General Sherman incident
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The General Sherman incident (Korean: 제너럴셔먼호 사건) was the destruction of an armed U.S. Merchant Marine side-wheel steamer in 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 merchant ship was attacked and fought over for several days before finally being destroyed in Pyongyang.
In the mid-19th century, the Great powers of Europe were eager to open up new trade in Asia beyond their presence in China. As early as 1832, discussions of opening up Korea to trade were made by the captain of USS Peacock, Edmund Roberts, yet in 1844 a draft by Congress was shelved due to lack of interest.
Japan was opened up to trade when Commodore Matthew C. Perry sailed into Uraga Harbor near Edo on July 8, 1853, and (under the threat of force) Japan signed the Convention of Kanagawa in 1854.
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 Wars, and maintained a strict policy of isolationism forbidding any of those they ruled to trade with the outside world to avoid a similar fate.
Determined to open Korea for trade, General Sherman entered Korean waters with goods purchased from the British trading firm Meadows and Co., based in Tientsin, China. They departed Chefoo (present day Yantai), China, on August 9, 1866, and arrived on the coast of Korea on August 16, 1866.
Upon arriving, the crew of General Sherman attempted to meet with Korean officials to begin negotiations for a trade treaty. The steamer reportedly carried a cargo of cotton, tin, and glass, and was heavily armed. Only five of the crew and passengers were non-Asian: American trader W. B. Preston; Welsh navigator, interpreter, and missionary Robert Jermain Thomas; an Englishman named Hogarth; Captain Page; and Chief Mate Wilson. The rest of the crew consisted of thirteen Chinese and three Malay sailors. A Chinese shroff (money-changer) was also aboard.
General Sherman, assisted by Chinese junks, entered the Taedong River on Korea's west coast, sailing towards Pyongyang. The ship stopped at the Keupsa Gate on the border between Pyongan and Hwanghae provinces. Yu Wautai, the captain of one of the Chinese junks, had 20 years of experience trading with Koreans.
Local officials met Captain Page of General Sherman 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 at the gate while higher level government officials were consulted; however, General Sherman continued 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 allowing the steamer to reach Pyongyang.
Park Gyu-su (the governor of Pyongyang) sent his adjutant general, Yi Hyon-Ik, to provide the crew with food, but 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 Gojong.
Father Ridel, a French priest who later that year guided the French invasion party into Korea, told the westerners in China that the regent Daewongun had sent orders that General Sherman must leave immediately or all aboard would be killed.
The events that followed have been disputed.
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, General Sherman moved further upstream, firing its guns into the crowd, killing seven and wounding five before eventually anchoring at Hwang-gang-jung (House of Yellow River).[obsolete source]
Five men then launched a second boat and navigated 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 answer if they were allowed inside Pyongyang city.[obsolete source] The crowd responded by throwing stones at the small boat.[obsolete source] 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.[obsolete source] General Sherman eventually turned back and sailed downstream until she ran aground into Yang-Gak, an island across from Pyongyang.
The fighting continued for 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 ablaze. Unable to extinguish the flames, the crew jumped into the water.[obsolete source] According to the Korean Official historical record, Gojong sillok,[obsolete source] there were two survivors from the initial attack, Robert Thomas and Cho Neung-bong; however, they were beaten to death.[obsolete source]
In January 1867, USS Wachusett, led by Captain Robert W. Schufeldt, attempted to investigate the demise of General Sherman, but bad weather turned her back. In the spring of 1868, the USS Shenandoah, under the helm of Captain John C. Febiger, reached the Taedong River's mouth and received an official letter acknowledging the death of all crewmen of General Sherman.
Concern over this incident is often erroneously cited as a reason why the U.S. Navy conducted the 1871 Korea Campaign, which resulted in the death of about 300 Korean soldiers and three Americans, but official records at the time do not support this rationale.
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.
The Koreans had demonstrated on several occasions that while they did not want to engage in trade with westerners, they would not harm them. It was already 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 a similar demand for trade, had been refused by the Koreans, but had been treated well and returned to China safely.[obsolete source] Oppert returned to Korea in Emperor, which steamed up the Han River near Seoul, on the same day that General Sherman left Chefoo. Surprise, an American ship, had recently been shipwrecked in Chulsan, in Pyong-an Province, on June 24, 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.
Some Koreans have claimed that the real purpose of General Sherman's voyage was to seek treasures buried in the royal tombs near Pyongyang. Onboard the ship was a Chinese inspector of gold and silver, whose presence led to conjecture that General Sherman was planning to loot precious metals from a king's tomb near Pyongyang. In China, it was believed that the royal coffins in the tombs of Pyongyang, where more than one dynasty of Korea lay buried, were made of solid gold, and after the departure of General Sherman to Korea, some westerners in China speculated that General Sherman's expedition had something to do with these treasures. Robert Jermain Thomas, the ship's interpreter, had also asked a Korean undercover officer the whereabouts of a white pagoda, which is usually associated with worship. Additionally, the ship did not possess a manifest of the items listed for trade, leading some to point to an ulterior motive. Furthermore, the Koreans also 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 how heavily armed General Sherman was at the time.
Beginning in the late-1960s, North Korea's government historians began to claim the attack on General Sherman was planned and led by Kim Hyong-jik, the father of North Korean president Kim Il-sung. The claim has no confirmation in historical records but is still being repeated in North Korean publications, including textbooks. In 2006, North Korea issued a postage stamp commemorating the sinking of the merchant vessel.
The USS Pueblo was formerly moored at what is believed to be the spot where the incident took place. In late 2012, however, the ship was relocated to the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum.
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