McDougal and the Wyoming

or, Before There Was Pearl Harbor, There Was Shimonoseki

by Jonah Begone and Mal Stylo

Name a great American naval engagement that took place during the Civil War. I bet you answered "Monitor vs. Merrimac," didn't you? If I told you that one Federal vessel manned by a green crew took on a small Japanese fleet - all the while in range of land batteries - and destroyed the ships and the batteries, would you believe it? Such is the story of Commander David Stockton McDougal and the U.S.S. Wyoming at the Straits of Shimonoseki, on 16 July 1863.

The Wyoming was a screw sloop of 1457 tons displacement. She was 198.5 feet long and had a beam of 33'2". She carried a crew of about 200 sailors and Marines. Under steam, she could make 11 knots if her hull was clean and her engines in good repair. Her firepower consisted of two 11" Dahlgren smoothbores, a 60-pound Parrott Rifle and three 32-pounders.

Commander McDougal was sent to the Pacific in 1863 to search for the C.S.S. Alabama (a famous commerce destroyer), and in the early summer of 1863, after a fruitless search, the Wyoming arrived on the Japanese coast. There McDougal received a dispatch from the American minister to the effect that the guns of the Wyoming were greatly needed to protect American lives and property at Yokohama. (Turns out that some Japanese Rebs - not Confederates, but rebels against the rule of the Shogun - were interested in expelling the "foreign devils" from Japan, which was on the verge of a Civil War of its own.) McDougal immediately steamed thither and made his vessel a refuge for American residents until safe quarters could be found for them on shore. As the situation developed, our intrepid commander found himself face to face with an entirely unexpected situation (in the best dramatic traditions of Star Trek).

The following is a positively ripping account from "A Short History of the U.S. Navy" by the late R.Adm. George R. Clark, USN, et. al.: "On the 11th of July, McDougal received the news that an American steamer, the Pembroke, had been fired on without warning in the straits, and, according to the report, had been sunk with all on board. At this time McDougal was under orders to return to America, but realizing that situation called for prompt action on his part, he weighed anchor and on the evening of the 15th arrived off the eastern end of the straits. It was here that the Pembroke, while she awaited a pilot and the turn of the tide, had been fired on. (As a matter of fact, the Pembroke came off with small injury, but others were not so fortunate. A French dispatch boat was attacked shortly after the Pembroke and narrowly escaped sinking in mid-channel. Her commander reported his experience to Captain Casembroot of the Dutch steam-frigate Medusa of 16 guns. On account of the longstanding friendship between the Dutch and the Japanese, Casembroot went to Shimonoseki with the expectation of making peace; but hardly was the Medusa in the channel when she was under heavy fire. Before she could get away she had been hulled thirty-one times, and had lost four killed and five wounded. A day or two later, a French gunboat was hulled three times as she dashed past the batteries at full speed, and a Satsuma vessel, which was mistaken for a foreigner, was sent to the bottom. It was evident that the Japanese knew how to handle their guns, and had the range of the channel.)

At five o'clock on the morning of the 16th, the Wyoming got under way. Her entry into the straits was announced by signal guns on shore, and as soon as she came in range she was fired upon by the batteries. She made no reply, however, until she reached the narrowest part of the straits. At that point the larger shore batteries concentrated their fire; beyond, in more open water lay three armed merchantmen, all heavily manned, and with their crews yelling defiance. These ships were the bark Daniel Webster, the brig Lanrick, and the steamer Lancefield, all, oddly enough, American vessels which had been purchased by the Choshiu clansmen. In the land batteries, too, were five 8-inch Dahlgren guns which had recently been presented to Japan by the United States. The bark lay anchored close to the town on the northern shore, the brig was about fifty yards outside and a little beyond, while the steamer lay further ahead and outside, that is, nearer mid-channel. As McDougal approached the narrows, he noticed a line of stakes which he rightly guessed had been used by the Japanese to gauge their aim. Accordingly, he avoided the middle of the channel and steered close under the batteries. This shrewdness probably was the salvation of the Wyoming, for the batteries at once opened a tremendous cannonade which would have sunk a dozen vessels in mid-channel, but which only tore through her rigging. She soon cleared the narrows and bore out into the open water where her guns could reply.

Commander McDougal then gave orders to "go in between those vessels and take the steamer." The Yokohama pilots protested loudly, but the American had made up his mind to take the chances of shallow water and headed for the three ships. At this moment a fresh battery of four guns opened a raking fire, but the Wyoming answered with a single shell so accurately aimed that it tore the entire battery to pieces. Dashing ahead, she passed abreast the bark and the brig at close quarters and exchanged broadsides with both. The firing was so close that the long guns of the Wyoming seemed almost to touch the muzzles of the enemy, and it was in these few minutes at close quarters that the greater part of the American loss occurred. The forward gun division suffered most on account of its exposed position, sustaining, in fact, all the casualties of the day except three. The Japanese handled their guns so rapidly that the brig alone managed to pour three broadsides into the Wyoming. On the latter every gun was served to the utmost and every shot told on the hulls of the enemy.

Passing on, McDougal rounded the bow of the steamer and maneuvered for a fighting position. The brig was already settling, but the Daniel Webster, in spite of the great holes in her side, still kept up a steady fire, and six land batteries now reopened with the Wyoming as a fair target. The steamer, meanwhile, weighed anchor and, moving to the opposite side, seemed to be getting ready to ram the American. At this critical moment the rushing tides sent the Wyoming's bow aground, but after some minutes her engines succeeded in backing her off.

Then, ignoring the shore batteries and the Daniel Webster, McDougal opened fire with his two 11-inch Dahlgren pivot guns on the steamer Lancefield. Both shells took effect in her hull; another from the forward pivot tore through her boiler, and in a cloud of smoke and steam the vessel went down. Meanwhile, the bark Daniel Webster had been firing as fast as the guns could be loaded, and the six shore batteries were a continuous line of smoke and flame. McDougal now trained his guns to reply. In a few minutes the bark was wrecked, and then one shore battery after another was silenced. When satisfied that he had destroyed every thing within range, he turned and steamed slowly back. On his return he was practically unmolested.

This action had lasted one hour and ten minutes, in the course of which the Wyoming had been hulled ten times, her rigging had been badly cut, her smokestack perforated, and she had lost five killed and seven wounded. The battle had been won by the coolness and nerve of the American commander, and a fine feature of the story is that while most of the Wyoming's crew had never before been under fire, even when the ship was aground and the pilots were paralyzed with terror the bluejackets stood by their guns like veterans. Those were the days, too, when a white man caught by the insurgents endured the unspeakable death of the "torture cage," and the men knew that their commander had ordered that if the ship became helpless by grounding or by shot she was to be blown up with all on board. [Can you believe this? - Jonah]

A few days after McDougal's exploit a heavy French frigate with a gunboat entered the straits and destroyed what was left of the batteries by landing a force of marines. Some months later, however, the clansmen rebuilt their forts and succeeded in closing the straits for fifteen months. Finally, a large allied fleet put an end to the uprising and restored safety to the foreigner in Japan. But no other operation impressed the insurgents with the same respect as the attack of the Wyoming, single-handed, against their entire force.

The Dutch captain who had taken his punishment without accomplishing anything in return, was knighted on his arrival in Holland, and all his crew received medals. McDougal, on the other hand, got no promotion and not even contemporary fame among his countrymen, for 1863 was the crucial year of the Civil War, and his exploit in far-away Japan was lost in the roar of battles at home. As Theodore Roosevelt once said of this fight "Had that action taken place at any other time than during the Civil War, its fame would have echoed all over the world."

Hear, hear! One only wishes that the pep talk McDougal must have given his crew before the action at Shimonoseki had been written down for the benefit of future motivational speakers!

Oddly enough, the Wyoming probably missed her chance for a more widely known place in American naval lore. Later in 1863 she and the Alabama did pass within 25 miles of each other, unknown to both. Confederate Captain Raphael Semmes, the commanding officer of the Alabama, wrote confidently in his journal that "Wyoming is a good match for this ship," and "I have resolved to give her battle. She is reported to be cruising under sail-probably with banked fires-and anchors, no doubt, under Krakatoa every night" and "I hope to surprise her, the moon being near its full." (My money would have been on McDougal and the Wyoming.)

The stout Wyoming was decommissioned on 30 October 1882 and turned over to the Superintendent of the Naval Academy where she spent the next decade employed as a practice ship for midshipmen. Later taken to Norfolk, Va, she was sold at the port on 9 May 1892 to E. J. Butler, of Arlington, Mass.