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Corea's 1866 Clash With 'General Sherman'
Young S. Kim describes the obscure U.S.-Korea military conflict, a story still shrouded in mystery
Young Kim (kimsoft)     Print Article 
Published 2005-08-18 12:33 (KST)   
The General Sherman incident is significant because it was the first armed conflict between Korea and the U.S. This minor incident, in which about 10 Koreans and three Americans were killed, led to a larger conflict in 1871, in which three Americans and 243 Koreans were killed.

It is commonly believed the U.S. merchant ship the General Sherman was burned and sunk in 1866 near Pyongyang. However, it is unlikely that she sank or burned down, because she had a thick iron hull, not easily burnable, and besides, she was stuck in the river mud when she was attacked and could not have sunk any deeper.

The General Sherman (USS Princess Royal) Source: U.S. Department of The Navy (2005)
U.S.-Korea relations date back to July 1844 when the U.S. Congress tabled a motion to trade with "Corea" -- commonly called the Hermit Kingdom in those days. In spite of this, the General Sherman, an armed schooner, was dispatched to Korea (Spear, 1872).

The General Sherman incident is still shrouded in a mist of disinformation and myths. The Kojong Silrok -- the Chosun court archives -- are sketchy and the U.S. Navy archives are mum on this embarrassing incident; there is no photo of the ship in the U.S. Navy archives. The Chosun court wanted to cover up the incident for fear of American reprisals.

The reprisal did come in June 1871 in the form of an American invasion force, which killed 243 Chosun soldiers to punish "natives for depredations on Americans," particularly for murdering the crew of the General Sherman and burning the schooner, and for firing on other American "small boats taking soundings up the Salee (Han) River," -- without Chosun government permission. (Duvernay, 2005)

A Brief Life History of the General Sherman -- formerly the U.S.S. Princess Royal

This ship was built by Ted & McGregor, Glasgow, Scotland, in 1861, and sold to a smuggler who used her to smuggle arms and other war supplies to the Confederates in the American Civil War. She had an iron hull of 198 feet 9 inches by 27 feet 3 inches by 16 feet. She had two steam engines powered by coal and two full-sail masts, and could cruise at 11 knots. Her armament included two 12-pound cannons, two smaller cannons (perhaps Gattling guns), and small arms for all crew members, about 15 (Erik, 1960).

In 1863, the Princess Royal was captured by the U.S. Federal Navy and served in the Civil War as a U.S. Navy warship, the U.S.S. Princess Royal, from 1863 to 1865. She was decommissioned at the end of the war, and sold to Samuel C. Cook, who rearmed her with two large cannons and two small cannons, and renamed her the General Sherman (Erik, 1960).

In 1864, Cook sent the ship to China, which was in chaos because of the Taiping uprising that began in 1849. The Taiping rebels wanted to kick out all foreigners, and the Chinese government employed foreign mercenaries (Spear, 1872).

A horde of veterans of the American Civil War went to China, seeking fortune and adventure. Gen. Henry A. Burgevine was one of the American mercenaries in the service of the Chinese royal court. When a low-ranking mandarin held up his pay, Burgevine beat up the old man and defected to the Taiping rebels. In 1865, he boarded the General Sherman with a small band of fellow mercenaries and sailed toward Formosa, modern-day Taiwan, to join the Taiping rebel force there. But the royal navy intercepted the General Sherman and Burgevine was thrown overboard and drowned.

(Note: the ownership of the General Sherman is murky: After being captured by the U.S. Navy in the Civil War and sold to Cook, she was captured by the Chinese and sold to a British company. Some historians state that the ship was British-owned when she was destroyed in Korea, contrary to the Kojong Silrok which lists W. B. Preston, an American merchant-adventurer, as the ship's owner.)

The General Sherman, well-known as the "black" pirate ship raiding villages along the China coast, was confiscated by the Chinese government and was sold to the Meadows & Co., a British firm in Tientsin, known today as Tianjin, which in turn sold her to Preston. Preston wanted to open the Hermit Kingdom of Korea to American trade, and loaded her with merchandise of cotton goods, tin sheets, glass, and other items. Trading was not the only goal of the Americans -- they planned to plunder the gold and precious stones buried in royal tombs (Lee, 2000).

