The United States and Korea: Rediscovering Artifacts of the Naval Past


The second week of December is always a big deal at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland: Army Week. While the Midshipmen finish out their fall term classes they also prepare for the annual football extravaganza against the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Last month, Army Week brought a different level of excitement to The Yard as a conservation team re-discovered artifacts from America’s naval past hidden in one of the buildings on campus.

It was all sort of an accident. The Naval Academy Museum had been planning an effort to save some artifacts of enormous significance: battle flags captured from the British Royal Navy during the War of 1812. For over a century, the flags have been displayed in Mahan Hall, but time, sunlight, and century old display techniques left the flags in a degraded state. They were reaching the point of no return and the museum staff, with the leadership of the museum’s director, Claude Berube, set about an effort to remove, clean, and conserve the trophy flags before placing them in proper storage for later display.

As the process unfolded, and the conservation team cut the glass away from the massive display cases, something incredible happened. They found older displays hidden behind the flags that have not been seen for a century.

These included Spanish naval flags captured by George Dewey at the Battle of Manila Bay in the Spanish-American War along with materials from a little-known part of American history: military banners, lances, and unit flags taken during the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps’ expedition to Korea in 1871. It is a generally forgotten part of America’s past which seems relevant again today as a crisis unfolds on the Korean Peninsula.

The United States and Korea

In 1866, an American-owned merchant ship named General Sherman took it upon itself to open up American trade with Korea. The Koreans, like the Japanese before the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry and his squadron of “Black Ships” in the 1850s, jealously guarded their isolation and did not believe that western traders had anything to offer beside trouble. They were known in the west as the “Hermit Kingdom.” Mysteriously, the General Sherman never returned.

Korea nominally owed allegiance to the Qing Dynasty of China. In the late 19th century, as the Meji Restoration was underway in Japan and before the looming decline of the Qing, China remained the most powerful nation in the region. The isolation of the Korean kingdom, and the lack of a connection between Korea and Japan, limited the Americans’ diplomatic options. U.S. Minister in Peking Frederick Low enquired with the Qing court about the incident. The Chinese assured him that Korea maintained a measure of sovereignty and controlled its own territory and its own foreign relations, despite their fealty to the emperor. After intermittent attempts to determine the facts of the General Sherman’s fate, Rear Adm. John Rodgers took command of the U.S. Asiatic Squadron with the intention to claim the glory that Matthew Perry had received after opening Japan. His squadron of five ships and over 1200 sailors and marines departed Nagasaki in the spring of 1871 and arrived on the Korean coast in May.

The expedition was a joint effort for the Americans. Low shipped aboard the squadron to serve as the State Department’s representative. After picking their way through narrow channels and early summer fog banks, the squadron anchored on May. 30 in the port known today as Inchon.

As the ships settled into their anchorages, Low sent a message ashore announcing the American expedition’s peaceful intentions for a treaty with the Kingdom of Korea. In particular, the American effort wanted to ensure the safety of American merchant sailors who entered Korean waters, either from the Koreans themselves or to guarantee their proper care if they suffered from a storm or shipwreck.

Local officials were dubious, and even more so when Low declined to negotiate directly with them. Low insisted, as Perry had two decades earlier in Japan, that he would only talk with senior officials sent from the royal court. The Koreans stonewalled his demand. While Low attempted to open his communications ashore, Rodgers also followed Perry’s example by putting his small boats and steam launches in the water to begin surveying and mapping the coastline.

American naval officers saw surveying as an important peacetime mission, one that would help make the waters of Asia safe for western sailors as they exploited the seas for growing global trade. They could make the “savage” coasts safer not only through naval and diplomatic power, but also through the judicious use of science.

The Koreans saw things differently. As the swarm of boats worked their way along the beaches and up the Salee River, local officials and military commanders viewed the effort as a violation of Korean sovereignty. The Americans were moving into Korean territory without permission, taking measurements, and clearly gathering intelligence. What the U.S. naval officers viewed as an effort in the name of science and civilization, the Koreans recognized as an attack on their legitimacy and potentially their national survival.

Combat on the Salee

With both sides posturing, military forces preparing for escalation, and diplomats continuing to talk past each other, things quickly came to a head. When the American boats approached the end of Kanghwa Island on June 1, the local commander ordered his forts to open fire. As shot splashed into the water around the boats, USS Monacy and USS Palos closed the range and returned fire with their howitzers. The Americans continued to pour fire into the Korean emplacements until they saw soldiers abandoning their positions.

Rodgers and Low quickly decided that the bombardment of the forts had not been enough, and that the Koreans needed to be punished. Rodgers called together his captains and began planning a punitive expedition to demonstrate American resolve and to ensure the forts could no longer threaten the safety of approaching ships. Low delivered an ultimatum to the Koreans: Unless they apologized and began treaty negotiations by June 10, the Americans would attack.

The American officers organized a force of over 500 sailors and 100 marines for the landing party. Meanwhile, lookouts reported troop movements ashore as the Koreans reinforced their garrisons. Both sides continued to posture, but the negotiations remained stalemated.

