Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Sailors Lend a Hand against "Righteous & Harmonious Fists"

By Elijah Palmer
Hampton Roads Naval Museum Educator

Period cartoon of imperial powers carving up China. Notice Japan's inclusion after the Sino-Japanese War.
During the late 19th century, China was undergoing massive change.  Western imperial powers had forced trade concessions from the Chinese and had influence in many areas. In addition, the Chinese were defeated by the recently modernized Japanese military in the 1894-95 Sino-Japanese War, which forced more concessions from the Chinese government.  This caused high levels of resentment and fostered a radical peasant movement in the late 1890s called the "Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists," more commonly called the "Boxers."  The goal of this group was to rid China from what they viewed as the corrupting influence of the West, both economically and religiously.  They were also fiercely anti-Christian.  This hatred was borne out in their targets as the Boxers started in 1898 and 1899 by attacking not only missionaries but also Chinese Christians, who indeed suffered far greater numbers of casualties than foreigners.

Illustration of a Boxer from the San Francisco Call, July 1 1900. Note the added weaponry to emphasize the Boxers' threat.
Two Boxers, from the San Francisco Call. It is entirely possible that this photo was staged in a studio in San Francisco using Chinese immigrants, as it was published at the height of the Boxer Rebellion. 
By 1900, the Boxers were rapidly gaining support and momentum, causing many foreigners and Chinese Christians to flee to safer areas.  As the Chinese empress was ambivalent to the Boxers, the Western nations (and Japan) had increased their military presence on the coast.  Many refugees ended up in Peking (modern day Beijing) by early summer.  On May 31, 1900, a total of 50 Marines from USS Newark and USS Oregon were dispatched to Peking, along with five Sailors and a Navy surgeon.  This force was assigned to protect the American legation.  Other nations similarly sent troops to protect their own legations, swelling the international military force to over 400.  Soon the Boxers had cut off Peking and were attacking foreign property in the city. 
Sailors and a Marine with an 1895 Colt Machine Gun during the Boxer Rebellion.  Gunner's Mate 1st Class Joseph Mitchell might be one of the Sailors shown here. 
Luella Miner, a professor who normally worked in the suburbs of the city, said that on the night of June 15, she heard a great crowd shouting "Kill the foreign devils! Kill the secondary (Christian) devils! Kill! Kill! Kill!" for hours.* This yell was the war cry for the Boxers and those in the foreign legations would soon hear it repeated many times over. The Chinese government finally chose a side when the empress dowager supported the Boxers and declared war on the foreign powers on June 20. This fact was punctuated by the killing of the German foreign minister by Chinese soldiers on that day. 
"The Dragon's Choice": A cartoon printed before the empress dowager had decided to support the Boxers.
The foreign legations in Peking were from eight nations: Great Britain, France, Russia, Austria, Italy, Germany, Japan, and the United States. The legation staff, foreign residents, troops, and many Chinese Christians squeezed into a limited area, put up barricades on the street, and hunkered down while waiting for relief.  They faced daily attacks and harassment, including having to avoid snipers and artillery.  US Marine Corps Captain John T. Meyers bravely commanded the American forces throughout the siege.  He had nothing but praises for the Sailors under his command, specifically: 

"Gunner's Mate (First Class) Joseph Mitchell, U.S.S. Newark, who operated the Colt gun with the utmost courage and skill under the heaviest fire; he also, with the assistance of Mr. Squiers, put in working order and later used successfully an old brass cannon which had been dug up inside our lines; he also captured a flag under peculiarly hazardous circumstances, on which I will later make a special report. Hospital Apprentice R.H. Stanley, of the Newark, who volunteered and took a message to the English legation when it was necessary to use the street down which the Chinese were firing."**

He also commended Assistant Surgeon T.M. Lippitt (also from USS Newark) for going beyond his typical duties and helping with the defense of the legation. 

Soldiers of the eight nations.
The Boxers besieged the legations for nearly two months while international forces tried to get to Peking. The first relief attempt made by a force of 2,100 Sailors and Marines was thwarted in late June. Throughout the summer, more troops were sent by various nations, including Sailors and Marines from USS Nashville and USS Brooklyn.  Before the Peking legations could be relieved, the foreign army had to capture the city of Tientsin, southeast of Peking, itself a bloody battle.  It was not until early August that a larger force of 20,000 men (including 2,000 American Soldiers, Marines, and Sailors) marched for Peking.  The legations were rescued when the city was taken on August 14, 1900.  A happy Ms. Miner reported, "All that afternoon the troops came streaming in, Sikhs, Bengal Lancers; English soldiers, and, most welcome of all, our American boys."***

The Boxer movement was put down by the next year and the Chinese were required to pay reparations to the various foreign nations. The weakening of Chinese power set the stage for the nationalist movement and the collapse of the Qing dynasty a few short years later.  In a unique gesture, the United States used part of its share of reparation money to build Tsinghua College (now university) and created a scholarship fund for Chinese students to study in the United States, which lasted until the Japanese invaded China in 1937.  

* From Luella Miner, "A Prisoner in Peking," Outlook (Nov. 1900). Captain Meyers also makes note of the shouting that night in his report.
** From "Peking: Report of Captain John T. Meyers." Available on the Naval History and Heritage Command website.
*** Miner, "A Prisoner in Peking."

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