Interrupting its hunt for the notorious raider Alabama, USS Wyoming got involved in someone else’s civil war.

On May 11, 1863, the U.S. Navy screw sloop Wyoming put into Yokohama Harbor, acting on a summons from Robert H. Pruyn, the American minister in Japan, “to show the flag.” Wyoming had been roaming the Pacific since leaving Mare Island, California, nearly a year before on orders to patrol the Far East for “armed piratical cruisers fitted out by the rebels.” The ship’s crew and its captain, Commander David S. McDougal, could never have suspected that their visit to Yokohama would land them in the midst of a confrontation—not with Confederate commerce raiders, but with rebellious lords chafing at the opening of a feudal society to modernization and the onrush of global trade. While on sabbatical from the American Civil War, Wyoming’s crew was about to see action aplenty—in someone else’s civil war.

Following the establishment of Tokugawa Ieyasu as shogun in 1603, Japan had adopted in 1639 a policy of virtual isolation, allowing only Dutch merchant ships into the port settlement of  Dejima in Nagasaki Bay. Under the intimidating shadow of Commodore Matthew C. Perry’s steam-powered, can non-armed warships in 1853, however, the shogunate signed the Treaty of Kanazawa, allowing American ships to take on coal, water and provisions in two cities, and establishing an American consulate.

With the door to the hermit kingdom ajar, other Western powers soon secured similar agreements, but acceptance of the outsiders’ presence was far from universal. Numerous daimyo, or feudal lords, saw the foreigners as a threat to Japanese sovereignty, culture and tradition. Many were outraged at the tolerant policy of the current shogun, Tokugawa Iemochi. Then, on March 11 and April 11, 1863, the Emperor Komei issued an “Order to Expel Barbarians.”

This rare intervention in national affairs by the Mikado, who normally reigned while the shogun ruled, split Japan’s ruling aristocracy in two. Clans loyal to the shogun ignored the edict as unrealistic. Those who ached to fight the “foreign devils” embraced it as an imperial endorsement. Samurai warriors began attacking any foreigners they encountered—and any Japanese who tried to protect them. Arsonists burned a new legation for the British in Edo, as well as the American legation.

When the shogunate, spurred by Western protests, began arresting and executing the perpetrators, the anti foreign faction retaliated by assassinating the shogunate’s supporters. On top of that, the emperor summoned the shogun to Kyoto, effectively removing Tokugawa from playing an active role in the foreigners’ defense.

David Stockton McDougal was new to Asia, but an old hand on the sea. He had entered the Navy as a midshipman in 1828 and had sailed aboard Commodore Perry’s flagship, Mississippi, during the March 1847 landings at Veracruz. In the 1850s, while acting as Captain David G. Farragut’s executive officer at Mare Island Navy Yard, he learned that his former commander had led a fleet to Japan in 1853 and opened that country to American trade the following year.

Within a month of landing at Yokohama, McDougal reported to Union Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles that “the government is on the eve of revolution, the principal object of which is the expulsion of foreigners.” Egged on by his ministers in Kyoto, the emperor set a June 25 deadline for all foreigners to leave Japan.

Among the daimyo who took that decree to heart was Mori Takachika, leader of the powerful Choshu clan who ruled Nagato province in southern Honshu. His realm included Shimonoseki, which commanded a strait separating the main island of Honshu from Kyushu to the south. Any ships delivering goods to ports on Japan’s inland sea had to pass through the strait, making it of great strategic and commercial importance. On the hills overlooking the strait Mori placed six cannon batteries. Next he installed more guns aboard some ships that had been acquired as gifts from the Americans and the British: six on the bark Daniel Webster, 10 on the brig Landrick, which he renamed Kosei, and four on the steamer Lancefield, renamed Koshin. Most of his guns were antiquated, but five were 8-inch Dahlgrens—again, gifts from the United States.

By June 25, when the last of General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia crossed the Potomac River into Union territory and headed for Pennsylvania, the small merchant steamer Pembroke, 7,000 miles away and en route to China, was lying at anchor at the eastern entrance to Shimonoseki Strait, waiting for a slack tide that would allow it to avoid the treacherous eddies and whirlpools that endangered ships threading the narrow passage. That night a bark-sized vessel flying the red rising-sun flag of Japan approached Pembroke and at an hour past midnight suddenly opened fire. As the startled Americans raised steam, a brig sailed up, anchored beside the bark and also commenced firing. Pembroke’s Captain Simon W. Cooper and his men heard shouts of “Sonno Joi!” (“Revere the emperor and drive out the barbarians!”) from one of the Japanese ships.