The General Sherman left Tientsin on Aug. 9, 1866 and stopped briefly for water at Chefoo, today's Yantai, northeastern China, from where she set sail and reached the mouth of the Daedong River on Aug. 18 (Hong, 1995).

On Sept. 5 1866, the General Sherman was destroyed near Pyongyang with all hands beaten or hacked to death. When the water level rose again in the Daedong River, the ship was floated and moved to a shipyard near Seoul. The General Sherman was refurbished and christened the first modern warship of the Korean Navy (Lee, 2002). However, under intense pressure from China, which handled the foreign affairs of the Chosun Dynasty at the time, the ship was returned to the her American owner, Samuel Cook, in 1867.

William F. Weld Co. (Merchants of Boston SS Co.) bought the ship from Cook in 1868 and refurnished her for ferry service between New York and New Orleans. Erik (1960) states: "On January 4, 1874, the General Sherman left New York on her usual run with four passengers and a crew of forty-two men. Her cargo consisted of general merchandise consigned to New Orleans. The weather began to worsen and on January 7, 1874 at 2:00 AM the General Sherman sprung a bad leak." She sank about noon on January 10, 1874 and her tragic saga ended at last.

What really happened to the General Sherman in July-August 1866?

There are three main sources of information on the incident: The King Kojong (Kojong Silrok, 1866) court archives, the memoirs of Park Kyu Soo (Park, 1878), the governor of the Pyong-an Province at the time, and various Christian myths on the "First Martyr -- Rev. Thomas" (Han, 1999; Hong, 1995). The Kojong archive and Park's account match, whereas the Thomas martyr accounts are far-fetched. Given below is the account of the General Sherman's destruction based on the first two sources. The account below was taken from my lecture presented at the University of Oregon in 2002 (Kim. 2002):

In the seventh moon of Year Pyeng In (August 1866), a black foreign schooner was sighted on the Daedong River. The ship dropped anchor at Keupsa Gate at the border of Pyungan and Whang-hae provinces. Governor Park Kyoo Soo of Pyungan sent an emissary to look into the ship's presence. The emissary was told the foreigners came to exchange goods with the Koreans. They came from the land of Miguk (the United States of America). Robert Thomas, a Briton, did most of the talking through a Chinese who wrote out what Thomas said in Chinese characters that the Koreans understood.

Thomas told the Korean officials that his black ship was part of a large China-U.S.-French allied invasion fleet intent on revenging the death of seven Catholic priests. He inquired on the whereabouts of royal tombs and the weather conditions. He stated that his Christian church was the true church of Jesus Christ, much better than the Catholic Church. He attempted to hand out Holy Scriptures and evangelical brochures, although he knew that being a Christian was a risky business in Korea at the time.

(Note: The ship's crew members were: Capt. Page, Chief Mate Wilson, and the ship's owner, Preston (all Americans); George Hogarth (a British pirate); 13 Chinese, and three Malays. Thomas, who learned some Korean words from the Korean Catholics at Chefoo, accompanied them as an interpreter.)

The emissary informed them that Korea did not trade with foreigners and that only the King could change this law; and the governor had no authority to deal with the foreigners. He then offered to provide them with some supplies. They asked for flour and eggs, for which Thomas offered to pay. His offer was refused because accepting payment would be considered a business transaction with foreigners, which was forbidden. Soon after the emissary left the ship to report to the governor, the foreigners weighed anchor and sailed up the river as far inland as Mangyung-dae (Note: deceased North Korean leader Kim Il Sung's birthplace), a hill some twelve li (1 li = 2.44 miles) from Pyongyang. The Crow Rapids stopped them from going any further.

During the night, rain poured down on the mountains and the Daedong River rose rapidly. The day was the 15th of the lunar month and there were high tides. These two factors combined swelled the water to a level seldom seen before, and the black ship was able to pass over the Crow Rapids and to sail further inland, despite the repeated warnings by the Korean officials.

The foreigners seemingly thought the high water level was normal and kept on sailing until they reached Yangjak-do. Gov. Park sent Lee Hyon Ik, the deputy commander of the Pyongyang garrison, to the ship with four eggs and a message: "You have reached the walls of our city when asked to stay put at Keupsa Gate. You insist on trading with us, which is forbidden. Your actions have created a grave situation so much so that I must inform my king and let him decide what to do with you people." However, Lee's ultimatum was ignored.

