The Battle of the Barrier Forts
Marine Corps Historical Reference Series, No. 6
Bernard C. Nalty
Canton (Kwang-tung), 1878]
[map of Canton
approaches, showing position of the barrier forts]
Hsiu-ch'uan had failed his examination for a post in the Chinese Imperial civil
service. Today, in a Western
nation, such a failure might easily be shrugged off, but for Hung it meant
disaster. Unable to work for the
Emperor, doomed to struggle through life as an impoverished Schoolmaster, he
suffered a nervous breakdown. During
this illness visions appeared to him.
Interpreted in the light of some Christian tracts that he had been
reading, these dreams convinced Hung that he was destined to end paganism in
China. From his zealous
preaching sprang the T'ai P'ing ("Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace")
rebellion, a bloody religious war which would claim millions of victims between
1848 and 1864.
rebellion were not enough, the Chinese Empire soon found itself at odds with
France and Britain. Opium was the
cause of the conflict, as the Chinese attempted to halt British traffic in the
drug. From the head of the house of
Manchu to the lowliest peasant, every Chinese scorned the Westerners and hated
their "inferior" customs. Naturally
there were numerous clashes between Chinese and foreigners.
Early in February 1856 a French missionary was condemned to death by a
Chinese court, clearly a case of legalized murder.
In October of the same year, the Chinese crew of a small British vessel
was arbitrarily arrested and jailed in defiance of the British flag.
Both European nations now were determined to punish China as soon as they
could muster enough troops. In the
meantime their naval vessels began sporadic combat operations along the China
coast, operations which later became known as the Second Opium War.
one of the five ports in which Westerners were allowed to trade, anti-foreign
feeling was running high. Because of the perverted Christianity of Hung's
militant disciples, missionaries were looked upon as spies.
Traders also were despised; for the merchant, even if he did not stoop to
traffic in opium, was engaged in what the Chinese ruling classes considered to
be among the basest of human activities. From
this seething caldron of hatred, the American Consul at Canton called out for
protection to Commander Andrew H. Foote of the 22-gun sloop Portsmouth
then lying eight miles down river at Whampoa.
Early in the
morning of 23 October 1856, 5 officers and 78 men, among them Second Lieutenant
William W. Kirkland and his 18 Marines, rowed briskly ashore.
This little force was organized into companies and posted on the
housetops and in some newly constructed fortifications around the American
compound in the city. They seemed
too few for the job at hand. The
20-gun Levant, another sloop, dropped anchor at Whampoa on 27 October and
added her approximately score of Marines, under Second Lieutenant Henry B.
Tyler, and a detachment of sailors to the force already ashore.
These sentinels exchanged shots with Chinese soldiers on 3 November but
no one was hurt. Captain James
Armstrong, flying the flag of Commodore, East India Squadron, in the 13-gun
steam warship, San Jacinto, arrived from Shanghai on 12 November
to assume responsibility for the protection of American nationals at Canton.
Two days later he dispatched Brevet Captain John D. Simms and 28 Marines
to the turbulent city. Simms was placed in command of the entire force including
garrison, even a small one, at Canton was a difficult job.
From the diplomatic point of view, the presence of an American force in
the midst of a fast-developing war could be taken as an
insult by the
sensitive Chinese. From a military standpoint, things were no better.
Canton was located at the apex of a sprawling delta.
Guarding the tortuous ship channel up the Pearl River were four forts
located midway between the squadron's anchorage at Whampoa and the city of
Canton, each of them incorporating the latest recommendations of European
military engineers. Both Foote and
Armstrong were keenly aware of the problem posed by the forts.
To supply a garrison in the face of Chinese opposition would entail
either running the forts or trying to slip past them in small boats at night.
Either choice might involve the Americans in what was in reality an
Anglo-French quarrel with the Chinese.
A decision on
the part of Chinese officials to guarantee the safety of American interests at
Canton brought a temporary respite for Captain Armstrong.
Gladly he withdrew the bulk of the landing force, leaving only a handful
of Marines at the American compound. In
place of direct action, Armstrong devised an interim plan whereby the San
Jacinto and Portsmouth would
wait downstream while the Levant would hover off Canton in case the lives
of the Americans in the city should be threatened.