Escaping through the strait with miraculously little damage and no casualties, Pembroke steamed south through the Bungo Channel and into the Pacific without putting into its next scheduled port of call, Nagasaki.

Anti-foreigner confrontations in the strait resumed on July 7, when the French naval dispatch steamer Kienshang—en route from Yoko hama to Shanghai—came under fire from ships and shore guns. The French tried to send a boat ashore to ask why, but a cannonball splintered their vessel. Kienshang was fortunate to escape with no more than seven holes through its hull and one man wounded.

Two days later, Kienshang encountered the Dutch steam corvette Medusa, carrying the Dutch consul general to Japan from Nagasaki to Yokohama. Although Medusa’s captain had learned of Pembroke’s travails in Shanghai, he dismissed the altercations as irrelevant, given the more than two centuries of favored-nation status with Japan the Netherlands had enjoyed—as well as the power of his ship’s 16 guns.

As Medusa entered Shimonoseki Strait, however, shore batteries and two ships, anchored in waters too shallow for the corvette to enter and close with them, fired on it. The Dutch gunners retaliated, but were at a disadvantage—increased, they noted, by stakes that the Choshu gunners had set in the mud as preset aiming points to mark the range for their weapons. As Medusa ran the gantlet, a ball narrowly missed the Dutch consul general and killed a petty officer at one of the guns. By the time it cleared the strait, Medusa had suffered 31 hits and lost four men killed and five wounded. Lord Mori had thrown down the gauntlet to all foreigners in Japan, and Pruyn, after confirm- ing the attack on take it up. He summoned the shogun’s foreign Pembroke, was the first to minister and informed him—in McDougal’s presence—of the gravity of these developments for the United States. The diplomat begged the Americans to refrain from doing anything until the Edo government dealt with the matter. As soon as he left, however, McDougal told Pruyn that if the shogun, still sidelined at Kyoto, would not take action, he would—by steaming forthwith into Shimonoseki Strait to seize or destroy Mori’s makeshift warships. Both men agreed that any further delays in punishing the offenders would only encourage more incidents.

Wyoming had been scheduled to depart the next day for Philadelphia, for repairs and refitting, but with news arriving of the attack on Pembroke, McDougal made new plans. At 4:45 a.m. on July 13, he called all hands on deck, and 15 minutes later Wyoming’s log noted that it was steaming south to “the scene of the outrage” with four added passengers: two Japanese pilots put at Commander McDougal’s disposal by the shogunate; Pruyn’s interpreter, Joseph Heco; and a journalist, E.S. Benson. On the evening of July 15, the ship dropped anchor off the southern shore of Hime Shima.

At 5 a.m. on July 16, Wyoming raised anchor and made for Shimonoseki in a sea described as “smooth as a tank of oil with not a ripple on its surface,” not a breath of wind or a cloud to shade its crew from the midsummer sun. At 9 a.m. the crew was called to battle stations. Wyoming’s big fore and aft 11-inch Dahlgren pivot guns were loaded with 136-pound explosive shells and its single Parrott rifle with a 60-pounder shell, while its three broadside-mounted 32-pounder guns packed solid shot. At 10:45, the log reported, “with about 14 pounds of pressure of steam on the boilers, making about fifty revolutions, tide running to the eastward, sails furled, topgallant yards aloft, spate tiller shipped, all small arms loaded, men at quarters and armed,” the ship rounded the last obstructing point of land to enter the strait. A drum beat the men to quarters. Not long after, three cannon shots from the hills overlooking Shimonoseki signaled the intruder’s presence to the Choshu warriors.

McDougal noted three ships flying both the Japanese colors and the feudal mon, or coat of arms, of Lord Mori. All three were loaded with armed men, and the steamer, decked in purple awnings suggestive of dignitaries aboard, was also dangling kedge anchors from its yardarms, undoubtedly to grapple Wyoming should it get near enough to board.

The first shore battery opened hostilities with a shot at 11:15. In response, Wyoming raised the Stars and Stripes and McDougal replied with his forward 11-inch pivot. Four batteries joined in, and as their rounds whistled through Wyoming’s rigging, McDougal had his men reply “as soon as the guns would be brought to bear.”

