholics. The Catholic Church had gained a foothold in Korea, converting as many as 20,000 (mostly in the south) among the disenfranchised classes. The government killed thousands of the faithful and rounded up nine of the 12 European priests active in the country and put them to death as well. The others went into hiding or fled.

Into this cauldron of national xenophobia steamed the American armed merchantman General Sherman.

Originally christened Princess Royal in 1861 by its Scottish builders, the 619-ton iron-hulled ship began life as a Confederate blockade runner during the American Civil War. Its 11-knot speed, generated by a two-cylinder geared engine and twin boilers, made it perfect for the profitable but risky business of sneaking into southern ports at night under the guns of watchful Union picket boats. On the night of January 29, 1863, Princess Royal had tried to run into South Carolina’s Charleston Harbor with a cargo of marine engines, Whitworth rifled cannons and small arms when it was run aground and captured by USS Unadilla. For the rest of the Civil War, Princess Royal cruised off the coast of Texas, seizing other blockade runners.

After the war it was declared surplus by the Navy and found its way into the China trade, where it was renamed in honor of famed Union Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman. In 1866 the vessel’s new owner filled its hold with textiles, glassware and mirrors in hopes of trading with the Koreans for tiger skins, gold, rice and ginseng.

Four American and British officers and a crew of 16 Chinese and Malays brought General Sherman to the mouth of the Taedong River in northern Korea. Government representatives rowed out to the ship and told the captain that he was not welcome in Korea. Dismissing the warning, General Sherman pushed up the river toward the city of Pyongyang, today the capital of North Korea. An unusual combination of high tide and river-swelling rains allowed the schooner to rise over a shallow bar, called the Crow Rapids, and continue upriver. When the tide ebbed, however, General Sherman was trapped, and ensuing high tides were not enough to bring it out.

The crew soon found itself exchanging fire with hostile Koreans on shore. The ship’s modern rifled guns were superior to the smooth-bore muzzleloading pieces on land, and the Koreans learned to keep a healthy distance. The firefight went on for four days. Eventually the Koreans lashed some fishing boats together and filled them with firewood and other flammable materials. The flaming ships were sent downriver toward the American invaders, and General Sherman—despite its metal hull—was set alight and burned to the waterline. The surviving crew members made for land, where their captors summarily beheaded them.

That same year a French squadron had landed troops on Kanghwa Island, near Inchon, to avenge the killing of the Catholic priests. Using antiquated matchlock muskets, the Koreans beat back the invaders. Unprepared for open warfare and lacking sufficient manpower to press their attack, the French departed. The Taewongun basked in his country’s twin victories over the meddlesome foreigners.

Rumors soon spread in the United States that General Sherman had been lost with all hands. In January 1867, USS Wachusett arrived off the coast of western Korea. Wachusett was also a Civil War veteran, famed for its capture of the Confederate commerce raider Florida. At the war’s end Navy Secretary Gideon Welles assigned it to the East India Squadron. According to a Navy Department report, he ordered the squadron “to guard with jealous care the honor and interests of your flag and country, defend the citizens of the United States, and protect and facilitate the commerce thereof.” That’s just what Wachusett’s captain, Robert W. Schufeldt, intended when he demanded an explanation of General Sherman’s fate and the safe return of any surviving crew members. Fate intervened, however, when the untimely arrival of stormy weather forced him to flee the coast before he could press his investigation.

In the spring of 1868 another Civil War veteran, USS Shenandoah (not to be confused with the Confederate commerce raider), reached the mouth of the Taedong River. Its captain, John C. Febiger, demanded an explanation and apology for the sinking of General Sherman as well as reparations for its owner. In reply he received a letter from the Koreans acknowledging the deaths of General Sherman’s crewmen. There were no details given. He was then curtly told to depart.

It was not until 1871 that the Americans would avenge the insult to their flag. The U.S. minister to China, Frederick Low, was dispatched to Korea to demand satisfaction. He steamed to his mission in a five-ship task force commanded by Rear Adm. John Rodgers, scion of one of America’s most famous naval families. His father, Commodore John Rodgers, had fought Barbary pirates in North Africa and had been active against the British in the War of 1812. The younger Rodgers had served as a Union naval officer in the Civil War before being appointed commander of the East India or Asiatic Squadron. He now commanded what at the time was the largest American force to invade a foreign country, with the exceptions of the American invasions of York (now Toronto), Canada, in 1813 or Veracruz, Mexico, in 1847.

Rodgers anchored off Kanghwa Island, site of the French invasion of five years before. There, the diplomats received a low-level delegation of Koreans and, while waiting for replies to their demands, undertook an activity that had engaged European explorers over the previous 400 years. Rodgers sent steam launches to take depth soundings and chart the channel between Kanghwa Island and the mainland.

