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The General Sherman Incident, or the Battle of Keupsa Gate, was the destruction of an armed United Statesmarker merchant marine schooner that visited Koreamarker in 1866. It was an important catalyst to the end of Korean isolationism in the 19th century.


In the mid-19th century, European nations and the United Statesmarker were eager to open up new trade in Asia, and began establishing colonies in Chinamarker and southeast Asia. Japanmarker was also opened up to trade after Commodore Matthew Perry sailed into Uraga Harbor near Edo (modern Tokyomarker) on July 8, 1853, and under the threat of force Japan signed the Convention of Kanagawa in 1854. As early as 1832 discussions of opening up Korea were made by the captain of the USS Peacock, Edmund Roberts, yet in 1844 a draft by the United States Congress was shelved due to lack of interest.

The first contact between the U.S. and Korea was not in any way hostile, and in 1853 the USS South America, an American gunboat, visited Busanmarker for 10 days and had amiable contact with local Korean officials there. Several Americans who were shipwrecked on Korea in 1855 and 1865 were treated well and sent to China for repatriation. However, the Joseon Dynastymarker court which ruled Korea was well aware of the colonization of China and the Opium Wars and maintained a strict policy of isolationism.

Battle of Keupsa Gate

Determined to open up Korea to trade, the British trading firm Meadows and Co., based in Tientsin (present day Tianjinmarker), China, sent the General Sherman (named for William Tecumseh Sherman) into Korean waters in an attempt to meet with Korean officials to begin negotiations for a trade treaty. The 187-ton side-wheel schooner allegedly carried a cargo of cotton, tin, and glass and was heavily armed. The crew consisted of Captain Page, Chief Mate Wilson, and 13 Chinese and 3 Malay sailors. Also on board was the ship's owner, W.B. Preston, a British trader, and Robert Jermain Thomas, a Protestant missionary acting as an interpreter. They departed Chefoo (present day Yantai), China on August 6, August 16, or August 18 1866, and entered the Taedong River on Korea's west coast sailing towards Pyongyangmarker. The depth of the Taedong River changed frequently due to rains and the tides, but the ship was able to navigate it and stopped at the Keupsa Gate, lying at the border between Pyongan and Hwanghae provinces.

Local officials then met the crew and were able to communicate well enough to learn the ship was purportedly interested in trade. The Koreans refused all trade offers but agreed to provide the crew with some food and provisions. The ship was told to wait while higher level government officials could be consulted. However, the ship then departed again and went further up river, until it became stranded near Yangjak island near Pyongyang. Park Gyu-su (The governor of Pyongyang) then sent his deputy, Yi Hyun-ik, with food and told the ship that it was supposed to stay at the Keupsa Gate and again to wait while the Korean ruler was consulted. At that time Korea was ruled by a Regent, the Heungseon Daewongun, in the name of his minor son King Gojong. The Daewongun sent orders that the ship was to leave immediately or all the crew would be killed.

There are several discrepancies as to what happened next, but one eyewitness noted that as troops were sent towards the ship, hostile actions followed. The crew abducted Yi who was attempting to pursue a small boat launched from the General Sherman containing six men attempting to reach shore. After Yi was not released, the Koreans opened fire but were unable to cause any damage. The ship then fired its cannons onto the spectators, hitting several and forcing the troops to retreat where they were ineffectual.Fighting continued for the next four days, with a Korean turtle ships dispatched, but causing no damage. The Koreans then tied several boats together filled with wood, sulphur, and saltpeter. The first two boats failed to inflict any damage, but the third boat set the General Sherman afire. And then, Park Gyu-su poured soy oil into the river and fired.Unable to stem the flames, the crew jumped into the water where they were all hacked to death.

The incident was one reason why the U.S. returned in 1871 in what is called the 1871 U.S. Korea Campaign, or Sinmiyangyo, resulting in the deaths of about 300 Koreans. Five years later Korea was forced to sign a trade treaty with Japanmarker, and in 1882 signed a treaty with America, ending several centuries of isolationism.

Disputed account

Although the purported reason for the journey was to conduct trade with Korea, the Koreans contend that the actual intention was to find treasure buried in the royal tombs near Pyongyangmarker. Further, the Americans' trade claim can be called into question as the General Sherman may not have even carried the necessary cargo for trade; the Meadows Company never specified a quantity of cargo in the manifest documents sent to the authorities after the destruction of its schooner. However, the fact that the vessel ran aground in the river suggests that it was laden with cargo of some sort.

Koreans also felt the use of an armed metal-skinned gunboat suspicious considering the stated desire for peaceful trade. For centuries, the only Korean water-borne vessels clad in metal were ones that served military purposes, so the General Sherman would have looked like a warship to the Koreans.

From the late 1960s, official historians in North Koreamarker began to insist that the attack on the General Sherman was planned and led by a direct ancestor of the then North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung. Those claims which had virtually no confirmation in historical records, were an integral part of campaign to promote the special role allegedly played by Kim Il Sung's family in Korean history, and thus facilitate the transfer of dictatorial power to Kim Jong Il, Kim Il Sung's eldest son. These statements are still repeated in North Korean publications, including textbooks. North Korea issued a postage stamp commemorating the sinking in 2009.

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