General Sherman incident
|General Sherman incident|
|Part of the events leading to the United States expedition to Korea|
|Commanders and leaders|
|Captain Page||Governor Park Gyu-su|
unknown land forces
1 turtle ship
|Casualties and losses|
1 schooner sunk
1 turtle ship damaged
The General Sherman incident was the destruction of an armed merchant marine side-wheel steamer that visited Korea in 1866. It was an important catalyst to the end of Korean isolationism in the 19th century. After passing the Keupsa Gate without permission from the Koreans, the United States merchant ship was attacked and fought over for several days before finally being destroyed.
In the mid-19th century, the Great Powers were eager to open up new trade in Asia and began consolidating trade in China and southeast Asia. Japan was also opened up to trade after Commodore Matthew Perry sailed into Uraga Harbor near Edo (modern Tokyo) on 8 July 1853, and under the threat of force Japan signed the Convention of Kanagawa in 1854. As early as 1832, discussions of opening up Korea to trade were made by the captain of Peacock, Edmund Roberts, yet in 1844 a draft by the United States Congress was shelved due to lack of interest.
The first contact between the US and Korea was not hostile in any way. In 1853 the gunboat South America visited Busan for 10 days while en route to Japan; her officers dined with local officials. Several Americans who were shipwrecked in Korea in 1855, 1865 and 1866 were treated well and sent to China for repatriation. However, the Joseon Dynasty court which ruled Korea was well aware of the displacement of the traditional ruling classes of China as a result of the First and the Second Opium War and maintained a strict policy of isolationism, forbidding any of those he ruled to trade with the outside world to avoid a similar fate for himself.
Determined to open Korea for trades, the General Sherman (named for William Tecumseh Sherman) came into Korean waters with goods they had purchased from British trading firm Meadows and Co., based in Tientsin (present day Tianjin), China. Upon arriving, the crew of General Sherman attempted to meet with Korean officials to begin negotiations for a trade treaty. The 187-ton side-wheel steamer reportedly carried a cargo of cotton, tin, and glass, and was heavily armed. The crew consisted of Captain Page, Chief Mate Wilson, 13 Chinese and three Malay sailors. Also on board was the ship's owner, W. B. Preston, an American trader, and Robert Jermain Thomas, a Protestant missionary acting as a navigator and interpreter. They departed Chefoo (present day Yantai), China on 9 August and arrived on the coast of Korea on 16 August. The General Sherman, assisted by Chinese junk boats, entered the Taedong River on Korea's west coast sailing towards Pyongyang and stopped at the Keupsa Gate, on the border between Pyongan and Hwanghae provinces. Yu Wautai, captain of one of the Chinese junks, had accompanied Rev. Thomas on his previous trip to Korea's Hwanghae province. According to Thomas, Yu had 20 years experience trading with Koreans.
Local officials met Captain Page and communicated well enough to learn the ship was interested in trade. The Koreans refused all trade offers but agreed to provide the crew with food and provisions. Page was told to wait while higher level government officials were consulted. However, General Sherman went further upriver and anchored west of Pyongyang. Due to the previous month's rains and the tides, the depth of the Taedong River was unusually high and this allowed the steamer into Pyongyang.
Park Gyu-su (the governor of Pyongyang) sent his Adjutant-General, Yi Hyon-Ik, to provide the crew with food, but he told the captain he should have stayed at the Keupsa Gate. He was again ordered to wait while the Korean ruler was consulted. At the time Korea was ruled by a Regent, the Heungseon Daewongun, in the name of his minor son King Gojong. Father Ridel, a French priest, who guided the French Invasion party into Korea in September 10, 1866 right after the General Sherman Incident, reported to the Westerners in China that Daewongun, the Regent, himself had sent orders that the ship must leave immediately or all aboard would be killed. (the North-China Herald & Supreme Court & Consular Gazzette, Mar. 20, 1873) But, father Ridel had other motive to discredit the Korean government and Daewongun: revenge for other French priests. There is no proof that Daewongun had sent such orders.
There is dispute over what happened next. Apparently, the ship's crew seized Adjutant-General Yi and his two deputies, who were attempting to pursue a small boat launched from General Sherman with six men attempting to reach shore. According to Governor Park's report, another government official, Shin Tae-jung, tried to persuade the crew to release Yi Hyon-ik and his men but failed. Instead, the General Sherman moved upstream, firing cannons and eventually anchored at Hwang-gang-jung (House of Yellow River). Governor Park later reported that the ship had fired her guns into the crowd, killing seven and wounding five. Then, five men launched a boat and navigating north of Pyongyang to determine the river's depth. The citizens of Pyongyang gathered on the riverbank, shouting for the release of Yi Hyon-ik. A man in the boat (probably Robert J. Thomas, the only one who spoke Korean) replied they would give the answer if they were allowed inside Pyongyang city. The crowd started throwing stones at the small boat. Korean soldiers shot arrows and guns at the launch, which retreated back to the ship. The Koreans sent a rescue party and managed to free Yi, but his deputies (Yoo Soon-won and Park Chi-young) were killed. The ship eventually turned back and sailed down until she ran aground into Yang-Gak island, an island across from Pyongyang.