The batteries, however, were not his primary target. He noticed the wooden aiming stakes that had helped Mori’s gunners to zero in on Kienshang and Medusa so effectively. Having also collected advance intelligence on the offshore shallows and on Lancefield’s draft— which was roughly equivalent to his own ship’s—McDougal took a bold course of action, ordering his helms man to steer Wyoming between the steamer and the brig. As he anticipated, this unexpected move threw the shore gunners off, forcing them to fire high at Wyoming’s rigging, for fear of otherwise hitting their own ships. Moreover, the steamer Koshin (ex-Lancefield) had its main guns mounted on one side to fire into the strait—with Wyoming cannonading it from the wrong side, its crew could only reply with small-arms fire.

That left Daniel Webster and Kosei as Wyoming’s most dangerous opposition. One of their shots struck near the U.S. sloop’s forward gun, killing two men and wounding four. Elsewhere a piece of shrapnel killed a Marine. Then Wyoming ran aground on a mud bank.

At that point Koshin slipped its cables and moved directly toward the American ship in hopes of boarding the vessel. McDougal had planned to fire the magazine and blow up his ship rather than submit to capture, but fortunately for all concerned Wyoming managed to work itself free of the mud.

Rounding Koshin’s bow, Wyoming headed out into the channel, then turned for another pass at the Choshu batteries and ships. The sloop loosed a full broadside at the steamer, scoring two 11-inch and at least one 32-pounder hits. Koshin’s boiler exploded in a cloud of steam and smoke, raising a loud cheer from the Americans, who then put two more rounds into it and saw its crew abandon ship as it began to sink.

Wyoming now passed the bark and brig, methodically pumping shell and shot into both, although some of its fire overshot the targets and landed in the town. Finally, at 12:10, McDougal ordered his men to disengage. Pausing at Hime Shima at 5:30 p.m., he assessed his own ship’s condition. It had been hulled 11 times and sustained serious damage to its smokestack, masts and rigging. Three sailors and a Marine were dead, and one of the seven wounded would die soon after. “It is the opinion of all that we were under the hottest fire of any wooden vessel that was ever known,” one of his officers wrote home. “After the action the deck looked like a slaughterhouse, and our quarters, where the wounded were carried, was a terrible sight—legs and arms lying around.”

Wyoming’s crew spent the rest of the day on repairs. At 9 the next morning, the ship’s dead, sewn into their hammocks, were committed to the waters at the entrance to the Bungo Channel. One report stated that McDougal read the last rites “with the tenderness of a bereaved father,” tears running down his cheeks.

Upon his return to Yokohama, however, McDougal’s reports to Pruyn and Welles were positive. In an hour and 10 minutes of fighting, Wyoming had left the steamer dis abled, the brig “settling by the stern, no doubt sunk,” the bark badly damaged and “great destruction on shore.” Casualties among Lord Mori’s warriors were estimated at 40. On July 23, McDougal wrote Welles that “the pun ishment inflicted and in store for him will, I trust, teach him a lesson that will not soon be forgotten.” Mori’s memory of the engagement worked differently. Even though the French followed up Wyoming’s raid with a bombardment and an amphibious assault of  their own four days later, Mori repaired the damage and resumed firing on foreign vessels and even on a shogunate steamer. For more than a year, foreign ships took round about routes to avoid Shimonoseki Strait. Finally, on September 5, 1864, a joint force of nine British, five Dutch and three French warships, joined by the American chartered steamer Takiang, returned to take out Mori’s guns once and for all. A 2,000-man landing force came ashore, and by September 6 all the guns had been destroyed or captured. Mori and his Choshu men surrendered two days later. Pruyn negotiated the settlement upon a $3 million indemnity—the cost of some 30 ships. The U.S. would return $750,000 to Japan as a diplomatic gesture in 1883.

Japan’s civil war would rage on, past the deaths of both Emperor Komei and Shogun Tokugawa, and past the close of America’s civil war. With the abdication of Tokugawa Yoshinobu in 1869, the Tokugawa Shogunate came to an end—and in an ironic twist Emperor Mutsuhito replaced it with an oligarchy of daimyo that would open Japan to contact with the outside world, ratify the country’s first written constitution (based on a Prussian model) and, most significant, adopt Western modernization with the ultimate intention of joining the European powers. By the time Mutsuhito, known as the Meiji Tenno (Great Enlightener), died in 1912, Japan had indeed become enough of a power in its own right to have humiliated China in 1895, ousted Russia from the Far East in 1905, and set sights on eclipsing the other Western powers in future.

