Friday, May 23, 2014

USS Colorado and the Korean Expedition of 1871, Part 1 of 2

In 1871, an expedition comprised of five U.S. Navy ships left Japan for Korea. Its main purpose was to open a trade treaty with the Koreans. At the time, Korea was called the “Hermit Kingdom,” as it had remained isolationist for centuries. Although technically a Chinese vassal, Korea was largely self-governed. After successful trade inroads in China and Japan, attention from Western powers turned to Korea. A secondary aim for the mission was to ascertain the fate of the armed merchant ship General Sherman, which was rumored to have been destroyed in Korea, with all hands lost, a few years before this expedition took place. 
USS Colorado, Rear Admiral John Rodgers' flagship

The expedition was commanded by Rear Admiral John Rodgers, who (aside from being the son of the famous Commodore John Rodgers) had made quite a name for himself during the Civil War. Rodgers took the USS Colorado as his flagship while he commanded the Asiatic Squadron. The Colorado was a Merrimac-class steam frigate built at Norfolk Navy Yard in 1856. Having served with the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron and in the Fort Fisher campaign during the Civil War, the Colorado was now to serve a bit farther abroad. Although the Colorado was one of the oldest ships in the small squadron, she boasted the heaviest armament and was able to limit coal consumption due to her full rig of sails.

By late May 1871, the expedition arrived at Ganghwa Island, near what is now Inchon, South Korea.  Some local Korean officials made contact, but Frederick Low, the diplomat who came along on the mission, decided not to meet with the Koreans since they were too low-ranking to do any negotiations. However, the Americans did assure these Koreans that their intentions were peaceful and that they would be surveying the entrance to the Salee River (now called the Ganghwa Strait), which divided Ganghwa Island from the mainland.
Korean officials on the Colorado.
On June 1, the two smallest ships, USS Monocacy and USS Palos, headed up the river that would eventually lead them to Hanyang (modern-day Seoul). These ships were accompanied by armed steam launches from the Colorado and the other larger ships (USS Alaska and USS Benicia). As they headed up the river, they passed a few small fortifications. Over the centuries, the Koreans had fortified key points on Ganghwa Island, as it was a primary approach to their capital. Soon the Americans approached a citadel with an immense banner marked with Chinese characters showing that a general was there. As the American force came close, the Koreans opened fire on the Palos. All the vessels returned fire on the forts as they pushed past them. Eventually these ships returned to the fleet, and were able to pass unmolested on the return journey.

Although angered by these events, Rodgers decided to give the Koreans until June 10 to either start negotiations or apologize. This lull also gave the sailors and marines time to prepare for a punitive assault on the island's forts. The plan called for a force of about 650 sailors and marines to land with seven field guns. Most of the attacking force would come from the Colorado and the other two larger ships, while the Palos and Monocacy would provide close fire support due to their shallower draft. 

While the Navy planned its attack, awaiting a Korean apology, the Korean government maintained its official stance of non-negotiation for a trade treaty, and maintained self-defense for the incident in the Salee River. As no change in the situation had occurred by the morning of June 10, Rodgers ordered that the attack begin. With Colorado’s steam launches leading the way, the men left the fleet and headed towards Ganghwa Island in what would later be called the “Weekend War”.
*Spoiler Alert*
A map made after the battle showing the events of
June 1st and during the battle. Note the renamed forts
honoring important men or ships in the coming battle. 

Stay tuned for the rest of this story, which will be posted next week!

(This blog post is written by HRNM Educator Elijah Palmer.)

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