The First United States Military Involvement in Korea, 15 Men Were Awarded The Medal of Honor

Some people think the United States did not become involved with Korea on a military level until the Korean War in 1950. The Korean Expedition occurred in 1871.

It has been virtually forgotten, but it was the very first U.S. military action within the country.

One that set a tone for Korean and U.S. interactions for years to come.

The Start of the Korean Expedition

The military intervention primarily took place on Ganghwa, an island off the coast. Some American military and navy forces were accompanying a group of diplomats.

The diplomats were there in order to create trade with the country, as well as establish good will.

They also wanted to investigate what happened to the General Sherman (a merchant ship that had been attacked) and create some sort of treaty so the Koreans could help out with any shipwrecks that occurred.

However, while the diplomats were there, the Koreans attacked two of the American ships.

The admiral waited 10 days for a formal apology from the Koreans, but he never received one.

Modern-day Ganghwa, where the Korean Expedition took place.
Modern-day Ganghwa, where the Korean Expedition took place.

Much of the Korean Expedition has been blamed on the fact that Korea itself was very isolated during this period and had no interest in Western visitors.

There was no significant understanding between the two parties, which led to quite a few conflicts. Due to the Koreans’ unwillingness to meet halfway, and the Americans’ tendency to go all the way, much more violence occurred than was necessary.

The Expedition also resulted in even more animosity between Korea and the United States.

As indicated already, initial contact between the two parties was meant to be purely positive. Trade routes, treaties and a mere investigation into the incident with the General Sherman was all the Americans were after.

They met with the Koreans, told them what they were doing and made it clear they were not there on negative pretenses.

The General Sherman Incident

The General Sherman had arrived in Korea in 1866 to meet with Korean officials to initiate trade. Although the ship was armed, it was primarily a merchant ship and was carrying cotton, tin and glass.

There was no military presence onboard, and the crew was made up of Asian sailors, American traders and a missionary.

On arrival, the Koreans refused to trade, but they would give the crew provisions before sending them on their way. They were told to wait for further instructions.

However, the ship left and at their next stop they were again told to stay put and wait. Then the ship was ordered to leave immediately, or the entire crew would be killed.

What happened next is debated. It is thought a scuffle occurred when some of the men tried to go ashore instead of leaving. Shots were fired on both sides.

The ship eventually left but ran aground later and was then set on fire by the Koreans. The crew, while attempting to escape, were beaten to death.

The Koreans would not speak of the General Sherman incident, possibly trying to avoid any blame, but everything else seemed fine to the Americans.

However, the Koreans did not realize the Americans wanted to sail up the Han River, which leads to their capital city, today’s Seoul.

When the Americans did so, the Koreans opened fire. However, their inferior weapons did little damage.

The U.S. demanded an official apology, which they did not receive.


Military Action

The Expedition began on June 10, with 650 Americans from five warships, made up of 500 naval men and 100 marines.

They charged ashore capturing nearby forts on the island and attacked the Choji Garrison, located on the Salee River.

The Americans kept the Koreans out of range with their superior weaponry and then moved on to Deokjin Fort, which was abandoned. They promptly dismantled the fort completely.

However, their next target was Gwangseong Garrison, where Korean forces had regrouped. The Citadel faced fire not only from ground troops, but also offshore warships.

The U.S. soldiers bombarded the Citadel and then ground troops charged, quickly taking over. The Koreans, with a loss of proper firearms, ended up throwing rocks at their attackers.

A Korean junk taken during the Korean Expedition.
A Korean junk taken during the Korean Expedition.

In total, the U.S. troops killed more than 200 Koreans but only lost three American soldiers due to the Koreans very limited, outdated weaponry.

The total fighting only lasted about 15 minutes. The wounded included 10 Americans. Twenty Koreans were captured. Five forts were impacted in total.

The U.S. again tried to work with the Koreans to make diplomatic progress by attempting to use their Korean prisoners as bargaining tools.

However, the Korean leaders did not want the captured men. They believed any man who allowed himself to be captured was a coward, so they did not want such a man back.

The capture of a Korean fort during the Korean Expedition.
The capture of a Korean fort during the Korean Expedition.


With no hope of forward diplomatic movement with the Koreans, the Americans remained stationed off-shore until July 3, and then left Korea for China.

Naturally, the animosity between Korea and the U.S grew after this incident. The Koreans vehemently refused to work with the American diplomats.

There would be no negotiations on their part. They were even less welcoming to Western visitors and all foreigners, isolating the country from everything outside.

Even so, the Koreans did not attack any other foreign ships. The period of isolation did not last very long. A few years later Korea began to trade with nearby neighbor Japan followed by Europe and finally the United States.

As a result of the Korean Expedition, 15 U.S. servicemen received medals of honor. This was the first instance of U.S. awards for military action during foreign conflicts.

Holly Godbey

Holly Godbey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE