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The Battle of the Pearl River Forts or Battle of the Barrier Forts was an amphibious assault and short occupation conducted by the U.S. Navy against a series of forts along China'smarker Pearl Rivermarker at the beginning of the Second Opium War.


Sailing off the Chinese coast USS Portsmouth and USS Levant had received news of the beginning of the Second Opium War. The two sloops-of-war were tasked with protecting Americanmarker lives by landing a 150 man detachment of U.S. Marines and sailors in Cantonmarker.

After a peaceful landing the Americans occupied the ancient city. Commanded by both Commodore James Armstrong and Captain Henry H. Bell, USS San Jacinto arrived in Canton's harbor and learned of the occupation. San Jacinto then landed a shore party of her own.

On November 15, 1856, after a brief stay and no military contact, the force withdrew from the city. During the withdrawal, Commander Andrew H. Foote of the Portsmouth paddled out to his ship, as he paddled past the Pearl River Forts, the Chinese garrison fired on the small American boat a few times but the withdrawal continued.

The next day the U.S. seamen had constructed a plan to attack Canton's citadels in retaliation for the Chinese attack on Commander Foote.


Now a force of one steam frigate and two sloops, the squadron under James Armstrong managed their way up Pearl River and launched an amphibious assault on Canton's coastal forts. USS Portsmouth closed in on the nearest of the four citadels and fired the initial salvo on November 16.
USS Levant
Andrew Hull Foote
For two hours her bombardment continued until the Chinese batteries were silenced. After this first engagement, Chinese and American officials decided to try and settle the matter diplomatically. This failed and on November 20, Commodore Armstrong ordered his ships to fire again on two more of the Chinese forts.

This bombardment lasted until the Chinese batteries weakened a bit, and after Levant, commanded by William N. Smith, received a total of twenty-two cannon ball shots in her sails, rigging and hull. Then the landing force was activated, led by Andrew Foote, the force of 287 men quickly captured the first enemy fort, then used its fifty-three guns to attack and capture the second fort.

Once taking the second position, the Chinesemarker launched several counter attacks with some 3,000 Qing Armymarker soldiers from Canton. In a few more days of intense combat until November 24, the U.S. force, with help from the blockade, pushed back the attacking Chinese army. Killing and wounding dozens of the attackers, capturing two more of Pearl Rivers's forts and spiking 176 enemy guns in the process.
Qing Army soldiers

Chinese casualties were an estimated 500 killed or wounded, hundreds of Qing troops became victims in the long bombardments and assaults. The Americans sustained 10 killed and 32 wounded, USS Levant suffered 1 dead and 6 wounded in her exchange with the Pearl River Forts.


After James Armstrong's attack on the Chinese fortifications, diplomatic efforts began again and the American and Chinese governments signed an agreement for U.S. neutrality in the Second Opium War. This ended the United States' participation in the conflict, until 1859 when the USS San Jacinto, of the Pacific Squadron, bombardedmarker the Taku Fortsmarker during an ill fated attempt to seize the stronghold. In 1857, the Britishmarker and French would use Pearl River to attack Canton from water, resulting in the Battle of Canton. America's opening of Asia continued into the 1860s with conflict, such as the Battle of Shimonoseki Straits and a following bombardment, as well as an expedition to Korea in the 1870s.
The British and French at the Battle of Canton, 1857


  • Bartlett, Beatrice S. Monarchs and Ministers: The Grand Council in Mid-Ch'ing China, 1723–1820. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1991.
  • Ebrey, Patricia. Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993.
  • Elliott, Mark C. "The Limits of Tartary: Manchuria in Imperial and National Geographies." Journal of Asian Studies 59 (2000): 603-46.
  • Faure, David. Emperor and Ancestor: State and Lineage in South China. 2007.
  • "China," "Encyclopedia Britannica," 1944, v. 5, pp. 536-537; William L.
Langer, "An Encylopedia of World History" (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1948), p.879.
  • Foote to Armstrong, 4 Nov 1856, East India Squadron Letters, 1855-1856,
National Archives; Clyde H. Metcalf, "History of the U. S. Marine Corps" (NewYork: Putnam, 1939), pp. 172-173; H. A. Ellsworth, "One Hundred EightyLandings of U. S. Marines" (Washington: Historical Section, HQMC, 1934), pp.24-25; Charles O. Paullin, "Early Voyages of American Naval Vessels to theOrient," "U. S. Naval Institute Proceedings," v. 37, no. 2 (Jun 1911), pp.391-396.
  • Typed extracts, log of SAN JACINTO, 16 Nov 1856, Archives, HQMC.
  • Typed extracts, log of PORTSMOUTH, 16 Nov 1856, Archives, HQMC.
  • Foote to Armstrong, 26 Nov 1856, East India Squadron Letters.
  • "Ibid.;" Simms to CMC, 7 Dec 1856, Historical File, Marines, National
  • Typed extracts, log of the PORTSMOUTH; Foote to Armstrong, 5 Dec 1856,
East India Squadron Letters.12. Edwin N. McClellan, "The Capture of the Barrier Forts in the CantonRiver, China", "Marine Corps Gazette," v. 5, no. 3 (Sep 1920), p. 272; JamesM. Hoppin, "Life of Andrew Hull Foote" (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1874),p. 140n.

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