But events were to intervene before this plan could be put into effect.
intention of the Chinese in charge, they could not stem the rising tide of
hatred. On 15 November, the day
that the assurance of protection had been made, in fact, while Foote was in
process of bringing the landing force back to Whampoa, the largest of the
Chinese forts fired on the American boats.
Next morning an unarmed boat from the San Jacinto ventured
to within half a mile of the fort farthest downstream.
Captain Armstrong had dispatched the fragile craft to sound out a channel
in case it became necessary to dash upstream.
Without warning, one of the forts opened fire with both round shot and
grape. The first volley screamed
over the men crouched in the boat. Again
the Chinese cannon roared in hate. Grape
harmlessly churned the muddy water astern; but a shot crashed into the boat,
killing the coxswain. A third salvo
what seemed to be a deliberate breach of faith, both Foote and Armstrong decided
to avenge this insult to the American flag.
The more cautious of the pair was the squadron commander, Captain
Armstrong. He hoped to cow the
Chinese by engaging these so-called "Barrier Forts" with the guns of
his ships. Since the San Jacinto
drew too much water to steam further upstream, Armstrong transferred his flag to
the Portsmouth; and at 1500 on the
afternoon of 16 November ordered the expedition to get underway.
A pair of small American merchant steamships, the Kum Fa and the Willamette,
battled the swift current to tow the sloops within range.
The Levant, however, ran aground before her guns could be brought
into play. The Portsmouth
continued alone. At 1530, the Chinese unleashed their first salvo, and the
Americans replied. As long as there
was enough daylight to aim, cannoneers blazed away.
Although several shots pierced the Portsmouth
‘s hull, while grape played havoc with her rigging, her only casualty was one
Marine seriously wounded. In all, the vessel had fired 230 shells plus grape
shot during the engagement.
lull followed as the Americans refloated the Levant and repaired minor
damage to the Portsmouth. Armstrong
began negotiations with the Chinese but before he had accomplished anything his
health broke down, and he turned command of the expedition over to the daring
Foote. Before returning to the San Jacinto, however, the Captain
advised Foote to withhold his fire unless the Chinese should attack.
Armstrong had left, the junior officer took stock of the situation.
Facing him were four massive granite fortifications with walls seven feet
thick. A total of 176 guns, some of
them of ten-inch caliber, could be brought to bear against an attacking fleet.
In addition, there were rumored to be between five thousand and fifteen
thousand Chinese troops in the Canton area.
Although the forts were powerful, the strongest in the Empire, Foote need
not fear the army, a poorly equipped, half-trained rabble.
When Armstrong on 19 November ordered Foote to take any action necessary
to forestall a Chinese attack, the Commander decided to seize and level their
the idea of passive defense, the Americans now planned to head off a major
battle by striking first; and on the morning of 20 November the Portsmouth
and Levant went into action against two of the forts.
Under cover of the ships' guns, a storming party of 287 officers and men,
led by Foote himself, landed unopposed. Spearheading
this force were the squadron's Marines, approximately 50 in number, under
Captain Simms and a small detachment of sailors.
Because of the terrain and the sheer walls of the first fort, the
Americans had to assault from the rear. A
village in which a handful of Chinese snipers had been posted loomed in their
path, but the Marines quickly cleared the place and began the final sprint
toward the redoubt. The defenders
bolted; some of them even tried to swim the river.
From the captured parapet, a hail of American bullets cut into the
fleeing horde. Some 40 to 50
Chinese were killed.
four miles distant, lay the main body of the Chinese force.
No sooner had the stampeded garrison reached the city than an expedition
got underway to recapture the first fort. While
the fresh Chinese troops were approaching, Simms and his Marines had returned to
the village just outside the walls to scatter a band of die-hards who had
rallied there. A brisk volley, a
fierce charge sent the enemy wallowing toward safety in the rice paddies.
The Marines followed until the going got too difficult, paused to
regroup, and began falling back. Suddenly
the battered Chinese, their spirits revived by the coming of reinforcements,
turned tiger and launched a counterattack.
