China Marines: Forts at Canton; November 1854

During his second visit to Japan, Commodore Perry had left the sloop of war U.S.S. Plymouth at Shanghai. China was then enflamed by the T’ai P’ing Rebellion against the Manchu Emperor, and Shanghai’s foreign trading settlements were nervous about their safety.

On the evening of April 4th 1854, the foreign missions and the Shanghai racetrack were invaded by the Imperial Chinese army. A detachment of 60 sailors and Marines from U.S.S. Plymouth landed and was reinforced later that night. The men joined a similar force of 150 sailors and Marines from two British warships, plus 37 British and American volunteers. They attacked the Chinese soldiers and cleared the foreign settlements and the racetrack. Part of Plymouth’s force remained ashore until June 15th.

Danger to American commercial interests in China persisted, and trouble erupted at Canton in the fall of 1856. Marine detachments were repeatedly sent to Canton from U.S. warships lying off Whampoa in the Pearl River eight miles below the city. Early on November 16th, an unarmed American boat sent up river to find a channel was fired on from one of the four barrier forts protecting the river approach to Canton, and the American coxswain was killed. To retaliate and teach the Chinese to respect the Americans, Commodore James Armstrong sent the sloop U.S.S. Portsmouth to bombard the forts, which had seven-foot-thick walls designed by European military engineers. Portsmouth fired more than 230 shells and took several hits in reply.

After that indecisive encounter, Armstrong returned to his flagship in ill health and tried to negotiate an apology from the Chinese. He left Commander Andrew H. Foote of Portsmouth in charge and, when negotiations broke down, gave Foote authority to act.
Early on November 20th, the aggressive Foote laid down a bombardment and put ashore a landing force of 287 men, including Brevet Captain John D. Simms and the squadron’s 50 Marines. The forts returned the ships’ fire but were soon silenced. Led by the Marines, the landing force squelched resistance in a village behind the nearest fort and opened fire on the fort itself. The Chinese tried to flee, some were swimming the river. The Marines picked off more than 40, seized the fort and raised the Stars and Stripes. Simms took his men back into the village, found that the enemy had reinforced it from Canton, and cleared it again. A thousand Chinese soldiers counter-attacked. Simms had his men hold their musket fire until the Chinese were within 200 yards; then the Marines decimated them. The Chinese attacked twice more before retreating.

Early the next morning, Simms lead an attack on the next fort, called “Fiddlers Fort.” The Americans advanced through waist-deep ditches against heavy but inaccurate fire and stormed the fort. In the face of a horde of Chinese soldiers, Corporal William McDougal, the Marines’s standard bearer, placed the American flag on the fort’s wall. Simms turned the forts guns on the next objective, Centre Fort on Napier Island in midstream, and dueled with its guns. As Simm’s Marines advanced on the island fort, the Chinese swarmed forward. The Marines threw them back. Again McDougal planted the American flag over the fort as the landing force assaulted its walls. At dawn the next day, the landing force waded in to seize the fourth fort. The enemy fled at their approach and the final fort was taken.

In the entire operation, American casualties totaled seven dead and 22 wounded in action. No Marine were killed but six were wounded. In three days, the American had destroyed four Chinese forts and 168 cannon. They got their apology.


SOURCE:U.S. Marine Corps Story; BY: J. Robert Moskin
CONTRIBUTOR: Cade Pommeraan