The royal regent, Dae Won Gun, believed that this foreign ship was a vanguard of another invasion by the Roman Catholics and commanded: "Tell them to leave at once. If they do not obey, kill them." (Note: In 1864, the 25th king of the Chosun Dynasty died without a male heir and Kojong, the second son of Yi Ha Ung, became the new king at age 13. Since Kojong was under age, his father became the regent and ruled the kingdom under the title -- Dae Won Gun (Prince of the Great Court). He was later ousted by Kojong's wife, Queen Min, when the old man refused to leave the seat of power, even after Kojong became of age.) (Sterner, 2002)

One day before Dae's edict arrived, the river's water level dropped and the ship was hopelessly stranded. A small boat with armed men left the black ship, apparently looking for a passage. Cmdr. Lee Hyong Ik and several soldiers went after the boat. Lee and his men ware captured by the invaders and taken to the black ship. Meanwhile, the black ship fired cannons at the crowd gathered on the beach. Park sent an emissary for the release of Lee and other captives. The invaders demanded tons of rice, gold, silver, and ginseng for the hostages.

The next day, a boat was launched again with five armed men -- but this time, the Koreans were ready and attacked the boat with rocks and arrows. The invaders abandoned the boat and fled to the black ship, which intensified the bombardment, killing seven Koreans and wounding five. Raiding parties from the black ship took rice and livestock from nearby villages. Officer Park Chun Gwon led a commando unit and stormed aboard the ship and rescued Lee and other hostages. Later, Lee was demoted for incompetence.

On losing their hostages, the invaders intensified cannon and small-arms fire on the crowed gathered at the riverbanks, killing seven and wounding five. Gov. Park had had enough and ordered his troops to attack the foreigners. Park's troops were armed with hwajun (fire arrows) that could travel 800 feet and then explode. They also had guns and cannons. The troops were dressed in dragon cloud armor and marched past a cheering crowd.

The fighting continued for four days. The foreigners fired large canon balls that traveled more than 10 li (Note: 24 miles, probably an overestimate). The cannons' thunder could be heard as faraway as one day's walk. They aimed at the spectators and showers of deadly steel fragments rained down on them. Park's troops retreated to a safe distance, from where their guns and bows could do little harm to the foreigners.

The Korean defenders tried a turtle boat, a boat covered with metal sheets and cowhides. The bow of this boat had a covered port for the cannon hidden inside. The turtle boat approached the ship and fired many shots, but the shots bounced off the thick metal skin of the ship. The fight was not going well for the Koreans, who managed to kill only one invader in day three of the fighting.

Then, Park Chun Gwon tied three boats together by the East Gate and loaded them with firewood. He then poured sulfur and saltpeter on the wood. Two long ropes were attached to both sides of the boats and the firewood was lit. However, the fire went out before the boats reached the ship. A second set of fireboats was pushed away by the Americans. The third set reached the enemy ship and success at last. The enemy ship caught on fire and began to burn. The crew faced suffocation by the stench and vapor of the burning sulfur and saltpeter.

The invaders tried in vain to put out the flames. However, as the smoke grew thicker and thicker, they were forced one by one to jump into the water. The Koreans in boats surrounded the enemy ship and captured the enemy as they tried to escape. Thomas and his Chinese interpreter were the first to abandon the ship, waving a white cloth and begging for mercy. They were immediately captured and taken ashore, where the mob beat them to death.

Some of the invaders waved white flags. Most of them were hacked to pieces before they could reach the shore. Others were dragged ashore alive and these "lucky" ones tried friendly smiles and soft words to win the goodwill of our people -- in vain. The remains of the foreigners were trampled on and dragged around. Dogs fed on the dead. Some body parts were cut off for medical use, and what was left was burned. The ashes were dumped into a common grave.

The enemy ship was totally burned down and there remained only her iron ribs that looked like posts driven into the ground. These irons were salvaged and melted down, and reused in various ways. We captured two or three cannons, which are displayed in the armory of Pyongyang. We also recovered her anchor chains, which we hang from the East Gate Tower. (Note: The official record lists two large cannons, two small cannons, three cannon balls, two rifles, 162 shots and over one thousand pieces of iron.)