As for Wyoming, in the wake of the Shimonoseki affair, the American vessel returned to pursuing its own country’s civil war. Word had reached its captain that the Confederacy’s most notorious cruiser, Alabama, had entered the southwest Pacific on September 24. By October Wyoming was patrolling Sunda Strait in the East Indies in hopes of intercepting Alabama. The Confederate ship’s captain, Raphael Semmes, learned of its presence from an English brig and a Dutch trader that he had encountered, but was far from intimidated—he had already added one Yankee warship to his tally of merchant victims when he sank USS Hatteras off Galveston, Texas, on January 11. On October 26, Semmes cockily wrote in his journal: “I have resolved to give her battle. She is reportedly cruising under sail—probably with banked fires—and anchors, no doubt under Krakatoa every night, and I hope to surprise her, the moon being near its full.”

On November 4, Semmes learned more on Wyoming’s whereabouts from a Dutch bark and proceeded toward Sunda Strait. But on November 9, McDougal steamed to Christmas Island to investigate a report that it might be serving as a supply base for “the use of rebel cruisers,” only to find the island uninhabited and the rumor unfounded. Putting into the Javanese port of Anjer, McDougal was dumb founded to learn that while he had been there, Alabama had steamed through Sunda Strait—and that at noon on November 10, the two ships had been only 25 miles from each other.

It was the closest they ever got. Alabama disposed of six ships in the area before Semmes judged the pickings were too meager and headed east—only to have his ship sunk off the coast of Cherbourg, France, on June 19, 1864, by Wyoming’s sister ship, USS Kearsarge. Wyoming kept up its vain quest for Alabama from Singapore to Hong Kong until February 1864, when McDougal decided that its boilers were in too poor shape to continue. On July 13, Wyoming finally arrived at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, having circumnavigated the globe since its commissioning— only to receive an order from the commandant, Commodore Cornelius Stribling, to put back out to sea immediately in pursuit of another enemy cruiser, CSS Florida. “It is with regret that I send you on this service,” Stribling wrote McDougal. “After so long a cruise, and one in which you have rendered such important service, yourself, officers and crew, were entitled to a respite from active service; but the great importance of capturing the rebel privateer will, I hope, be an incentive to all under your command cheerfully to perform this service.”After five days of bucking northeast winds and a head sea, Wyoming returned to Philadelphia with a leaky boiler. On the 23rd the sloop was decommissioned for a complete overhaul.

Recommissioned on April 11, 1865, with Commander John P. Bankhead in command, Wyoming once again sailed to the East Indies station via Cape Horn, arriving at Singapore on September 25. The ship’s task this time was to find the cruiser CSS Shenandoah, which was still seizing merchant ships more than three months after the Civil War had ended. But before Wyoming could locate it, Shenandoah ceased its depredations and, in lieu of surrender, made for England to pay off its crew in November.

After serving in the East Indies, North Atlantic and Europe, Wyoming spent the last 10 years of its naval career as a training vessel for midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. On May 9, 1892, the vessel was sold. For all the thousands of miles it covered, its one claim to any renown was for the violent foray into Shimonoseki Strait in July 1862. But the victory would have commanded little notice in the same month as the Battles of Gettysburg and Helena (Ark.), and the surrender of Vicksburg. Few Americans noticed when news of that faraway clash reached the newspapers at home.

In contrast, Kearsarge’s victory over Alabama was given ample publicity during and after the war. In 1872 Congress voted to award Kearsarge’s officers and crew $190,000 for eliminating the Confederacy’s most successful commerce raider.

During 1883 President Chester A. Arthur signed a similar bill to pay Wyoming’s crew $140,000 “for extraordinary, valuable, and specially meritorious and perilous service in the destruction of hostile vessels in the Straits of Shimonoseki on the sixteenth day of July eighteen hundred and sixty-three….” But by that time several of Wyoming’s officers were no longer around to share in the prize—including the vessel’s old captain, McDougal, who had attained the rank of rear admiral before his death in San Francisco on August 7, 1882.

In 1897 Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt reportedly said of Shimonoseki, “If that battle had taken place at any other time, its fame would have echoed all over the world.” Even then, few would likely have predicted its significance beyond a footnote in history…but then, few could have imagined that those first shots Wyoming exchanged on behalf of the U.S. against Japanese antagonists would by no means be the last.


Jon Guttman, the author of books and articles on a wide range of military-history related topics, is the research director for Civil War Times and other Weider History Group publications.

Originally published in the June 2012 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.