A Japanese Gun with American Civil War Connections

Among the varied set of trophies on display in Leutze Park in the Washington Navy Yard is an odd caliber Japanese seacoast gun.

Japanese 6.875-inch Seacoast Gun

The plaque in front of the trophy relates some of the story of this gun.  A landing party captured the Japanese gun during an action on September 5-6, 1864, while neutralizing batteries manned by anti-foreigner elements guarding the Shimonoseki Straits.  Historically speaking, the action was more important in Japanese history than American history.

The first time this particular gun probably fired upon the U.S. flag occurred in July 1863.  While the great campaigns in Pennsylvania and Mississippi came to a close, an American flagged steamer Pembroke came under fire from Japanese forces under the direction of the Prince of Nagato in the straits.  Upon hearing of this incident, commander of the sloop-of-war USS Wyoming, Commander David Stockton McDougal, proceeded to the scene.

USS Wyoming - Post War - From DANFS online

Launched in 1859, the Wyoming was named for the valley in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania (the state by that name did not exist at the time).  The Wyoming displaced around 1,450 tons and reached 11 knots on trials.  She offered a formidable armament for her size with two XI-inch Dahlgren pivot guns and four 32-pdr broadside guns.

The Wyoming entered the straits on the morning of July 16, and a signal gun on the shore soon alerted the Prince’s forces.  McDougal sited six shore batteries on the north shore of the straits, with a bark, a steamer, and a sloop, all flying the Prince’s colors, anchored under those batteries.  Upon approach of the Wyoming, the Japanese forces opened fire.  McDougal directed his ship through the Japanese vessels.  After giving and receiving plenty of fire, the Wyoming turned south, briefly ran aground, then proceeded to run back through the straits.  In all, the action lasted roughly an hour.  McDougal reported disabling or sinking all three Japanese vessels, and causing damage to the shore batteries and on the town beyond due to overshots.  On the other hand, Japanese gunners had hulled the Wyoming 11 times, killed five and wounded six U.S. sailors.  The Wyoming expended 23 XI-inch and 32 32-pdr rounds in the engagement.  (A far more detailed account of the engagement appears on the Navy and Marine Corps Living History Association site.)

CDR McDougal's Map of the Action - Colors added for clarity

In the days following this action, French and Dutch warships further punished the forces at the straits.  The incident received some coverage in the U.S. newspapers, but no doubt distance and other pressing events that summer overshadowed the situation in Japan.  Summarizing the activity, McDougal stated, “…the punishment inflicted and in store for [the Prince of Nagato] will, I trust, teach him a lesson that will not be soon forgotten.” (From the report of Cdr McDougal, p. 393-4)

Future events proved McDougal’s assessment invalid.  Within a few months, the anti-foreign forces increased activity and by the first months of 1864 the Straits of Shimonoseki were closed.  Diplomatic efforts at first averted outright war, but eventually talks fell through.  In late August a force consisting of French, British, and Dutch warships, conveying 2,000 men, sailed for the straits.  Commander of the local U.S. naval forces, Captain Cicero Price, chartered the steamer Ta-Kiang and placed it under the command of Lieutenant Frederick Pearson.  Price transferred eighteen men and a 30-pdr Parrott Rifle to the chartered vessel.  As the token American contribution to the expedition, Pearson had orders to “…show the American flag….render any and every other aid in your power to promote the common object, such as towing boats, landing men, and receiving the wounded on board….”  (From the Report of Captain Price, p. 202)

The allied fleet arrived off Shimonoseki on September 5, 1864.  The next day, the Ta-Kiang landed allied troops and provided fire support.  All told, the Ta-Kiang fired eighteen rounds from the Parrott.  After the fighting ended, Pearson took on allied casualties for transport to shore hospitals. (From the Report of Lt. Pearson)

British Forces inside the Shimonoseki Batteries

A ceasefire accord struck shortly thereafter required the disarmament of the straits, and imposed a heavy indemnity upon the Japanese.  The indemnity later served as leverage against the Japanese government to open up trade with foreign powers.  The battle of Shimonoseki occurred against a backdrop of internal conflict in Japan.  Unfortunately I would only show my ignorance of Japanese history by attempting to place the battle in context of such.  My understanding extends little beyond an essay on the Meiji Restoration period.

Of course, the allies carted off many of the captured weapons as trophies.  Aside from the one on display at the Washington Navy Yard, a gun similar to those seen in the Felice Beato photo above sits outside Les Invalides, in Paris France.  The U.S. Navy trophy features an odd caliber – 6.875-inches.  This places the weight of shot between the 32- and 42-pdr calibers, and is listed by Navy sources as a 36-pdr.  The weapon also features very prominent sight bases on the breech and over the trunnions.  An open breeching loop suggests the weapon used some form of tackle to arrest recoil, perhaps indicating intended use on board ships.

This lone Japanese muzzle loading gun reminds us today about a set of obscure events in American history, occurring at a time of Civil War in both our country and that of Japan.  Certainly neither the actions of July 16, 1863 or September 6, 1864 are proximate causes of Pearl Harbor.  But such actions were among a series of events which contributed to the direction of contention between the two nations.

Once again, if only the guns could speak.

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Sources Consulted:

Report of Commander McDougal, U.S. Navy, Commanding U.S.S. Wyoming, of the engagement between that vessel and the Japanese forces off Shimonoseki, July 23, 1863, Navy Official Records, Series I, Volume 2, pp. 393-9.   Attachments to the report include the surgeon’s report of casualties, details of the damage to the Wyoming, an extract from the ship’s log, and supplemental reports.

Report of Captain Price, U.S. Navy, Commanding U.S. ship Jamestown, regarding Japanese affairs, transmitting copy of orders given to Lieutenant Pearson, September, 8 1864, Navy Official Records, Series I, Volume 3, pp. 201-2.  [Cited as report of Capt. Price above]

Report of Captain Price, U.S. Navy, Commanding U.S. ship Jamestown, transmitting report of Lieutenant Pearson, U.S. Navy, commanding chartered steamer Ta-Kiang, regarding the action at Shimonoseki, Japan, September, 23 1864, Navy Official Records, Series I, Volume 3, pp. 202-4.  [Cited as report of Lt. Pearson above]

Canney, Donald L.  The Old Steam Navy, Volume One:  Frigates, Sloops, and Gunboats, 1815-1885.  Annapolis:  Naval Institute Press, 1990.  pp. 70-74.

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2 responses to “A Japanese Gun with American Civil War Connections

  1. The 36 pounder designation may possibly be a French or other continental European measure. 36 pounds was a common French gun and howitzer size, and that is 38 lbs 14 oz English in theory, but often nearer to 40 pounds English/American in practice. Round shot for a French 36 pounder long guns in naval service are quoted in one source as being “6.648 English inches and decimal parts”. The US Navy would have been well familiar with French gun calibers, thus perhaps explaining the designation.

    • Matt, the thought had occurred to me when writing the article. But without a proper thread, I was reluctant to identify such (and already long winded in the post). The Navy simply identifies it with the bore diameter, with no pdr designation. The use of the caliber might imply a French influence in Japan (the guns have similarities to early 19th century French pieces). Or just that two gunmakers in different situations arrived at a similar convention.