From Korea, 1871, to Samoa, 1899

In 1861 the U.S. Navy was redirected from fighting small wars to focusing its energies on the deadliest conflict in American history. This required a buildup of startling proportions. At the beginning of the Civil War, the Union Navy had deployed just 68 vessels. It emerged from the conflict with 626 ships, including 65 ironclads. If it had desired, the United States could have challenged the Royal Navy for command of the seas. But for the time being, America had its fill of martial splendor.

The pacifist mood that so often takes hold after a big war gripped the country again. The army was demobilized, the navy scrapped. By 1881 only 50 vessels remained in the fleet, most of them obsolete hulks. That was just fine as far as the post–Civil War administrations were concerned. One story that gained wide circulation had Rutherford B. Hayes’s navy secretary, upon first boarding a warship, exclaiming in surprise, “Why the derned thing is hollow!” Though undoubtedly apocryphal, this tale accurately conveyed the lack of interest in all matters naval displayed by the politicians of the time.

The crabby, conservative naval establishment, riven by feuds between line and staff officers, and run by autonomous bureau chieftains, did not help its own cause by resisting innovations such as steam power and rifled cannons. Its senior officer from 1869 until his death in 1891 was Admiral David Dixon Porter, an aging relic of the old navy forged by his father and the rest of “Preble’s Boys”—a force, it was said, composed of wooden ships and iron men.

As the navy declined, so did the frequency of small wars overseas. In the 20 years between 1841 and 1861, the marines landed abroad 24 times. The next 20 years saw half as many landings—only 12. There was a similar falloff in diplomatic negotiations by naval officers—from 201 in the 20 years before the Civil War, to 101 in the 20 years after. This was related to another trend: While American overseas trade soared in the years after the Civil War, the percentage carried in U.S. flag ships plummeted—and so did the need for naval protection of commerce. Congress subsidized the building of Western railroads as a national priority but did not think the decline of the merchant marine was important enough to warrant much action.

The nation’s attention and energy were directed elsewhere: to the Reconstruction of the South, the winning of the West, and the industrialization of the Northeast and Midwest. What little military activity the U.S. engaged in for the next few decades was primarily directed against Plains Indians who had the misfortune to find themselves in the path of Yankee settlers. After 1890, the year when the frontier was officially declared closed, America’s attention would once again focus on expansion abroad. In the meantime, one of the few expeditions undertaken in the spirit of Porter and Perry was the foray to Korea in 1871.


Appropriately enough, the commander of this fantastic voyage was the scion of a great naval dynasty stretching back to the service’s early glory days. Rear Admiral John Rodgers was the son of Commodore John Rodgers, who had served in the quasi-war with France, the Barbary Wars, and the War of 1812, and had gone on to become the navy’s senior officer from 1821 to 1839. The family was linked by marriage to the illustrious Perry clan; one of John Rodgers Sr.’s sisters married the brother of Commodores Oliver Hazard Perry and Matthew C. Perry.

Young John Rodgers became a midshipman in 1828 at 16 and learned his trade the old-fashioned way—aboard ship. Unlike most naval officers of his era, he attended college, spending a year at the University of Virginia, but he headed back to sea without graduating. Promotion in those days was entirely on the basis of seniority, so a man could wait decades in rank until someone above him died or retired. Rodgers made rear admiral—a new rank—only after the Civil War, where he distinguished himself as a commander of ironclads in the Union navy. (It was by no means certain which side he would fight for, since his father, the commodore, had been a Maryland-born slave owner.)

In 1870, at age 58, stout and white-haired, having already spent 24 years at sea, Rodgers took over the somewhat ramshackle Asiatic Squadron (formerly the East India Squadron), based in Hong Kong. He had three steam-powered iron gunboats—the Ashuelot, Monocacy, and Palos—along with three wooden ships, the Colorado, Alaska, and Benicia, that combined sail and steam power. The navy still had reservations about the new-fangled, steam-belching monsters, and anyway coal was hard to come by, so captains had instructions to use sails whenever possible and resort to steam only when necessary in battle.

As Perry had opened Japan, so Rodgers set as his objective opening Korea. The Hermit Kingdom was nominally a vassal of Peking but in reality had control over its own destiny. Its de facto ruler was the regent, Yi Ha-ung, known as the Taewongun (“Prince of the Great Court”), part of the Choson dynasty that had ruled the peninsula since the fourteenth century. The xenophobic Taewongun was determined to keep Korea closed to the West. In 1866 he launched a campaign to eradicate Christianity, executing nine French missionaries and some 8,000 of their converts. France sent a punitive expedition, but it was repulsed by the Koreans.

