The Other Korean War: A Little Known Conflict in American History
Hugh Purvis, a native of Philadelphia, along with John Andrews of York County, Pennsylvania, were two of fifteen United States sailors and marines to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor for their involvement in a Korean War. This is not to be confused with the Korean War, which transpired from 1950 to 1953, in which the United States suffered over thirty-six thousand casualties. Too few Americans are aware of the first contact and conflict between America and Korea, which occurred during the summer of 1871, though many Koreans today are as acquainted with the event as we are with the battle-cry “Remember the Alamo” from the Mexican-American War.
In the latter-part of the nineteenth-century, Korea was referred to by many in the West as the Hermit Kingdom since it, like other Far Eastern countries, practiced a close-door policy in regard to Western mercantile trade and commerce. At times, this isolation during the Joseon (or Choson) Dynasty was shattered by the appearance of American vessels and their crews, as occurred in January of 1853 with the USS South America, a gunboat that visited the city of Busan on its way to Japan. Similarly, in January of 1866, the American ship Surprise, as the result of a shipwreck, left without incident from Korea. That same year however, an armed vessel known as the General Sherman brought about the first hostilities between Americans and Koreans on the Taedong River on the northwest coast of the country, resulting in the loss of life of not only Americans, but Malaysian and Chinese sailors serving on board. This is since referred to as the General Sherman Incident.
Later in that same year, a number of French Christian missionaries, or “white-skinned barbarians” as the Westerners were called, were met by the Koreans who tortured and beheaded them. Though France sent an armed force to assault Korean forts in retaliation they were defeated by the Korean military. Consequently, because of the General Sherman Incident and a desire for an increase in trade with the Far East, the United States Secretary of State, William H. Seward, believed it was “high time” for Korea to become part of the international community whether they wished to do so or not. In May of 1871, Frederick F. Low, U.S. Minister to China, and Rear Admiral John Rodgers, commanding some five ships of the Asiatic Squadron, left Shanghai, China, sailed to Japan, and by May 16th ventured into the territorial waters of Korea, with gifts and a letter addressed to King Kojong.
Though the United States Expedition to Korea, or the Shinmiyangyo as it is known in Korea, was peaceful in nature, the Korean government felt otherwise since American ships sailed into Korean waters uninvited. Korean forces fired upon one of the American warships on June 1, 1871. The United States response came on June 10, as U.S. vessels off the waters off Ganghwa (or Kanghwa) Island fired a barrage against the Korean forts, after which hundreds of American troops disembarked and a battle began in earnest.
Once on land, the American forces encountered the elite armed unit of Korea known as the Tiger Hunters, who reportedly received their title from having each killed a tiger. Though the Koreans did possess primitive firearms and cannons, they were primarily skilled in the use of spears, swords, and bows at the time of their contact with the American armed forces, and thus were out-gunned and at a technological disadvantage.
The first American to die or become mortally wounded during the attack, at what is known as the Citadel, was Lt. Hugh Wilson McKee, serving on board the USS Colorado and a native of Lexington, Kentucky. According to the Harrisburg, PA State Journal, on July of 1871, McKee had actually “expressed a wish to die, at the head of a storming column,” and true to his desire, while leading a force over the walls of the fort with “a sword in one hand and a revolver in the other” he was shot in the groin and had a spear thrust into his side by a Tiger Hunter.
By the end of the conflict, some 350 Korean soldiers perished while only three Americans were killed, one being the aforementioned Lt. McKee, also Seth Allen, and a marine named Denis Hanrahan. The Americans truly had no wish to conquer the country, but only desired to open up trade relations with Korea. Thus, after the Battle of Ganghwa, even though five forts had been taken and twenty captives captured, the American ships by July 3 had left for China, with the Koreans believing they had won a military victory over the Americans.
Most Koreans at the time believed that the Westerners were in reality seeking to loot, steal, and destroy the famed tombs of their royal ancestors or rulers. Many of these tombs were indeed renowned for their gold, jade, and jewels, as witnessed in the surviving relics of such imperial archeological treasures as has been found in Korea, dating to the Silla, Baekje, and Joseon Dynasties. Not until 1882 would the United States and Korea officially negotiate a treaty between our two countries, and the rest is history.