There was a big celebration over the victory over the invaders. Gov. Park provided free food and drinks. There was much joy and much sadness over the losses. Gov. Park sent a special messenger to the King with the news: "Officer Park rescued my deputy commander Lee from the burning enemy ship. He boarded the ship, took Lee under his arm and leaped with him a hundred yards across the Daedong River to safety." When Dae Won Gun read Gov. Park's note, he laughed his heart out and made Park Chun Gwon his aide-de-camp in Anju.

The Myth of the First Presbyterian Martyr -- Rev. Thomas

Basic facts on Robert Thomas

Robert Thomas was born in 1840. His father was a Christian minister. He attended the London New College. After graduation in 1863, he was selected to spread the gospel in China. In 1864, he resigned the ministry over some personality conflicts with his superiors. He took on odds-and-ends jobs in China. He met Korean Christians in Chefoo and decided to spread the Gospel in Korea. His request to be reinstated as a missionary was rejected.

In Sept. 1865, he arrived at the western coast of Korea in a Chinese junk. In December, he tried to reach Seoul but his ship was battered in a storm and he was forced return to Chefoo. He claimed that he spent two months evangelizing among the Koreans. However, the Korean court record states that a Chinese junk manned by nine Chinese approached the western coast. A strange-looking man on the junk tossed 16 books and 1 calendar on the beach before the junk fled. Scottish bible merchants in China financed this missionary work.

Back in Chefoo, he ran into a French Catholic priest, Felix Clair Ridel, who had escaped the massacre of Christians in Korea. Ridel informed the French ambassador, Henry de Bellonet, of the massacres going on in Korea, and de Bellonet demanded the Chinese government intervene. When his request was denied, de Bellonet ordered the French Far East Fleet under Adm. Pierre Rose to invade Korea and make her a French colony.

However, Rose knew that de Bellonet had no authority to order an invasion and contacted the French Admiralty for authorization. Sensing an opportunity to go to Korea, Thomas went to Beijing to offer his service to the French. Rose agreed to hire Thomas to act as an interpreter, if, and when, the invasion came.

When Rose was sent to Hong Kong to suppress a rebellion, Thomas gave up on him and returned to Chefoo, where he learned about the General Sherman's impending trip to Korea. The American owner of the ship, Preston, hired Thomas as a Korean interpreter, although his Korean was poor. The General Sherman left Chefoo on Aug. 9, 1866. Thomas was killed on Sept. 5, 1866. (Han, 1999; Hong, 1995)

How did the martyrdom myths begin?

Strange though it may sound, the Sherman incident is not well known in Korea and few Korean history researchers are interested in getting the truth on Thomas' alleged martyrdom. The Thomas story plays an important role in the history of the Korean Christianity and getting the truth of his alleged martyr is in order. (Han, 1999)

Several "eyewitness" accounts of the murder of Thomas appeared some 60 years after his death. None of the accounts were written by "eyewitnesses" -- instead, they were second-, third-, or fourth-hand hearsays or fictions by Christian zealots. The son of the disgraced Lee wrote a book justifying his father's capture by the foreigners. He claims that Lee boarded the black ship to negotiate a peaceful solution. For some reason, the Americans took his official seal and Lee refused to leave without the seal. The official account states that Lee dropped the seal into water when he was captured. Another account was written by the son of Park Chun Gwon, the hero of the Sherman incident, the man who rescued Lee and organized attacks on the black ship.

The myths more or less follow the official line up to the last moment of Thomas. The myths depict Thomas having thrown scriptures and Christian brochures to the mob on the riverbank while the ship was burning. For example, "Rev. Thomas with great courage stood at the bow of the ship and threw down numerous holy books shouting 'Jesus, Jesus.' The black ship was stranded beyond the reach of hand throw.

