Naval Battle of the Strait of Shimonoseki, 20th July 1863
USS Wyoming, a screw sloop that won the first Naval battle between the United States and Japan at the Battle of Shimonoseki in 1863, pictured sometime after the US Civil War.
By the end of 1861 U.S. naval forces had been withdrawn from all distant stations to participate in the nation’s internal conflict. The Saginaw was one of three vessels remaining abroad—the others were cruising off Africa and Brazil—and even she was ordered to San Francisco in mid-1862. After nine months of rebuilding at the Mare Island Navy Yard, the side-wheeler joined the Pacific Squadron, with which she spent the remainder of her career.
But the Far East was not destined to be devoid of American naval forces for long. Receiving news of a Confederate privateer off the China coast, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles directed the Mare Island commandant to hasten repairs to the Pacific Squadron’s screw-sloop Wyoming, fit her for thirty months’ service, and send her directly to Manila. She arrived in the Philippines in August 1862, and Commander David S. McDougal commenced an investigation which ultimately indicated that the commerce raider was a figment of someone’s imagination. A few months later, however, Welles ordered the Wyoming to intercept the celebrated CSS Alabama at Sunda Strait.
While these orders were en route, the Wyoming touched at several Chinese ports for the dual purpose of showing the flag and seeking information pertaining to Confederate activities. Standing into Swatow in March 1863 with a pilot on board, she had the misfortune to strike a pinnacle rock while steaming at 8 knots. Water poured into the vessel more rapidly than pumps and the bilge injection could eject it, so McDougal ran her aground. After discharging stores and ammunition into a chartered schooner, the Wyoming’s men plugged the leaks sufficiently for her to reach Amoy, where she was docked for permanent repairs. A month after her mishap, the screw-sloop was ready for sea, and McDougal prepared to comply with Welles’s Sunda Strait order. But before she could sail, dispatches from Japan and news that the Alabama was actually in the West Indies caused the commander to set a course for Yokohama instead.
Isolated instances of violence against foreigners in Japan had been reported almost since the beginning of foreign intercourse with the island empire, but only gradually did Westerners become aware that these were manifestations of a more serious danger. The emperor himself and a number of the most powerful daimyo, including the princes of Choshu and Satsuma, were strongly opposed to the abandonment of seclusion and saw in the new policy an opportunity to oust the government of the Tokugawa shogun.
In the autumn of 1862, a retainer of the daimyo of Satsuma killed an Englishman whom he thought had insulted his prince near Yokohama. The British government made this and earlier incidents the occasion for demanding a sizable indemnity from the Japanese government and a smaller sum from Satsuma, over whom the shogun was said to have little control. The French minister at Edo assured British Rear Admiral Augustus Kuper that his government would support Whitehall’s demand, and the senior Netherlands naval officer offered his cooperation. This matter, which had not been settled when the Wyoming arrived, did not involve the United States, but on 25 May the American legation at Edo was burned and a short time afterward Minister Robert H. Pruyn and the consul at Kanagawa were advised to withdraw to Yokohama because the Japanese government could no longer guarantee their safety.
The situation assumed a more serious aspect a month later, when the shogun suddenly denounced the promise of his minister that the indemnity would be paid to Britain. Thereupon, the British chargé d’affaires turned matters over to Admiral Kuper to be settled by force. Since the latter thought his warships too few to protect the foreign settlement at Yokohama and to collect the indemnity at the same time, he declined to take any action until the foreign residents had had an opportunity to leave Japan. Within a few days, the Japanese paid the indemnity, but the payment was coupled with an order that all foreigners depart, so the outlook remained ominous.
Nonetheless, the Wyoming was preparing to return to the United States in obedience to orders from the Navy Department when letters from Shanghai informed Commander McDougal that the American steamer Pembroke, plying between Yokohama and the Chinese port, had been fired on by armed vessels in the vicinity of the Strait of Shimonoseki, western exit from the Inland Sea. The Wyoming’s destination was changed at once.