Nothing could be more natural for navigators than the time-honored practice of surveying unknown waters, but this channel led to the mouth of the Han River, gateway to Seoul. The Koreans were not happy. Not even their own vessels were allowed to ply that strait without permission. The defenses on Kanghwa Island had been repaired and strengthened since the French attack, and its touchy garrison fired on the American surveyors, who quickly withdrew.

All pretense of diplomacy was now discarded as Admiral Rodgers made ready his aggressive reply to this “unprovoked” attack. On June 10, Rodgers sent two of his ships to teach the natives a lesson. Monocacy and Palos were both shallow-draft gunboats—the only vessels that the admiral trusted in the still uncharted strait. Monocacy was sent ahead to bombard the offending fortress, while Palos towed a long line of boats bearing 500 armed sailors and more than 100 Marines.

Captain McLane Tilton, commander of the Marine detail, knew why they had come. He wrote to his wife, “Some months ago a Schooner (General Sherman) came up here to trade, and the natives are said to have cut them up, and pickled them, took them in the interior and set them up as curiosities.”

When the troops landed on a flat beach behind the Korean fort, the tide was out, forcing them to trudge through 200 yards of knee-deep, boot-sucking mudflats to reach the shoreline. They also had to manhandle their guns, which sank to the axles. It was a critical moment: Had the landing been opposed, the Koreans could have ended things right there. Lack of communications and tactical mobility prevented defenders from gathering there from other parts of the island, however, and by sundown the exhausted, mud-soaked Marines and sailors made it safely to shore. (The lesson to be learned from that near-disaster was not lost on General Douglas MacArthur when he landed his forces at nearby Inchon 79 years later. Though he tried to time his landings for high tide, many soldiers remembered wading through the muck of the Korean mud flat.)

The next day, the Americans captured two deserted earthen-walled forts, spiked the larger guns and threw down the smaller ones. Then they rested to prepare to attack the largest of the forts on the island, which they called the Citadel, because the Koreans had gathered there for a final stand.

About 100 elite “tiger hunters” were sent to stand with the defenders, as they faced American breech-loading carbines and howitzers with Korean cannons that were stationary and could only be fired in one fixed direction. At their sides were the soft metal Korean swords better suited for ceremony and display, the kind that would bend at the first blow against Western hardware.

On Sunday, the third day, the Americans charged the Citadel. Their goal was a large yellow flag at the center of the fort. The reckless charge carried the earthen walls before the defenders could reload their ancient muskets. Fighting degenerated into hand-to-hand combat with rifle butts, bayonets and swords. Marines rushed to pull down the huge yellow flag and run up the Stars and Stripes.

In less than half an hour it was all over. Three Americans were dead and 10 wounded. Far more Americans were leveled by the heat than the battle. The body count of Koreans was just under 250. The Americans celebrated their great victory, revenge for the sinking of General Sherman, and took souvenir pictures of each other. A grateful Congress would eventually award as many as 15 Medals of Honor to participants in what combatants called the “Weekend War.” Koreans called it the “American Disturbance.”

At that juncture, however, Admiral Rodgers decided not to press his advantage. Plans to sail up the Han River to Seoul were abandoned due to the hostility of the populace and the uncharted straits and river (both gunboats had run aground during the fighting). He turned back to his base in China.

Rodgers’ departure allowed the Taewongun to declare his own victory. The Americans, it seemed to him, had been compelled to withdraw because of the valiant defense by Korean patriots. Korea would grant no trading concessions to the Americans and remained closed to all foreign trade.

Today North Korea is still a “Hermit Kingdom,” the most closed and isolated society on earth. Kanghwa Island lies within South Korean territory, but General Sherman still looms large in the North Korean mythos. The late dictator Kim Il Sung liked to brag that his great-grandfather had participated in sinking the American ship.

Kim Il Sung himself was dictator 100 years later when, in February 1968, the American intelligence ship Pueblo was captured by Korean gunboats just outside North Korean territorial waters. The American crew was brutalized but not killed; the era of political hostages had arrived. Pueblo wallowed in a port on the east coast of Korea for years, but in a daring move the North Koreans towed the ship entirely around South Korea and into the Taedong River to Pyongyang. In a symbolic gesture, the North Koreans moored the captive American spy ship on the exact spot where General Sherman met its demise.

Pueblo and the site of General Sherman’s destruction are among those places most frequented by North Koreans, and are part of the national catalogue of historical and revolutionary exhibits and “miraculous feats” of the Kim family dictators. A massive stone monument marks the site, and droves of schoolchildren stand before it each year vowing to defeat U.S. imperialist aggression. Hermit Kingdom or no Hermit Kingdom, 20,000 tourists visit each year, the majority from China. Paradoxically it is one of the safest, most terror-free destinations in the world these days and maintains diplomatic ties with Europe, Australia and Canada. Meanwhile, in the U.S. Pentagon’s Hall of Heroes is a monument to the Marines and naval personnel who fought the 18-hour war. And at the North Korean monument near the General Sherman site, graffiti roughly translated challenges America to send more pirate ships and receive more of the same.


Originally published in the December 2006 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.