Well over a thousand men swarmed through the ooze of the rice paddies to
engulf the Leathernecks. Simms had
his men hold their fire until the Chinese were with in two hundred yards.
Volley after volley thudded into enemy ranks.
Gamely the Chinese stood their ground and returned the fire; but Marine
marksmanship proved too accurate, and the enemy ran.
Two other counterattacks were attempted, but both were beaten back by
Leatherneck muskets and boat howitzers. Scheduled for assault the following day
was the second of the Barrier Forts. Early
that morning, the Marines and sailors of the landing force piled into boats and,
towed by the steam tug Kum Fa, began moving upstream toward the
objective. American guns lashed out
above them in support of the landing.
The three works still in Chinese hands divided their fire between the
pair of sloops and the line of boats. A
68-pound shot knifed through one of the American boats killing three and
wounding five. Yet the enemy's
fire, though frightening in volume, was for the most part inaccurate.
Once ashore, Simms led his men across a creek waist-deep with murky water
and over the granite walls. While a
force of a thousand Chinese hovered just out of range of the tiny American
howitzers, Corporal William McDougal of the Levant planted the Stars and
Stripes on the parapet.
Once the fort
had fallen, Foote ordered Sims to clear the Chinese from the riverbank so that
his boats would not be caught in a crossfire during the next phase of the
operation, an attack upon an island bastion in the Pearl River.
Hugging an embankment the Leathernecks were moving cautiously forward
when they collided with a Chinese battery of seven guns.
Caught completely by surprise, the enemy fled amid a fusillade of musket
fire. Leaving a handful of men to
destroy the guns and protect his rear, Simms moved his force to the top of the
embankment and opened fire across the water to silence the third of the Chinese
works. Once the guns of the island
fortress had been stilled, Simms and his Marines withdrew along the embankment
to join in Foote's next assault.
fort fell quickly to the American assault force.
Fire from the two captured citadels and from the shoreline opposite
blanketed the works in a shroud of dust and smoke.
Once again, Corporal McDougal broke out the American flag as the assault
wave surged over the walls. On the
second day of the operation, 21 November, two forts and a Chinese battery had
been taken. All that remained
was to capture and destroy the last of the works, Center Fort, on the Canton
side of the river.
for this final phase began in the darkness of the following morning.
All captured artillery pieces which could not be used to support the
attack had been torn from their mounts and spiked, but the best of the Chinese
weapons were aimed at the squat heap of granite that was Center Fort.
The sky was barely light when an American howitzer snarled across the
water. The enemy did not reply.
Again the cannoneers tried to draw Chinese fire but there was no answer. Then
three waves of boats crawled out from the island toward the final objective.
The howitzers and captured cannon roared in support of the assault waves,
but Center Fort remained quiet. All
three lines of bobbing boats were well within range when the Chinese at last cut
loose. Clouds of grape shot whined
across the river as men of the assault force leaped into waist deep water and
began wading toward the base of the walls.
Once they had clambered to the parapet, they found that the enemy had
fled. A crude sort of booby trap, a
cannon loaded and aimed at the boats, had been left behind by the defenders, but
alert Marines quickly snuffed out the smoldering powder train.
squadron now was in complete control of the barrier fortifications, the work of
destruction could begin in earnest. Those
guns which had been spared to assist the final assault were uprooted and spiked.
The ruined pieces then were rolled into the water.
Demolition parties moved from fort to fort planting charges of gunpowder
beneath the mighty walls. On 5
December, a spark believed caused when someone's crowbar glanced off the granite
touched off the powder being placed beneath the walls of Center Fort.
The blast killed three men outright and wounded nine others. On the
following day, the two sloops moved downstream to their normal anchorage at
Whampoa; behind them the most formidable works in the Chinese Empire lay in
In one brief
but furious campaign, Commander Foote's command had captured four powerful
redoubts, killed an estimated five hundred Chinese, and routed an army of
thousands -- all at the cost of 7 killed in action, 3 killed during the
demolition of Center Fort and a total of 32 wounded or injured. None of the
Marines were killed in the fighting; but one, Private William Cuddy, took sick
and died, while six others were wounded. Three
days of the fiercest action proved that ships, when teamed with a strong landing
force, could indeed fight forts.
a truly remarkable feat of arms, the destruction of the Barrier Forts appeared
to be a diplomatic success. An
apology for the unprovoked attack of 16 November on the sounding boat was quick
in coming. Foote had avenged
an insult to the American flag and made certain that the Chinese at Canton would
behave in the future.
The men of
the East India Squadron were justly proud of their achievement.
To commemorate their comrades killed at Canton, they raised a thousand
dollars to erect some sort of monument. Nothing,
however, was done until Foote, detached from the Portsmouth,
arrived at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in October 1858.
As Executive Officer of the Yard, he was able to begin work on the
monument. The site selected was
just inside the Sand Street Gate. Under
the hand of a local sculptor, a marble shaft surmounted by an eagle gradually
took shape. At its base was a
tablet listing the names of those who fell in the attack.
When it was
dedicated late in 1858, the marker listed 12 names: E. C.
Mullen, Louis Hetzell, Thomas Crouse, James Hoagland, William Mackin,
Alfred Turner, Edward Riley, Joseph Gibbings, Edward Hughes, Charles Beam,
Thomas McCann, all sailors, and "John McBride--Marine." Unfortunately,
there were errors on this roll of honor. The
names of Lewis Hetzel and Thomas Krouse had suffered at the hands of the
stonecutter. Worse yet, there was
no sailor named Thomas McCann killed at Canton; nor was any Marine killed during
the battle. Who, then, was John
McBride? None of the Marine
detachments involved in the action carried anyone by that name on their muster
rolls. Eager to finish the task,
the impetuous Foote apparently had not taken time to check official records.
Like Thomas McCann, McBride was the result of a lapse of memory.
Armstrong, Commander Foote, and Brigadier General Commandant Archibald Henderson
all had hailed the exploits of the sailors and Marines of the East India
Squadron. The Secretary of the Navy
in his Annual Report for 1857 had devoted an entire paragraph to the Battle of
the Barrier Forts. It is ironic
indeed that the memorial to Foote's gallant dead, a work which he himself began,
should contain not only misspellings but the names of a phantom sailor and a
This article is available online at http://www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/usmchist/barrier.txt
"Encyclopedia Britannica," 1944, v. 5, pp. 536-537; William L.
Langer, "An Encyclopedia of World History" (Boston: Houghton
Mifflin, 1948), p. 879.
to Armstrong, 4 Nov 1856, East India Squadron Letters, 1855-1856, National
Archives; Clyde H. Metcalf, "History of the U. S. Marine Corps" (New
York: Putnam, 1939), pp. 172-173; H. A. Ellsworth, "One Hundred
Eighty Landings of U. S.
Marines" (Washington: Historical
Section, HQMC, 1934), pp. 24-25;
Charles O. Paullin, "Early Voyages of American Naval Vessels to the
Orient," "U. S. Naval Institute Proceedings," v. 37, no. 2 (Jun
1911), pp. 391-396.
extracts, log of SAN JACINTO, 16 Nov 1856, Archives, HQMC.
extracts, log of PORTSMOUTH, 16 Nov 1856, Archives, HQMC.
to Armstrong, 26 Nov 1856, East India Squadron Letters.
Simms to CMC, 7 Dec 1856, Historical File, Marines, National
to CMC, 7 Dec 1856.
to Armstrong, 26 Nov 1856.
extracts, log of the PORTSMOUTH; Foote to Armstrong, 5 Dec 1856, East India
Marine casualties were Corporals William Boyce and James Linus and Privates
Joseph McNeil, Patrick Mahon, Patrick Melvin and John G. Thompson.
Edwin N. McClellan, "The Capture of the Barrier Forts in the Canton River,
China", "Marine Corps Gazette," v. 5, no. 3 (Sep 1920), p. 272;
James M. Hoppin, "Life of Andrew Hull Foote" (New York: Harper and
Brothers, 1874), p. 140n.
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