Arriving off the town of Shimonoseki on the morning of 16 July 1863, McDougal identified a bark and a brig, of European origin but flying the banners of Japan and Choshu, as the Pembroke’s assailants. An armed steamer displaying identical flags was anchored nearby. Taking advantage of a favorable tide, the Wyoming hoisted her colors and stood in with her men at battle stations. As she neared the town, six batteries at various points along the shore took her under fire. The vessels were McDougal’s primary targets, and shells from the Wyoming’s two 11-inch Dahlgren guns seem to have been very effective against them as she closed the range. The steamer weighed anchor, but a gush of smoke and steam following two shellbursts indicated serious damage to her boilers. She drifted ashore, and the brig, also hard hit, was seen to be settling. The bark too was reported to have suffered severe injury, but the batteries were another matter, keeping up a steady fire to which the Wyoming could make little effective reply because of their number and elevation. McDougal’s conning of his vessel was made the more difficult by strong currents and the lack of hydrographic knowledge, his pilots being “completely paralyzed and apprehensive of getting on shore.” After touching bottom once, the screw-sloop broke off the action. During seventy minutes under fire, she had received eleven shots in her hull while others had damaged her smokestack and rigging. Four of her men had been killed instantly and seven wounded, one fatally. Commander McDougal made no estimate of the Japanese loss, but he was sure that his attack had eliminated the danger from Choshu’s warships; the batteries, on the other hand, could be dealt with only by a sizable landing force.
When the Wyoming returned to Yokohama, her men learned that she was not the only vessel bearing wounds inflicted by Shimonoseki’s guns. The Dutch screw-corvette Medusa, en route from Nagasaki to Yokohama, had steamed through the strait under fire from batteries and men-of-war a few days before the Wyoming’s punitive action, and even as that action was beginning, French Rear Admiral C. Jaurés departed Yokohama with two warships to avenge an attack on a dispatch boat flying the tricolor.
French soldiers were embarked in the flagship Sémiramis, for Jaurés intended to destroy the offending batteries. When he found that his vessel drew too much water to come within range, the admiral landed the troops under the fire of the smaller Tancréde’s guns to attack a fortification to the eastward of the strait itself. This was quickly carried and, together with its magazine, destroyed. After burning a nearby village, the force was reembarked. Jaurés’s operation was conducted smartly, but, as Admiral Kuper remarked, it had done little to assure free passage of the strait.
When the French vessels returned to Yokohama, the diplomatic representatives of the foreign powers met to discuss the Japanese situation. They quickly resolved that the naval forces of their respective nations should cooperate to protect foreign rights in the treaty ports and to reopen the strait. The senior foreign naval officers, meeting on board HMS Euryalus soon thereafter to consider the diplomats’ resolution, concluded that no belligerent action should be undertaken, or even planned, until they had been assured that the shogun’s government was unable or unwilling to control the daimyo in whose principalities the treaty ports and the strait were located. No reason for this decision was given; presumably the naval officers wished to avoid responsibility for extensive military involvement in Japan so long as there was any possible alternative. Commander McDougal also had to keep in mind that his primary mission was the pursuit of Confederate commerce raiders—should the Wyoming suffer serious damage or deplete her ammunition supply, no replacement was at hand.
On the next day, however, another U.S. man-of-war stood into Edo Bay. The sailing sloop of war Jamestown had reached Macao from the Atlantic coast by way of the Cape of Good Hope on 1 June. After filling her storerooms with provisions that the naval storekeeper at Macao had purchased for her in Hong Kong, she had touched at Woosung where Captain Cicero Price learned of the threatening state of affairs in Japan. Although the Jamestown’s dependence on the winds practically limited her to duty as a guardship in one or another of the treaty ports, she could contribute sailors and marines to a force which would be landed from other vessels in the event of hostilities. But the arrival of a single obsolete warship did not suffice to change the attitudes of the senior naval officers, and Captain Price concurred in their decision.
Recognizing that the desired international naval cooperation was unlikely to be realized in the near future, the British chargé d’affaires persuaded Admiral Kuper to take unilateral action against the daimyo of Satsuma to force payment of the indemnity. Seven steam-propelled British warships, led by the screw-frigate Euryalus, bombarded the fortifications at Kagoshima, Satsuma’s capital city, on 15 August. Heavy seas whipped by typhoon-force winds and frequent accidents that befell the squadron’s breech-loading Armstrong guns limited the effect of the bombardment, but buildings in Kagoshima were seen to be in flames before the warships sought a sheltered anchorage in which to repair their damage and bury their thirteen dead. The batteries and the daimyo’s palace were shelled again as the squadron steamed out of Kagoshima Bay, and none of its vessels were hit by the feeble return fire. Nonetheless, Satsuma could boast that the British had been driven off without collecting the indemnity.