As the deadline for Low’s ultimatum passed, the American force launched their amphibious attack on Kanghwa Island. Capt. McLane Tilton, who commanded the marines in the assault, wrote to his wife that “you may imagine it is not with a great pleasure I anticipate landing with the small force we have” and ominously noted that the “savages” were known to fight to the death.

But Tilton’s worries came to naught. The most challenging part of the American landing was the knee-deep mud that the boats landed in, and which the sailors and marines had to carry their equipment through. The Americans had superior weapons, brought their own artillery ashore, and had the heavy cannon of the warships for support. Over the course of two days, the sailors and marines organized and attacked three forts in sequence. The Koreans, with their older and less advanced cannon, poor aim, and slow reloading, made an ineffective defense. In the final assault on Kanghwa Island’s main fortress, the charging sailors and marines swarmed over the walls and into brutal hand-to-hand combat with the Koreans. The result of the battle was a lopsided American victory.

As the sailors and marines hauled down the Korean flags and banners and the Stars and Stripes rose on a flagpole above the fort, three cheers went up on the warships in the river. Lt. Cmdr. Winfield S. Schley, who would go on to major command against the Spanish Fleet in the Spanish-American War, estimated that the Koreans suffered over 350 dead. American casualties included only three dead and a handful more wounded.

Yet the military action accomplished very little. The American expedition had bloodied the Koreans, but officials continued to refuse to negotiate. The local government would not even send a letter to the court in Seoul from Low, insisting that the embarrassment and disrespect had made the king “furious” and they would be punished just for forwarding the letter. After hitting rocks in the river, two of Rodgers’ ships were leaking so badly they would have to go to drydock in Shanghai for repair, and his magazines were nearly empty of ammunition. Rodgers and Low had expected their demonstration of tactical excellence to force the Koreans to negotiate. They now realized their efforts were futile. Neither side was willing to budge. The ships of the squadron weighed anchor on July 3 and set sail to return Low to his embassy in China.

After departing the peninsula, Rear Adm. Rodgers reported to the secretary of the Navy with his suggestion of how to proceed. He believed that the only way to bring the Korean court to heel was an invasion. His letter advocated deploying three to five thousand U.S. Army soldiers, preferably veterans of the recent U.S. Civil War, to attack the Koreans and occupy their capital. Escalation, in Rodgers view, was the only way to redeem American honor. It appears that President Ulysses S. Grant and his administration simply ignored the suggestion. After beating back a French expedition in 1866 and then the Americans in 1871, Korean isolationism hardened. But as Japan strengthened during the Meji Restoration, they forced a trade treaty with Seoul in 1876, which created an opportunity for the United States to return.

Commodore Robert Shufeldt turned to diplomacy and negotiation, rather than threats of invasion and military strikes in order to achieve American aims with Korea. He first attempted to take advantage of the U.S. relationship with Japan, using them as an intermediary. When that failed, he opened negotiations via the court in Peking. Initially, in 1880, that effort also failed.  But, in 1883 after his promotion to Rear Adm. and posting in Peking, Shufeldt built on his previous efforts with the Chinese Viceroy Li Hongzhang and successfully negotiated the first western treaty with Korea, opening the Hermit Kingdom for American trade.

Memories and Rediscovery

The Korean expedition is still mentioned in the curriculum taught to midshipmen at the Naval Academy. But it is just a small moment in the narrative of expansionism and the foreign relations of the United States at the end of the 19th century. Despite its minor role in their studies, midshipmen stream into Mahan Hall between their classes to see the captured banners and weapons. Together with their professors, they admired the incredibly preserved colors and imagery, decorative feathers and markings, and surprisingly good condition of the materials. The events on the Korean peninsula do not seem quite so long ago.

In our present-minded, digital-media world we easily forget that the American experience with Asia dates back nearly to the founding of the United States. The first American merchant voyages returned from the far side of the world in the 1790s, and the USS Essex was the first American warship to round the Cape of Good Hope bound for the Pacific in 1800 during the Quasi War with France.

In the case of the Korean expedition, the history involved military escalation and diplomatic failures on both sides. It involved questions of sovereignty and a regime that feared for its survival. It involved military operations, which, while tactically successful with a limited attack, did not achieve their stated goals and had little strategic value. A treaty was finally negotiated, but it happened a decade later, not through military threats but via diplomacy involving Chinese cooperation. The Midshipmen visiting the flags and artifacts benefit from understanding these observations, and the wider context of America’s role in the Pacific, as they move into the fleet and rise through the ranks to become some of our nation’s leaders. In our contemporary digital world, sometimes we forget that the American relationship with the Korean peninsula has been made through a century and a half of history.


Benjamin “BJ” Armstrong is an Assistant Professor of war studies and naval history at the U.S. Naval Academy, and a commander in the U.S. Navy. The opinions expressed are offered in his personal and academic capacity and do not reflect the policy of the U.S. Naval Academy, Department of the Navy, or any government agency.

Image: Naval History and Heritage Command