The Civil War Connections Blog

Big Trouble in Little Japan

Howdy folks, and welcome back to the good ol’ blog! Today’s tidbit about me is: I just went to a Norfolk Tides game yesterday evening, and not only did I catch a fly ball and give it to a little leaguer sitting in front of me, I got an autograph from Team USA Olympic Sprinter Francena McCorory. McCorory won a Gold Medal in the 4×400 meter relay at the 2011 World Championships in Athletics, and also holds the NCAA and American records for the indoor 400 meter. Now she’ll be running in the 2012 London Olympics!


With all the heat, I think we could use some English weather right about now…


Well, 150 years ago today there wasn’t a whole lot happening in the wide, wide world of American maritime and/or military endeavors. However, 149 years ago yesterday, Japan attacked American, French, British, and Dutch ships in the straits of Shimonoseki!


There. Right there.


Well, ok – it wasn’t technically JAPAN that attacked these ships, but one of Japan’s rebellious feudal clans. In 1863, Japan was still lead by the same Shogunate government that had emerged at the end of the Japanese Warring States period in 1603. This time period is also known as the Edo Period. Japan was still a relatively feudal society, and a big part of southern Japan was owned by clans that didn’t like the shogun or ethnic non-Japanese people. The Choshu clan ruled the land on the northern side of the Shimonoseki straits, and they hated the shogun and foreigners with a passion. In fact, their hatred was so intense that they built a string of forts on their side of the straight. Then, in June of 1863, they decided to ignore the commands of the peaceful Shogunate government and just start shooting at all the foreign ships that tried to sail through. One such ship was the USS Wyoming, captained by Commander David McDougal.

Commander McDougal hopes the Choshu like getting coal for Christmas.


The Choshu used their fort’s cannons and three western-built steamships they’d bought to attack every foreign ship that tried to cross the straight. This straight was the only way to cross into the Sea of Japan without having to go all the way out around the southern tip of the Japanese island chains, so closing the straits to non-Japanese ships was a big deal for international trade. Also, attacking peaceful merchant ships during peacetime almost universally qualifies as an act of war. When the Choshu attacked the unarmed American merchant ship Pembroke while its crew was sleeping, the USS Wyoming was sent in to see what those jerks were playing at.


Commiting acts of war against countries that have much better technology and military forces than you do definitely comes a close second.


On July 16th at 10am Captain McDougal steamed his ship into the Shimonoseki straits and was fired upon by the Choshu forts. However, McDougal noticed that the forts were using large wooden distance-stakes as an aiming point for sending their cannon shots accurately into the straits. McDougal decided to just sail really, really close to the bank of the strait that the forts were on, and as a result the Choshu couldn’t aim at his ship! Their cannons couldn’t point low enough to hit him! The catch was that the USS Wyoming was now headed directly at the three Choshu warships anchored right beneath the forts.

This hand-drawn map shows the blue USS Wyoming sailing past the three red Choshu ships.


Well, the USS Wyoming wasn’t scared of a little fight! The Choshu might have been good at attacking defenseless merchant ships who thought they were at peace, but McDougal put them to a REAL test. The USS Wyoming engaged the three Choshu warships at point blank range, and promptly sank two of them. The third was heavily damaged and limped away. McDougal then turned his ship around and sailed back past all the forts, blasting them to smithereens with cannon fire. America lost 5 men dead, while the Choshu lost over a hundred. Satisfied that the Choshu had learned their lesson and wouldn’t be committing any more acts of war, the USS Wyoming set sail for the Pacific Ocean to hunt for the CSS Alabama.


“Not so cocky now, are ya, punks?!” – Approximate equivalent of the emotional atmosphere on the USS Wyoming at the end of the battle.


Sadly, Captain McDougal and the USS Wyoming didn’t get almost any recognition for defending the American flag in a foreign land. The magnitude of the US Civil War drowned out virtually all other bits of news. As for the Choshu, they didn’t learn anything. They raised their two sunken steamships, rebuilt their forts and started shelling foreign ships again. A year later, Great Britain lead a coalition into the straits to wipe out the Choshu presence once and for all. It worked marvelously. Tune in next time for coverage of more Civil War era topics, and get ready for the 2012 Summer Olympics in London!