Fighting continued for the four days, after which the Koreans resorted to fire boats, filled with wood, sulphur and saltpeter. The first two failed to inflict any damage, but the third set General Sherman afire. Unable to stem the flames, the crew jumped into the water. 
According to the Korean Official historical record, "Kojong-silrok" (Vol.3), there were two survivors from the initial attack, Robert Thomas and Cho Neung-bong. However, they too were beaten to death.
Concern over this incident was one reason why the U.S. Navy conducted the 1871 Korea Campaign, which resulted in the death of about 300 Korean soldiers and three Americans. Five years later Korea was forced to sign a trade treaty with Japan in a separate incident, and in 1882 finally signed a treaty with the United States promising to abide by international norms regarding the treatment of prisoners. These treaties ended several centuries of isolationism.
Koreans claimed that the real purpose of General Sherman was to seek treasures buried in the royal tombs near Pyongyang. The only supporting factor of this claim is that Robert Jermain Thomas, the ship's interpreter, asked a Korean undercover officer about whereabouts of a white pagoda, which is usually associated with worship. However, in China, it was believed that the royal coffins in the tombs of Pyongyang, where more than one dynasty of Korea lay buried, were of solid gold, and after the departure of General Sherman to Korea, it was rumored among Westerners in China that General Sherman's expedition had something to do with these treasures.
The Koreans believed the use of an armed metal-hull gunboat was suspicious in a mission simply for trade. Even among Westerners residing in China, there were concerns regarding General Sherman being heavily armed. It was well known that two months prior to the General Sherman Incident, an armed vessel captained by Ernst Oppert, a German, had visited Korea and made the same demand for trade. Trade had been refused, but Oppert and his crewmen had been well treated and returned to China safely. Oppert returned to Korea in the Emperor, which steamed up the Han River near Seoul on the same day that General Sherman left Chefoo. Oppert's request for trade was denied and he returned to China without incident. Surprise, an American ship, had been shipwrecked in Chulsan, in Pyong-an Province, on 24 June 1866. The crew was not harmed and was sent to China by Governor Park Gyu-su, the same official in charge during the General Sherman incident.
Beginning in the late 1960s, North Korea's government "historians" began to claim the attack on General Sherman was planned and led by a direct ancestor of North Korean dictator Kim Il-sung. The claim, which had no confirmation in historical records, was part of a campaign to promote the special role allegedly played by Kim Il-sung's family in Korean history, and facilitate the transfer of dictatorial power to Kim Jong-il, Kim Il-sung's eldest son. The claims are still repeated in North Korean publications, including textbooks. In 2006, North Korea issued a postage stamp commemorating the sinking of the merchant vessel.
USS Pueblo (AGER-2), a U.S. Navy intelligence ship captured by North Korea in 1968 and the only U.S. warship still being held in captivity, was formally moored at what is believed to be the spot where the incident took place, however it was relocated to the Fatherland Liberation War Museum.
- History of Korea
- Joseon Dynasty
- United States expedition to Korea (1871)
- List of Korea-related topics
- Robert Jermain Thomas
- http://web.archive.org/web/20070930020433/www.kimsoft.com/2000/sherman.htm Sinking of the General Sherman
- U.S. Diplomatic Correspondence, 1870
- "Kojong-silrok" (Vol.3)
- Rev. Thomas's letter dated 12 January 1866 published in Missionary Magazine July 1866
- the Memoir of Park Gyu-Su.
- Corea, the Hermit Nation by William Elliot Griffis
- Ein verschlossenes Land. – Brockhaus, Leipzig 1880
- the Study of Park Gyu-su by Kim Myong-ho 2008
- New Stamps Issued
- USS General Sherman Incident
- Richard F. Grimmett, Instances of Use of United States Armed Forces Abroad 1798 – 2004, Congressional Research Service report RL30172 Naval Historical Center, 2004.
- James A. Field, Jr., History of United States Naval Operations: Korea DEPARTMENT OF THE NAVY—NAVAL HISTORICAL CENTER.
- Curtis A. Utz, Assault from the Sea --The Amphibious Landing at Inchon The U.S. Navy in the Modern World Series No. 2.
- The Hermit Kingdom and the General Sherman Incident
- USS General Sherman Incident
- Sinking of the General Sherman a US Marine Merchant ship
- The General Sherman Incident of 1866 and Rev. Thomas' Martyrdom
- Some Comments on "The General Sherman Incident of 1866 and Rev. Thomas' Martyrdom."
- USS General Sherman (1864–1865, "Tinclad" # 60)