Civil War In Japan – The Last Shogun Marches Toward The End Of An Era

Samurai of the Satsuma clan during the Boshin War, by pioneering military photographer Felice Beato

On the 27th of January, 1868, the army of the Shogunate was marching toward Kyoto. For more than a quarter of a century, the Tokugawa Shoguns had ruled Japan in peace, but now the country was once again in turmoil. Foreigners had come to Japan, Dutch, British and French, and modern European weaponry and training had for the first time become influential in the land of the rising sun. It was a turbulent time.

Japan’s politics had split the country. The young Emperor and the Shogunate were at odds, and the Emperor had caused the last Shogun to resign his post. However, the Shogun’s abdication was not enough to satisfy the clan leaders under whose influence the Emperor was acting.

Guns of the Boshin war. From top to bottom: a Snider, a Starr, a Gewehr.
Guns of the Boshin war. From top to bottom: a Snider, a Starr, a Gewehr.

They called a meeting and declared that the very title of ‘Shogun’ was to be abolished. Tokugawa Yoshinobu, the recently abdicated Shogun, was to be stripped of all lands and titles. Yoshinobu was understandably distraught at this, and moved in force toward Kyoto, ostensibly to deliver a letter of protest to the Emperor.

His army was made up of troops from four different allied clans, and their gear reflected the rapid changes Japan was undergoing at the time. There were soldiers of the old style, colourfully dressed, elaborately armoured Samurai with pikes and spears, bows and curved swords, but also there were units of line infantry armed with rifles in the western style. Yoshinobu was not expecting a battle, but as his army approached the seat of power, the city of Kyoto, they found their advance opposed by entrenched troops of the Satsuma clan.

Tokugawa Yoshinobu, the last Shogun of Japan
Tokugawa Yoshinobu, the last Shogun of Japan.

The Shogun’s forces were spread out, marching along two roads separated by a range of hills and woods. Both sections of his army had bridges to cross, and both bridges were held against them. The first encounter, at the bridge nearest the city, was rapidly concluded.

Two units of riflemen and one unit armed with spears and swords found themselves opposed by nine hundred Satsuma clansmen, armed with rifles and swords and supported by four cannons. The advancing soldiers halted, and envoys were sent forward to demand that the army be allowed to pass peacefully on to Kyoto. The Shogunate rifles were empty, as the troops were not expecting a battle, but the Satsuma men refused to let them pass.

Suddenly, a burst of rifle fire came from the flank of the troops defending the bridge. These were the first shots of a conflict which would rage on for just over a year, a power struggle between the forces loyal to the Emperor, and those loyal to the last Shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu. The conflict became known as the Boshin War, the War of the year of the Yang Earth Dragon.

Campaign map of the Boshin War (1868–69). Image Credit.
Campaign map of the Boshin War (1868–69). Image Credit.

The Shogunate forces could not return fire from their empty rifles, and now the cannon at the bridge began to thunder. A shell exploded near the horse of the commander in charge of one of the units of infantry. His horse threw him and bolted. The beast charged, wild-eyed, riderless and frothing at the mouth, through the ranks of the waiting soldiers.

Confusion spread and the Shogun’s forces began to panic, but the commander of the spearmen at the front ordered them to charge the bridge. They surged forward, but the cannon and rifles of the defenders tore through their ranks as they approached. One group gained the bridge and engaged the enemy in melee, but they were killed and the survivors were driven back by the well-equipped defence.

At the second bridge, a similar Imperial force was engaged in tense negotiations with the second section of the Shogunate vanguard. When the thunder of cannon was heard at a distance, the defenders opened fire, driving this second section of Shogun’s forces into retreat.

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