The Koreans generally treated shipwrecked mariners more kindly, returning a number of American sailors safely to China. But in 1866, a U.S.-registered merchant schooner, the General Sherman, was burned and its 27 crew members (mainly Chinese) killed near Pyongyang. The Koreans later explained that the crew had brought this fate upon themselves by entering interior waters without permission, kidnapping a Korean official, and firing into a crowd on shore. This incident nevertheless prompted the Grant administration to mount a major effort to secure from Korea treaties governing shipwrecks and, if possible, trade. Chosen to carry out this assignment were Rear Admiral Rodgers and the U.S. minister to China, Frederick F. Low.

On May 16, 1871, five ships of the Asiatic Squadron, mounting 85 guns and carrying 1,230 officers and men, set off from Nagasaki, Japan, headed for the great unknown—a land where, it was rumored, the natives diced and pickled unwelcome visitors. “Whether this is positively true or not I can’t say,” Marine Captain McLane Tilton wrote to his wife, “but you may imagine it is not with a great pleasure I anticipate landing with the small force we have, against a populous country containing 10,000,000 savages!”

The expedition reached Chemulpo (now Inchon), Korea’s premier port, by the end of May and tried to open diplomatic negotiations. While this was going on, Rodgers sent small boats to do surveying work on the Han River leading toward Seoul. The Koreans naturally took umbrage at foreigners conducting a military survey of one of their most strategically sensitive waterways. On June 2, one of these surveying parties was fired upon by forts on Kangwha Island. The USS Palos and Monocacy promptly returned fire, silencing the fort. Afterward, Minister Low demanded an apology. The proud Koreans refused; they thought it was the foreign barbarians who should apologize. So, in the time-honored fashion of the navy, Rear Admiral Rodgers decided to mount a punitive expedition.

The attack got under way on June 10, 1871, a clear, warm day, with steam launches and cutters landing 542 sailors and 109 marines. The first two Korean forts fell with little trouble. The next day—after becoming the first Western troops to spend the night on Korean soil—the expedition faced its toughest challenge: the hilltop fort known as Kwangsong (“the citadel”). To reach it, the Americans had to race down a hill into a ravine and then back up—straight into the mouth of the Korean cannons. The first man over the parapet was killed, and so was the first who entered the fort, but then the Koreans ran out of time to reload and it became a savage hand-to-hand struggle. “Corean sword crossed Yankee cutlass,” wrote a contemporary chronicler, “and clubbed carbine brained the native whose spear it dashed aside.” The defenders fought valiantly, but they were no match for the Americans, who had much more modern weapons, and less than an hour later Old Glory was fluttering overhead. Virtually all of the 300 defenders had been killed or wounded, or had committed suicide, while only three Americans were killed and 10 wounded. Nine sailors and six marines won Medals of Honor for their heroism.

Having “avenged” this “insult to the flag,” the Americans reboarded their ships and spent three monotonous weeks waiting for the Koreans to answer their requests for trade negotiations. After it became clear that Seoul had no interest in reaching a deal, Rear Admiral Rodgers had no choice but to sail away on July 3, 1871, no treaty in hand.

The Taewongun claimed that the “barbarians” had been repulsed, but the ease with which the Americans had destroyed Korea’s most formidable fortifications gave added impetus to pro-Western modernizers, who toppled him two years later. Japan became the first foreign nation to sign a treaty with Seoul, in 1876; the second was the U.S., in 1882, thanks to the skillful diplomacy of Commodore Robert W. Shufeldt. Commander Winfield Scott Schley, Rodgers’s adjutant, thought in retrospect that the treaty was made possible by the Koreans’ memories of their defeat at the hands of warlike Americans a decade earlier. Perhaps. But the 1871 expedition had at most an indirect influence. And by fostering ill will on both sides, it may actually have delayed the establishment of U.S.-Korean relations.


The Korean expedition was the second biggest U.S. landing abroad between the Mexican War and the Spanish-American War. The biggest occurred in Panama in 1885. This was the culmination of U.S. landings almost too numerous to list throughout Latin America in the nineteenth century. U.S. sailors and marines landed in Argentina in 1833, 1852, and 1890; Peru in 1835; Nicaragua in 1852, 1853, 1854, 1896, and 1899; Uruguay in 1855, 1858, 1868; Mexico in 1870; Chile in 1891; and in Panama, part of Colombia, in 1860, 1873, 1885, 1895. Many of those countries would see even more numerous American interventions in the twentieth century.

These landings were so frequent in part because U.S. embassies and legations did not have permanent marine guards until the twentieth century; whenever trouble occurred in the nineteenth century, marines had to be put ashore. A familiar pattern developed: A revolution takes place; violence breaks out; American merchants and diplomats feel threatened; U.S. warships appear offshore; landing parties patrol the city for several days; then they sail away. The 1885 landing in Panama differed from the normal pattern only in the size of the landing force, in part a product of the fact that even before the construction of a canal, the U.S. had more pressing interests in the isthmus than in the rest of Latin America.

In 1846 Colombia had signed a treaty giving the U.S. transit rights across Panama. Nine years later, the world’s first intercontinental railroad opened, running the 48 miles from Colón on the Caribbean to Panama City on the Pacific. This became a vital transit route between the eastern United States and California, acquired from Mexico in 1848. The Panama Railroad Company and the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, which used the railroad to transport mail under a federal subsidy, were both owned by wealthy New Yorkers who got considerably more wealthy as a result of these lucrative ventures. Unfortunately for them, the government in Bogotá always had a tenuous grip on its Panama province. The resulting revolutions led to frequent marine landings.

In 1885 an insurrection elsewhere in Colombia depleted the Colombian army garrison in Panama, leading two different sets of rebels to try their luck. Former Panamanian president Rafael Aizpuru seized Panama City, killing at least 25 people and disrupting the Panama Railroad. Aizpuru threatened “to kill every American on the isthmus.” Meanwhile, a Haitian mulatto named Pedro Prestan, fired by a hatred of all white men, led a small band of followers to terrorize Colón, a small, pestilent town with no proper sewers or bathrooms, garbage piled in the streets, and an abundance of oversized rats.

On March 29, 1885, a Pacific Mail steamer, the Colon, arrived from New York full of arms. Prestan seized six Americans—the Pacific Mail superintendent, the general agent of the steamship line, the American consul, the superintendent of the Panama Railroad, and two officers from the USS Galena, a gunboat anchored in the harbor—and threatened to kill them if the arms from the Colon were not turned over to him. The American consul gave in and told the Pacific Mail company to release the weapons. Upon hearing this, Prestan released his hostages. But Theodore F. Kane, skipper of the Galena, blocked the weapons transfer, leading Prestan to seize two of the Pacific Mail employees once again. The following day, March 31, Kane landed 126 men in Colón to protect American property but, strictly following his orders, he refused to arrest Prestan. Before long Colombian troops also arrived and engaged Prestan’s followers in a pitched battle outside of town, during which the two American hostages managed to escape. Prestan retreated into Colón and set it afire, reducing the town to cinders.

The Cleveland administration had just taken office, and the new navy secretary, a corporate lawyer named William C. Whitney, decided enough was enough. Under the terms of the 1848 treaty with Colombia, he ordered the navy and marines to scrape together an expeditionary force consisting of eight ships and more than 2,000 officers and men. This was pretty much the outer limit of what the U.S. could muster in those days. But it was enough. By the end of April 11, 1885, the expeditionary force had control of the entire length of the Panama Railroad, with marine guards in white pith helmets posted along the route.

The marines next captured Panama City without a shot being fired and arrested Rafael Aizpuru. He offered to declare Panama a sovereign state with U.S. backing, but the expedition’s commander, Rear Admiral James E. Jouett, declined. Nobody had given him orders to carve out a new country. The rebel leader was turned over to Colombian troops, and by May 25, 1885, less than two months after landing, the entire U.S. force had withdrawn. Rafael Aizpuru received only 10 years in exile; Pedro Prestan was hanged by the Colombian government.

While the U.S. had not exactly been isolationist or even neutral—“It cannot be denied that our presence on the Isthmus was of great value to the Government forces,” remarked Admiral Jouett—the Cleveland administration had been determined to avoid a long-term entanglement in Panama. That resolution, harking back to the admonitions of Washington and Jefferson, was now on its last legs.

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