U.S. Marines: Asiatic Fleet 1870-1900

On the other side of the globe, Marines saw action in Korea in 1871, French missionaries had been murdered and the French had failed in their attempt at retaliation. On May 19th, the United States sent a flotilla of five warships from Nagasaki to the mouth of the Han River, where the crew of an American freighter had been massacred. On June 1st, a surveying party on the river in two gunboats was fired upon from a large Korean fort. Two men were wounded. The American ships returned the fir and drove out the fort’s defenders.

After waiting 10 days for an apology, Rear Admiral John Rodgers, the commander of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet, prepared a punitive expedition against the Han River forts. Early on Saturday June 10th, a force of 651 men, with 109 Marines commanded by Captain McLane W. Tilton of the flagship U.S.S. Colorado, landed on the river bank near the first fort (a few miles from where Marines would land again in 1950). The men, each carrying 100 rounds and two day’s rations, struggled under fire through knee-deep mud to dry ground. Advancing as shock troops, the Marines took the fort, a semicircular redoubt with 54 guns.

On Sunday morning, they occupied the second fort, three miles away, without opposition. Then, the marines were fired on from a high ridge and stormed it; the Koreans fell back to the next ridge line, and a howitzer was hauled up to disperse them. With the Marines still I the fore, the expedition moved on the final and main fort, which the men called the Citadel.

The Marines worked their way to within 150 yards of the horseshoe-shaped fort came up, Tilton’s men charged through heavy fire to a ridge within 120 yards of the fort, Private Dennis Hemahan was killed.

From the ridge, the Marines poured in effective rifle fire, killing more than 40 of the enemy in four minutes. Then, the Marines and sailors made their final assault in small units under covering fire. Close-in fighting broke out all along the line; the Koreans fought to the death. Marines and sailors climbed the walls and stormed the Citadel. Marine Private Hugh Purvis, twenty-five, of U.S.S. Alaska was first to scale the wall and with Corporal Charles Brown of the flagship tore down the enemy’s huge 12 foot square yellow and black flag in the center of the fort. Irish born Private James Dougherty killed the Korean commander. They were among five Marines who won the Congressional Medal of Honor in hand-to-hand combat that day. The Americans spiked 183 cannon and threw them into the river. They had three dead and 10 wounded and counted 243 enemy dead.

Back on the flagship after the weekend war, Tilton wrote his wife, Nan: “I am glad to say I am alive still and kicking, although at one time I never expected to see my wife and baby any more, and if I hadn’t been that the Coreans can’t shoot true, I never should.” The Americans hoped to win a treaty that would open Korea as Perry had opened Japan. But the fighting hardly encouraged the Koreans to make such an agreement, and the squadron sailed of on July 3rd empty-handed. It would be another decade before a treaty was signed.

A generation later, on July 24th 1894, during the Sino-Japanese War, 22 Marines and 28 Sailors from U.S.S. Baltimore under Marine Captain George F. Elliot, an Alabama born West Pointer, hiked 32 miles from Chemulpo in an 11 hour forced night march to guard the American legation at Soul. They slogged through submerged rice fields, detouring to avoid a Japanese division, and stayed in the capital a month.

Shortly thereafter, the American minister at Peking asked for a Marine Guard to protect the legation there. Elliot and his Marines rushed by steamer and railroad to Tientsin, where Elliot was told that the emperor of China had forbidden foreign troops to enter his capital. Reporting his men to an American warship of Taku, Elliott was ordered to proceed to Peking alone. Because the Chinese army had stopped all trains. Elliott went by horseback, reaching Peking, 80 miles away, in two days. When peace came with a crushing defeat for China, Elliott returned to the coast and took his men back to their ship, now at Nagasaki. They had been ashore nearly six months. Six years later, Marines would fight their way to Peking.


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


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