America's first major encounter with Korea


America's first major encounter with Korea

by: Walter Stucke | .
Groove Korea ( | .
published: July 09, 2013

The history between the United States and Korea goes back approximately 150 years and has been at times tumultuous. But how did the relationship between Korea and the United States begin? The first significant interaction between two countries in 1866 was a bloody one, which led to subsequent fighting five years later. While the 1871 conflict between the United States and Korea was historically insignificant, the story is both interesting and meaningful.  

America’s first major encounter with Korea occurred in August of 1866 when the General Sherman, a merchant ship, vanished along with its crew in the Taedong River, located in what is now North Korean territory.

During this time, the United States was engaging in trade with China and Japan, and desired to trade with Korea as well. In addition to trade, America also hoped for a formal treaty which would officially call for the protection of shipwrecked sailors along Korea’s coast — a protection they thought had been unofficially afforded before the General Sherman affair. Another American vessel named the Surprise wrecked along the coast of Pyong-an Province (location of Pyongyang) in June of 1866 and the Korean government ensured the crew safe passage to China. The mystery of the General Sherman and the killing of its crew are more understandable when given a better understanding of the circumstances surrounding its demise and that of her crew.

When the General Sherman sailed up the Taedong River, it was met with much protest from the Korean authorities, as the Koreans had warned the Americans for several days that they did not have permission to explore Korea and her waters. This trespass became a fatal mistake when the Americans captured Lee Hyon-ik, the adjutant (staff officer) of Park Gyu-su — the governor of Pyong-an Province.  Due to the lack of survivors, it remains unclear as to why Lee was taken.

Regardless of the rationale, Lee managed to be rescued and the Koreans, no doubt at the behest of Park, intensified their attacks upon the American boat. After much struggle, the Koreans managed to set fire to the General Sherman and the crew, who jumped into the river to escape, were then killed by the Korean defenders.

Five years after the disappearance of the vessel, the events of that day were still unresolved in America. A New York Times article on Aug. 23, 1871, reported that, “the fate of the General Sherman has remained a mystery from that day to this.” The article indicated that, following the disappearance, an American fleet, which was part of the Asiatic Squadron, commanded by Admiral John Rodgers went to Korea (Ganghwa Island, just north of present-day Incheon) with the intent of obtaining a treaty that would call for the cordial treatment of Americans shipwrecked upon Korean lands. In addition, the crew intended to investigate the whereabouts of the General Sherman. According to the article, the “barbarians” attacked Rodger’s fleet on June 1, forcing him to demolish the Korean forces days later when the Korean authorities refused to apologize.

The Americans routed the Koreans on June 10 and 11, 1871. Another New York Times article from Aug. 22, 1871 reported that in an effort to “vindicate the honor of the American flag,” Admiral Rodgers and his men set out to seek retribution for “the wanton and murderous attack on the United States surveying party (the June 1 attack).”

The New York Times continued its coverage of the conflict on Aug. 25, 1871. An officer working on the Monocacy, a ship in Rodger’s fleet that saw action during the two-day battle, wrote a letter to a friend and boasted of how the United States “whipped the Coreans (sic).” The unnamed officer estimated that nearly 800 Koreans perished in the battle, compared with only three Americans dead and nine wounded. He described the battle style of the Koreans to be that of “wild beasts” who wielded “very bad” arms. In spite of the antiquated weaponry used by the Koreans, the American officer still could not “fancy” the low casualty total for his side, given that “(the Koreans) shot flew like hail” and was “so thick.” He surmised that “poor aim” proved to be the chief culprit.

Groove Korea sat down with Michael J. Seth, who is an associate professor of East Asian and world history at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, to discuss the two-day conflict between the United States and Korea in 1871. Professor Seth’s expertise in East Asian history, and specifically Korean history, is evident through the many articles and books that he has written on the subject. His most recent work is “A History of Korea: From Antiquity to the Present,” published by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers (2010). He has also published “A Concise History of Modern Korea: From the Late Nineteenth Century to the Present” (2009) and “A Concise History of Korea: From the Neolithic Period through the Nineteenth Century” (2006).

There seem to be conflicting reports of what America’s interests were with Korea before the armed conflict in 1871. In your opinion, what were America’s primary interests in Korea in the 1860s and 1870s?

The U.S. had virtually no interest in Korea at this time, other than the promotion of trade and the protection of its nationals.

Why do you think the General Sherman incident occurred?

It apparently was a decision by the captain of the ship to try and engage in trade with the locals, but since there were no survivors we really don’t have a clear idea.

What were the most important dynamics of the 1871 mission of the Asiatic Squadron (a group of American naval ships stationed in East Asia during the mid- to late-1800s) during the Korea Campaign? Do you believe that the Asiatic Squadron went to Korea with the intention of fighting, or that it was the unfortunate result of miscommunication?

The Asiatic Squadron was under orders from Washington to sail to Korea. The record is not entirely clear. One of the American officers wrote, “Our mission is a peaceful one,” and the U.S. commander insisted that they only fired on the Koreans in response to being fired upon by them.

What seems to have been the intent was a show of force to obtain a promise from the government of Korea not to harm stranded Americans. And also a demonstration that Americans were not to be mistreated.

The U.S. press gave more bellicose accounts of it as an expedition to punish the “murderers” and “savages.”

Why do you think the two-day armed conflict occurred in 1871 between the United States and Korea?

The Americans claimed they were returning fire. The subsequent dismantling of fortifications was to be a display of U.S. strength.

What, in your opinion, would have happened differently in diplomatic relations between the United States and Korea if the 1871 armed conflict had not occurred? Do you believe that the conflict increased or decreased the time it would have taken for diplomatic relations to exist between the United States and Korea?

Probably not much would have been different. Neither; it had little effect. When Korea showed a willingness to open diplomatic ties a decade later, the U.S. did so and the two countries quickly established amicable relations.

Do you believe that the 1871 conflict contributed at all to the signing of the Treaty of Amity and Friendship between the United States and Korea in 1882?

I don’t think it had much effect on U.S. foreign policy. “The Little War Against the Heathens” did receive considerable press coverage and made Americans aware of Korea, but so did William Griffis’ book “Corea” published in 1882. Neither shaped American foreign policy, which was simply to establish diplomatic and trade relations in the Pacific.

In your opinion, if the United States never had the Korea Campaign of 1871 and just left Korea alone, what would have been different in Korea’s history?

Korea was not going to be left alone. It was the Age of Imperialism and every country was the object of attention by the major powers. It would have been “opened” by Japan anyway, and if not by Japan, then by Russia or possibly Britain.

As interesting as it is, I don’t believe the 1871 conflict had much effect on the course of Korean history.

In this column, Walter Stucke interviews a historian to provide insight into the country’s past. He has an MA in Korean History and lives in Busan with his wife. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Groove Korea. — Ed.

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