The middle 19th century found the United States embarking on early martial and mercantile involvement in China. In March 1853, USS Susquehanna made its way from the Port of Shanghai in the East China Sea, up the Yangtze nearly 300 miles to the city of Wuhu.
Susquehanna’s penetration into the heart of China, the first by a U.S. man-of-war, occurred without the benefit of any treaty allowing it to do so. British ships, however, navigated the Yangtze as a result of the Treaty of Nanking. This agreement was reached at the conclusion of the First Opium War, which began in 1839 when the Chinese government seized British-owned opium warehouses in Canton. The British responded with an expeditionary force of Royal Navy warships and Marines, whence a quick victory ensued. The subsequent treaties had China paying a large indemnity, opening several ports to foreign ships and, perhaps the most important of all concessions, ceding Hong Kong to Britain.
Among other Western nations, U.S. and British involvement on the Yangtze and in China in general continued to expand during the remainder of the 19th century. This involvement was not, however, without its violent episodes. U.S. Naval presence on the Yangtze and its tributaries, what would eventually become known as The Yangtze Patrol, continued to increase under the auspices of increasing trade and ensuring the safety of U.S. citizens, businessmen and missionaries. The inevitable clashes occurred and increased in both intensity and frequency as the Chinese became less and less tolerant of the exploitation of their masses and the seeming impunity with which foreigners conducted themselves in their land.
In October 1856, Chinese soldiers boarded the British ship Arrow at its berth in Canton. The crew were arrested and charged with smuggling. Eager to revise and expand the terms of the First Opium War treaty, the crown now had, in this event, its casus belli and thus began the Second Opium, or Arrow, War. Prior to this, British emissaries had been denied permission to enter the Chinese capitol in order to renegotiate the terms of this already lopsided treaty. Allied British and French forces won yet another quick victory in 1857. With this success, the British forced the hand of the Chinese into signing the Treaty if Tientsin. This opened yet more Yangtze River cities to foreign ships, or yang kweidzah (ocean devils), as they were referred to by the Chinese, as well as making provisions for foreign diplomats to reside in Peking.
In 1860, hostilities between the combined British, French and Chinese forces resumed once again, when Peking refused to ratify the terms of this latest treaty. British Adm. Sir James Hope, in an attempt to force his way up the Peiho River (a tributary of the Yangtze), came under withering fire from a Chinese riverside stronghold known as the Taku Forts. These earthen works emplacements, taken once but held only briefly earlier in the campaign by British Adm. Sir Michael Seymour, dominated the river with interlocking fire. Six of Hope’s eleven gunboats were lost or disabled in the battle, three as they attempted to negotiate obstructions in the channel, while over 400 of his men either drowned in the river or were cut down by Chinese fire as they vainly sought cover in the riverbank quagmire.
Although officially neutral during these hostilities, the bantam-weight U.S. Naval forces on the Yangtze took a keen interest in the outcome of this and other battles between Eastern and Western forces. A U.S. Naval officer witnessing the Taku Forts Battle, Capt. Josiah Tattnall, was no stranger to sea battles and combat. Born in Savannah, Ga., on November 9, 1795, he was appointed a Midshipman in the Navy in 1812, saw action in the War of 1812, as well as during the subsequent Barbary Campaigns, fought pirates in the West Indies, and was wounded during the Mexican War.
Tattnall, observing the Peiho River Battle while in command of Toeywan, found it impossible to ignore the plight of Hope’s forces, who were suffering terribly at the hand of the Chinese. Although accounts conflict — some have Tattnall towing British gunboats out of harm’s way, while others have him towing troop-laden barges into action — the U.S. Navy, on that day, came to the aid of the British, in clear violation of U.S. neutrality.
Tattnall went on to further adventures as an officer in the Confederate States Navy, commanding naval defenses of Georgia, South Carolina and Virginia, as well as captaining the now-famous ironclad CSS Virginia (ex-Merrimac). On the day following the Taku Forts Battle, in a conversation with Hope, who was recovering from multiple wounds, Tattnall justified his actions, commenting that he could not help but come to the aid of Hope’s beleaguered troops. After all, he proclaimed, thus coining the phrase, “Blood is thicker than water.”
Steve C. D’Antonio