Ordinary Seaman William Seeley
September 6, 1864
In the 155 years since it was instituted by royal warrant, the Victoria Cross —Britain’s highest military honor for valor in battle—has been awarded to just 1,353 individuals. Of those, only five were Americans, and the first Yank so honored was a slight and unassuming sailor whose acts of valor violated U.S. law.
While we know that William Henry Harrison Seeley was born in Topsham, Maine, on May 1, 1840, details of his early life are scarce. In his teens he became a merchant seaman, sailing from East Coast ports aboard American ships bound for Asia. In 1860 he jumped ship—most probably in a Far Eastern port—and joined the Royal Navy, at a time when it was illegal for American citizens to serve in Britain’s military forces.
Seeley’s first assignment was aboard HMS Impérieuse, flagship of the Royal Navy’s East India and China Station until replaced by HMS Euryalus in 1863. Seeley transferred to the latter vessel at that time, a decision that within a year would thrust him into the midst of a brief, vicious and largely forgotten battle that pitted three European navies against a Japanese warlord.
Though “opened” to foreigners following the 1853–54 visits of U.S. Commodore Matthew C. Perry and his fleet, Japan remained deeply xenophobic. Attacks on foreign diplomats, traders and seamen increased throughout the late 1850s and early 1860s. In the spring of 1863 Emperor Komei’s “Order to expel barbarians” prompted several of Japan’s powerful clans to undertake unilateral action against foreigners.
Among those roused to military action was Mori Takachika of the Choshu clan, whose territory straddled the Shimonoseki Straits, separating the islands of Honshu and Kyushu. Takachika emplaced 100 cannon—including five modern 8-inch Dahlgren guns, an earlier goodwill gift to Japan from America—atop the hills dominating the waterway and began firing on any Western vessel transiting through to the Inland Sea. Though repeatedly engaged by U.S., French and Dutch warships, the Japanese artillery remained obstinately active. By mid-August 1864 British Vice Admiral Sir Augustus Kuper had had enough. He sortied from Yokohama aboard Euryalus at the head of a multinational fleet—nine British, four Dutch and three French warships carrying several thousand troops—to force Takachika to surrender and open the straits.
The battle began on September 5 with a furious but ineffective bombardment of the Japanese positions, followed by the landing of several thousand soldiers, marines and sailors tasked with silencing the guns. Assigned to a small reconnaissance party, Seeley was sent to reconnoiter the Japanese positions and on the way back to the beach was ambushed by several sword-wielding Japanese. After dispatching the attackers with pistol, rifle and bayonet, he made his report to a Lieutenant Edwards, commander of the landing force’s 3rd Company.
Seeley’s careful observation of the Japanese batteries was used to help plan the September 6 final allied assault, in which the American played a prominent role. He advanced in the first wave, which the enemy targeted with heavy fire. Seeley maintained his position despite being shot in the arm and distinguished himself during the fierce hand-to-hand fighting that led to the capture of a key Japanese battery.
The allied victory at Shimonoseki made the waterway safe for European ships; revitalized Western interest in, and trade with, Japan; and, ironically, spurred Japanese interest in acquiring the modern military technologies that within a few decades would make them Asia’s dominant military power.
Seeley recovered from his wound and on Sept. 22, 1865, was presented the Victoria Cross for his “intelligence and daring” at Shimonoseki by Admiral Sir Michael Seymour, commander in chief of Britain’s Portsmouth naval base. Seeley left the Royal Navy soon after, returned to America and led a quiet life until his death in October 1914.
Though four other Americans later received VCs—all while serving in the Canadian army during World War I— William Seeley remains the only Yank to be so honored while fighting, albeit illegally, in the British armed forces.
Originally published in the March 2011 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.