While the bombardment of Kagoshima had no direct effect on the American situation in Japan, it did show clearly that even a more formidable fleet was unlikely to be successful against Japanese fortifications unless troops could be put ashore in strength to destroy the batteries after they had been silenced by naval gunfire. And troops were not available, for Kuper’s application to the major general commanding British forces in China had received a flat refusal. Thus, the Strait of Shimonoseki remained closed to foreign shipping.
The threat of Confederate commerce raiders in the Far East seemed likely to materialize in the autumn of 1863 when the CSS Alabama was reported to be at Cape Town, where she had armed and commissioned one of her prizes as a cruiser. McDougal took the Wyoming to Macao for coal and then stood south to patrol Sunda Strait. After cruising in its waters for a month, the commander received information apparently originating with the U.S. consul at Melbourne, to the effect that a supply of coal for the Alabama’s use had been landed on uninhabited Christmas Island, some 200 miles to the southward of Sunda Strait. The Wyoming set out to investigate immediately and found no evidence of any coal having been put ashore; indeed, McDougal reported that the waters around the island offered no anchorage where a vessel might be unloaded.
Perhaps the report had been designed to lure the Union warship away from Sunda Strait, for the Alabama was actually nearby. She had destroyed a prize off Sumatra’s south coast on 6 November and steamed through the strait on the tenth, the day on which the Wyoming departed for Christmas Island. Commander McDougal later calculated that the two warships must have passed about twenty-five miles from each other, but by the time the Confederate burned another prize early the next morning, her enemy was too far to the southward to sight the blaze.
The Wyoming returned from her wild-goose chase a week later, to learn that the Alabama had indeed entered the Java Sea, but McDougal could obtain no information as to her whereabouts after 11 November. Five days were spent searching the waters in the vicinity of Anjer, after which the commander set a course for Bangka Strait, bemoaning the state of his vessel’s boilers which could no longer steam at full pressure. The Wyoming was off Singapore at the end of November, and there had the unusual experience of being mistaken for her prey—a native boat brought out a packet of papers and a letter for Commander Raphael Semmes. This evidence that the Alabama was expected caused McDougal to await her off Singapore, but the raider was more than 500 miles to the northward and did not reach Malacca Strait until late December, by which time the Wyoming was well on her way to Manila, whence she went to Whampoa for boiler repairs.
The screw-sloop dropped down to Macao on the completion of her repairs, and the Jamestown joined her early in February 1864. Captain Price had received a report that the Alabama was bound for Whampoa or Amoy to be docked, so he had left Yokohama late in December, disregarding the protests of American merchants and mariners who were sure that the Confederate would steam into Edo Bay at any moment. The sailing warship had battled boisterous winds for nearly a month to reach Amoy, whence she escorted a merchantman to Hong Kong. Price and McDougal agreed that the Alabama was no longer likely to appear in the China Sea, especially since she was reported to have been spoken off India’s Coromandel coast early in January. Nonetheless, the Wyoming was preparing to return to Sunda Strait when, in mid-February, Captain Price ordered her to Foochow in response to the vice-consul’s plea that a warship touch there.
At Foochow, Commander McDougal found that churches belonging to English and American missionary establishments had been damaged by a Chinese mob a month earlier. The vice-consuls of both nations had demanded reparation; compensation required by the Briton was paid promptly—because he was supported by a gunboat, according to McDougal. This view was probably valid, for, upon the Wyoming’s arrival, the American claim was satisfied as well. At an interview with the governor, the two vice-consuls, accompanied by the commanding officers of the USS Wyoming and HMS Bustard, were assured that the guilty individuals would be punished and that foreign property would be protected in the future.
Her Foochow mission successfully concluded, the Wyoming returned to Macao to await the mails and then proceeded to Batavia. All information indicated that the Alabama was no longer in the Indian Ocean, so the Union warship made her way to Philadelphia in accordance with earlier orders. The information was correct; the Alabama was sunk off Cherburg, France, by the USS Kearsarge while the Wyoming was still on her homeward passage.