"Whang Myong Dae, a 20-year-old youth, witnessed this heroic act. He was so impressed with Thomas that he later embraced Jesus, becoming a founding member of a church near Pyongyang. Today, in his 80s, Whang attends services at the Jo-wang-ri church (Dae-dong-gun) near Dae-dong-gang." (Han, 1999)

All accounts agree that Thomas and his Chinese interpreter were the first to jump into the water. They were grabbed by soldiers in boats and handed over to the civilian mob. The official accounts state that Thomas was beaten to death by the mob and that he screamed for mercy. Some myths claim that he knelt and prayed to God, and then handed his Bible to his executioner. Some say the executioner was Park Chun Gwon, the hero, himself, while others say it was a soldier. In either case, the executioner later became a Christian.

Another myth claims that Thomas was taken to Gov. Park, who had met Thomas in Beijing several years ago and Park had him beheaded and his body taken back to where he came ashore. This account differs from the others in that it claims Thomas was beheaded, whereas other accounts claim that a sword was put through his heart.

Was Robert Thomas a martyr?

No. Why not? This is what Han Gyu-Mu (1999) says about this question:

"Thomas came to Korea aboard an armed merchant ship intent on reaching Pyongyang no matter what and in complete disregard of the laws of Korea. Thomas was involved in kidnapping, killing of civilians and open-armed confrontation with the Korean officials. It may be argued that was the norm in the days of Western imperialism. How can we gain the rights to preach the Gospel with guns and swords? Preaching love and peace on earth after committing Satanic deeds ourselves would make us look hollow and anti-Christ.

Today, some nations may be tempted to use their superior economic, military, political and technological power to impose their religious beliefs on other nations in total disregard for their national laws, sovereignty and human rights. These nations better learn from the General Sherman tragedy."

Indeed, the era of gunboat diplomacy and Christianity as a tool of imperialism is over. The times when Korean Christians sold out their nation to foreign powers in the name of Christianity are long gone.

Brown, Gerald. (1866). Last Months of the Taeping War. Harper's new monthly magazine. (Vol. 32, Issue 191, pp. 594-601). New York. Harper & Bros, New York, April 1866. Retrieved July 25, 2005 from World Wide Web

Duvernay, Thomas. (2005). The 1871 US Korean Campaign (shinmi-yangyo). Retrieved July 20, 2005, from World Wide Web

Erik, Heyl. (1960). Early American Steamers. Vol. I. Published by Heyl Erik, Buffalo, New York. 1960.

Han, Gyu-Mu. (1999). The General Sherman Incident of 1866 and Rev. Thomas' Martyrdom. Kwangju University. Retrieved March 18, 2003, from World Wide Web

Hong, Sung-ho. (1995). The General Sherman Incident and the "Martyrdom" of Rev. Thomas. Master's Thesis. The Presbyterian Theology College. Korea. Retrieved July 30, 2005 from World Wide Web

Kim, Young S. (2002). A Brief History of US-Korea Relations Prior to 1945. A paper presented at the University of Oregon. Retrieved from World Wide Web, August 15, 2005,

Kojong Silrok, (1866). The Kojong Archives on the General Sherman Incident. Retrieved July 30, 2005 from World Wide Web

Lee, G. T. (2002). American Ships on the Daedong River. Chosun Ilbo, October 30, 2002.

Lee, W.R. (2000). Ernst Oppert's Kingdom of Corea: Grave-Robbing in the Name of God. Retrieved July 30, 2005 from World Wide Web

Park, Kyu-soo (1978). The Park Kyu-soo Memoirs. Asia Publishing. Seoul, Korea, 1978.

Speer, William. (1872). Corea: What Shall We Do With Her? The Galaxy (Vol Issue 3). New York. W. C. and F. P. Church, 1866-1868; | Sheldon and Company, 1868-1878. Retrieved July 30, 2005, from World Wide Web

Sterner, S. Douglas (2003). Home of Heroes: Hermit Kingdom and the General Sherman Incident. Retrieved March 18, 2003, from:

US Department of the Navy. (2005). Naval Historical Center, 805 Kidder Breese SE -- Washington Navy Yard, Washington DC 20374-5060. Retrieved July 30, 2005, from World Wide Web

Welles, Gideon, Secretary of the Navy. (1867). The Murder of the Officers, Crew and Passengers of the American Schooner General Sherman at the Ping Yang River, Corea. US Government Printing Office, Washington, 1867. Retrieved July 30, 2005, from World Wide Web
©2005 OhmyNews
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