The 1950–53 Korean War wasn’t the first time Americans fought in Korea—in fact, American soldiers first fought there 80 years earlier, during the 1871 Korean Expedition.
Up until the late 19th century, Korea was completely closed off to foreign trade, giving it the nickname the “Hermit Kingdom.” But starting in the mid-19th century, America began trying to open the country to trade—with no success. One of these attempts, in June 1871, was led by U.S. ambassador to China Frederick Low, who was tasked with opening trade with Korea, establishing a treaty protecting shipwrecked American sailors, and investigating the fate of the General Sherman (an American ship whose crew had all been killed in Korea five years earlier). Traveling with Low’s delegation to provide protection was Rear Admiral John Rogers and his 759 men and 5 warships.
Low’s delegation refused to inform local Korean officials of the reason for the trip, instead just telling the officials that their party was “non-aggressive” and that they would be surveying the surrounding waters. However, when they tried to sail up the Ganghwa Straits, which led to the Han River and thus the capital city, a fort on the shore began firing at the ships. No real damage was done, but Rogers and Low demanded an apology from the Koreans within 10 days. When no apology was given, Rogers decided to attack.
650 of Rogers’ men went ashore to fight on 10 June. The Koreans had inferior weapons, so the Americans were able to quickly take over five forts. At the end of the fighting, around 240 Koreans had been killed, compared to 3 Americans. The Americans took 20 prisoners of war, hoping to use them to force the Koreans to negotiate, but their plan failed since the Koreans deemed the POWs cowards and told Low he could keep them.
The American ships remained anchored off the coast until 3 July, after which they sailed to China without achieving the objectives of the expedition. Korea remained closed to foreign trade for another five years, until Japan forced their hand; soon after, Korea began trading with other nations as well.
For more information on the Korean Expedition, read “Marine Amphibious Landing in Korea, 1871,” by Carolyn Tyson.