Meanwhile, the Jamestown remained in Chinese waters until June, when Minister Pruyn asked that she return to Yokohama, both to provide a naval escort when he resumed his residence in Edo and to participate in an effort to reopen the Strait of Shimonoseki. The former mission was completed without incident, but August brought reports of another outrage in the district of the daimyo of Choshu. The American steamer Monitor, her passage from Hakodate to Nagasaki prolonged by head winds, had been fired on when she sought fuel and water in a bay on Honshu’s northwest coast.
Preparations for a movement against Choshu, whose domain included the northern shore of the Strait of Shimonoseki, were well-advanced when news of the supposedly unprovoked firing on the Monitor reached Yokohama. An ultimatum to the daimyo had been answered unsatisfactorily, whereupon the treaty powers’ diplomatic representatives concluded that a military-naval expedition should be sent to the strait. Their recommendation to this effect was discussed by the senior naval officers, who agreed to the proposed operation with the proviso that they be relieved of all responsibility for defense of the foreign settlement at Yokohama while it was in progress.
The role of the Jamestown received serious consideration. Everyone recognized that her lack of motive power amounted to a complete disability so far as the proposed expedition was concerned, yet the ministers were insistent that American sailors participate. Admiral Kuper offered one of his steamers to tow the sailer to the scene, but, as she would be very difficult to control in the strong currents of the strait, he thought it better for her to remain in Edo Bay where her presence would help to ensure tranquility. Thereupon, Captain Price chartered the American merchant steamer Ta-Kiang at $9,500 per month, put seventy men and a Parrott rifled gun into her, and ordered her temporary commanding officer, Lieutenant Frederick Pearson, to operate under Admiral Kuper’s direction, towing boats inshore, evacuating wounded men, and otherwise rendering such service as he could without exposing the Ta-Kiang unduly.
The fleet which sailed from Yokohama late in August consisted of eight British warships, of which a screw-propelled ship of the line and two screw-frigates were the largest, three French vessels, including the screw-frigate Sémiramis, four Dutch screw-corvettes, and the Ta-Kiang, flying the U.S. ensign. A battalion of Royal Marines and a detachment of sappers were embarked in the larger British vessels. Another of Admiral Kuper’s screw-sloops was escorting colliers laden with coal for the fleet from Shanghai to the Inland Sea, while a gun vessel would join from Nagasaki, bringing an interpreter and a pilot.
This array of eighteen vessels was thought to be large enough to open the strait with ease, thus proving to the emperor, the shogun, the daimyo, and other Japanese the folly of any attempt to cut off trade or to eject all foreigners. The ministers, according to Britain’s Sir Rutherford Alcock, believed that a decisive blow against Choshu, reputedly the strongest of the daimyo, would encourage his more moderate fellows to adhere to a peaceful course. Indeed, they hoped that it might result in a settlement of the rivalry between the shogun and his opponents. Lest the shogun be tempted to move against the foreign settlement at Yokohama, the Jamestown and five small British men-of-war remained at anchor in Edo Bay, while a number of troops were stationed ashore.
Approaching their objective on 4 September, the ships of the combined fleet were formed into three columns according to nationality, with the Ta-Kiang steaming humbly at the rear of the French line. That afternoon they anchored within sight of the Choshu batteries, which Admirals Kuper and Jaurés reconnoitered in person and then agreed that the attack should be launched on the first favorable tide.
HMS Euryalus made the signal for the engagement to begin on the afternoon of 5 September. The vessels weighed anchor and formed into advanced and light squadrons, the first of which steamed into a bay within easy range of the batteries while the lighter ships took up positions from which they could direct a flanking fire against the same works. The two flagships and the cumbersome ship of the line lay farther out. There was no sign of Japanese activity as the warships maneuvered into position, but when the Euryalus’s bow guns fired the first rounds, eight batteries responded smartly. The action then became general, with even the Ta-Kiang’s Parrott rifle contributing eighteen rounds to the bombardment. Some three hours later the batteries had been silenced, but the admirals agreed that it was too late in the day to put a landing force ashore.
The Japanese opened the engagement on the morrow, scoring several hits on two vessels of the advanced squadron before fire from the fleet silenced the batteries once more. Soon thereafter, eight of the smaller ships, of which the Ta-Kiang was one, towed boats carrying about 1,000 men from the British, French, and Dutch warships toward the beach. The landings were made without accident, but HMS Perseus, providing covering fire, was swept ashore by a strong eddy. The landing force encountered little opposition as it overran the batteries in succession, after which their guns were dismounted and spiked and their magazines blown up. This work of destruction completed, Admiral Kuper ordered the force to reembark. The French and Dutch contingents were already in their boats when a group of Japanese soldiers burst out of a valley to the rear of a battery to attack a party of British seamen who had not yet been marched to the beach. The marine battalion quickly arrived on the scene to help repulse the attackers, who were pursued to a stockade which they defended for a time before being dislodged and dispersed. Thereafter, the stockade was burned and the British force reembarked.
The next day, 7 September, was devoted to the embarkation of the captured guns, the senior officers having agreed that their removal would be the best guarantee of Choshu’s good behavior, and to measures to refloat the stranded Perseus. By midnight, she had been lightened sufficiently to be towed off by a consort at high water. On the eighth, Admirals Kuper and Jaurés boarded the gun vessel Coquette, which led four screw-sloops in to attack the two batteries which had not been destroyed. No return fire was noted, so a landing party removed the guns and leveled the works.
The combined fleet’s operation was completed by sundown, 10 September. Sixty-two pieces of ordnance had been embarked, ten batteries and their equipment destroyed, and Vice Admiral Sir Augustus Kuper wrote his superiors: “. . . I have satisfied myself, by personal examination of the entire Straits, that no batteries remain in existence in the territory of Prince Choshiu, and thus the passage of the Straits may be considered clear of all obstructions.”
It had been a smartly conducted operation. The leadership of Admirals Kuper and Jaurés seems to have been judicious and decisive, while the officers and men under their joint command worked together with little evidence of friction or misunderstanding. Nor was the American contribution entirely negligible—the Ta-Kiang enjoyed the distinction of being “mentioned in dispatches” for her services as gunboat, towboat, and hospital ship—the twenty-three wounded men, with a surgeon and attendants to care for them, were embarked in her for transportation to Yokohama.
Lieutenant Pearson and his men who served in the Ta-Kiang must have been envied by their fellows, for they were the only members of the Jamestown’s company to experience the excitement of active service while in Japanese waters. After they returned to the sloop of war, her vigil off Yokohama continued its uneventful pattern through the remainder of 1864 and into 1865.
As the Jamestown rode at anchor in Edo Bay, other U.S. warships were en route to the Far East. Three screw-sloops, the Iroquois, Wachusett, and Wyoming, had orders to seek the Confederate raider Shenandoah in East Indian waters during the spring of 1865. Only the Iroquois actually arrived before the war’s end; she spent two months cruising in the vicinity of Sunda Strait before returning home. The Wachusett was so unfortunate as to lose a topmast and then to run aground in West Indian waters, while the Wyoming did not steam into the Indian Ocean until August, by which time the elusive raider, disguised as the British merchantman she had been originally, was well on her way toward Cape Horn from her Bering Sea hunting ground.
The Jamestown’s sojourn in Japan came to an end when Minister Pruyn was finally able to dispense with her support early in April. Captain Price took his command to Macao, where he found orders to sail across the Pacific to Mare Island. The sloop of war stood out of Macao Roads on 17 June 1865, and her departure marked the disappearance of the sailing warship from the East India Station. To be sure, sailing storeships would continue to serve the U.S. Navy in the Far East for almost a decade longer, but they assumed warship duties only in cases of pressing emergency. Thus, as the Jamestown’s seamen loosed her sails and hove up the anchor, as Captain Cicero Price directed his navigator to set a course across the South China Sea to the Bashi Channel, an era was coming to an end. Undoubtedly it would have ended earlier but for the American Civil War; the commanding officer of the Vandalia, on her never-completed passage to the East India Station early in 1861, had reported from the Cape Verde Islands a conversation with foreign naval officers which indicated that his sailing man-of-war would be the only one in the Far East.