The Battle of Ganghwa 1871- America’s First Korean Conflict

By Faye Higbee

Unless you’re a student of history, you probably are unaware of a major battle that occurred in Korea on June 10-11, 1871.  Yes, the United States fought Korea before the 1950’s. And 15 members of the force that fought there received the Medal of Honor for their part in the Battle of Ganghwa.

The Joseon Dynasty (also called Choson) was in control of Korea. It was a corrupt, oppressive ruling dynasty that had lasted for 5 centuries. It was often referred to as the “Hermit Kingdom.” In 1866, the SS Sherman, a United States Merchant ship, visited the peninsula. But because it went through a gate without permission, the Koreans attacked it and destroyed it in Pyongyang.

The dynasty was so oppressive that it took a group of French Missionaries, tortured and beheaded them, which caused the French to arrive with a battle force. However, the Koreans gained victory over the French. It should have been a warning that making nice with vicious people isn’t feasible.

Battle of Ganghwa

On June 1, 1871, Americans went to Korea to establish trade, ensure the safety of shipwrecked sailors, and see what had become of the crew of that ship. But they came under fire from a Korean Fort. The fight was on. The USS Palos and USS Monocacy returned fire and silenced the Fort.

Nine days later, after no apology was received from the Joseon dynasty, Americans returned with 1,400 personnel, 542 Sailors, 109 Marines, and 6 artillery pieces, 1 Frigate, 2 Sloops, and 2 Gunboats.

As the ships opened fire on the Forts, land forces climbed over the walls. Close quarters combat against Koreans armed with swords, matchlock firearms, and clubs ensued. A Marine named Charles Brown was credited with capturing the flag of the Korean General (the flag was called a sujagi, which means “commanding general flag”), and James Dougherty is credited with killing the General, Eo Jae-yeon. Sailor Chris Hayden planted the American flag on the fort and protected it under heavy fire. Marine Hugh Purvis captured the Korean Flag under heavy fire as the first to scale the walls of the fort.

The captured sujagi – Cpl Charles Brown is on the far left- Wikimedia photo

According to Hidden Histories,

“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.”

*Other sources state that the death toll for the Koreans was 243.

The United States took the cannons and artillery pieces, and destroyed 5 Korean forts. The ships remained in Korea until July 3, hoping to do a prisoner exchange and establish some kind of relations. That failed, and the Koreans refused. The Asian Squadron left Korea.

Fifteen Marines and Sailors received the Medal of Honor for their actions during the Battle of Ganghwa. It was the first time troops were awarded the MOH for battle on foreign soil.

John Andrews (Navy), Charles Brown (Marine Corps), John Coleman (Marine Corps), James Dougherty (Marine Corps), Frederick Franklin (Navy), Patrick Grace (Navy), Chris Hayden (Navy), William F. Lukes (Navy), Alexander McKenzie (Navy), Michael McNamara (Marine Corps),  James F. Merton (Navy), Michael Owens (Marine Corps), Hugh Purvis (Marine Corps), Samuel Rogers (Navy), and William Troy( Navy).


Featured picture of the Battle of Ganghwa from the US Naval Historical Center