Monday, October 26, 2015

Unexpected Enemies in the Civil War: The Japanese (Part One)

By Elijah Palmer
Hampton Roads Naval Museum Educator

While the majority of the US Navy in the Civil War was involved in blockade operations along the Southern seaboard, a few ships were needed to patrol the high seas because of the success of Confederate commerce raiders. In July 1863, USS Wyoming was finishing its cruise spent searching for CSS Alabama in the Pacific. Commander David McDougal, captain of Wyoming, received orders to head  back to the United States. However, just before the crew was to leave from Yokohama, they heard of a nearby attack on the American merchant steamer, Pembroke. Perhaps contrary to expectations, the aggressor was not Raphael Semmes and the Alabama, but Japanese forces flying their national flag. This was alarming, as the United States and Japan were not at war, having signed a treaty only a few years before. 
USS Wyoming (from Official Records)
Commander McDougal
Deciding that such an affront could not go unpunished, Commander McDougal postponed his return to the United States, instead taking his ship to what he termed "the scene of the outrage."* Pembroke had been attacked near the heavily transited Shimonoseki Straits (known now as the Kanmon Straits), a key waterway between two of the main Japanese islands, Kyushu and Honshu. 
(image from
 USS Wyoming arrived at the straits on the morning of July 16, 1863. Near the town of Shimonoseki on the north side of the channel, the crew spotted three Japanese vessels which were identified as those that had attacked the Pembroke. Remarkably, these ships were originally American and British-built merchant vessels which had been outfitted for combat. McDougal noticed that while these ships flew the Japanese flag, they were also flying the colors of the powerful Prince of Nagato (a feudal domain also known as Choshu), who was "bitterly opposed to foreigners." This fact explained the antagonism previously displayed by these forces, who were acting independently from the Japanese government. When USS Wyoming approached these ships, previously unknown shore batteries opened fire upon it. A Japanese eyewitness onboard the American frigate reported that the fire intensified when the American flag was hoisted. The American ship was faced with fire from three ships as well as six shore batteries, yet McDougal did not back down even as most of his inexperienced crew had become "quite pale." Even though afraid, these green sailors would prove themselves this day. 
McDougal's map of the battle (From Official Records)
While the shore artillery included modern Dahlgren guns (given to the Japanese by the US), most of their shells were aimed at the center of the channel, which Wyoming dodged by hugging close to shore. For sheer number of cannon involved, the American ship was outnumbered, but was able to take advantage of better gunnery skill as the Japanese shore gunners' "aim was wild" and "their shot mostly went ten to fifteen feet overhead." Wyoming's crew returned fire with "XI-inch shell from pivot guns and solid shot from broadside guns" as it headed towards the Chosu vessels. The American ship first passed between two of the ships, a brig and a bark, exchanging broadsides at pistol range,** receiving damage and casualties, but crippling the Japanese vessels. Commander McDougal then targeted the Japanese steamer Koshin (formerly known as Lancefield), which the Wyoming's 11-inch Dahlgren cannon crews put out of action when "two well-directed shells exploded [Koshin's] boilers...proved by the vessel being immediately enveloped in steam and smoke." 
USS Wyoming (center) attacks between the Japanese ships
Koshin's (Lancefield) boiler exploding, causing an estimated 40 casualties. Wyoming to the right.
The battle was over in about an hour, with the Pembroke's attackers crippled or destroyed, and with punishment meted out to the artillery on shore as well. Wyoming suffered heavy damage, being "hulled 11 times, and with considerable damage to smokestack and rigging aloft." In addition, around a dozen sailors and marines were killed or wounded. McDougal praised his men, stating that "the conduct of the officers and crew was all I could desire." 

Due to the continued threat of CSS Alabama, USS Wyoming put off returning to the United States for another year, only arriving in Philadelphia in July 1864, in dire need of repair. However, the threat of another Confederate raider, CSS Florida, forced McDougal and his crew to return to sea. For all their likely grumbling, this endeavor proved to be short-lived as a faulty boiler prompted its return to the navy yard for repairs, likely to the crew's great appreciation. 

Commander McDougal believed that his actions against the Choshu had taught them "a lesson that will not soon be forgotten," but he was being too optimistic. European ships would continue to be harassed at the Shimonseki Straits, causing international ire and resulting in action the following year. (to be continued)

*All quotations taken from The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies, Series 1, Vol. 2 and The Narrative of a Japanese, Vol. 1 by James Heco.
** Sailors and marines shot "100 rounds of musket-ball cartridges, 50 of Sharps rifle ball cartridges, 50 pistol-ball cartridges, 50 revolver cartridges."

No comments: