Battle of the Pearl River Forts

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The Battle of the Pearl River Forts, or the Battle of the Barrier Forts, in late 1856, was an amphibious assault and short occupation conducted by the United States Navy against a series of forts along Qing Dynasty China's Pearl River. It was fought at the beginning of the Second Opium War and was considered an important defeat by the British whose interest lay in capturing the nearby city of Canton.


Sailing off the Chinese coast, USS Portsmouth and USS Levant had received news of the beginning of the Second Opium War. The two sloops-of-war were tasked with protecting American lives by landing a 150-man detachment of marines and sailors in Canton.

After a peaceful landing the Americans occupied the ancient city. Commanded by both Commodore James Armstrong and Captain Henry H. Bell, USS San Jacinto arrived in Canton's harbor and learned of the occupation. San Jacinto then landed a shore party of her own.

On November 15, 1856, after a brief stay and no military contact, the force withdrew from the city. During the withdrawal, Commander Andrew H. Foote of the Portsmouth rowed out to his ship. As he rowed past the Pearl River Forts, the Chinese garrison fired on the small American boat a few times but the withdrawal continued.

The next day the U.S. seamen had constructed a plan to attack Canton's citadels in retaliation for the Chinese attack on Commander Foote.


Now a force of one steam frigate and two sloops-of-war, the naval squadron under James Armstrong made their way up the Pearl River and launched an attack on Canton's coastal forts. USS Portsmouth closed in on the nearest of the four citadels and fired the initial salvo on November 16.

For two hours her bombardment continued until the Chinese batteries were silenced. After this first engagement, Chinese and American officials decided to try to settle the matter diplomatically. This failed and on November 20, Commodore Armstrong ordered his ships to fire again on two more of the Chinese forts.

This bombardment lasted until the Chinese batteries weakened slightly, and after Levant, commanded by William N. Smith, received a total of twenty-two cannonball shots in her sails, rigging and hull. Then the landing force was activated, led by Andrew Foote, the force of 287 men quickly captured the first enemy fort, then used its fifty-three guns to attack and capture the second fort.

Once taking the second position, the Chinese launched several counterattacks with some 3,000 Qing Army soldiers from Canton. In a few more days of intense combat until November 24, the U.S. force, with help from the blockade, pushed back the attacking Chinese army, killing and wounding dozens of the attackers, capturing two more of Pearl Rivers's forts and spiking 176 enemy guns in the process.

Chinese casualties were an estimated 500 killed or wounded, hundreds of Qing troops became victims in the long bombardments and assaults. The Americans land forces sustained ten killed and thirty-two wounded. USS Levant suffered one dead and six wounded in her exchange with the Pearl River Forts.


After James Armstrong's attack on the Chinese fortifications, diplomatic efforts began again and the American and Chinese governments signed an agreement for U.S. neutrality in the Second Opium War. This ended the United States' participation in the conflict, until 1859 when Commodore Josiah Tattnall in the chartered steamship Towey Wan, participated in a battle at the Taku Forts which was ultimately unsuccessful. In 1857, the British and French would use Pearl River to attack Canton from water, resulting in the Battle of Canton. America's opening of Asia continued into the 1860s with conflict, such as the Battle of Shimonoseki Straits and a following bombardment, as well as an expedition to Korea in the 1870s.


  • This article incorporates text from the public domain Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships. The entry can be found here.
  • This article incorporates text from the public domain Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships. The entry can be found here.
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  • Ebrey, Patricia. Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993.
  • Elliott, Mark C. "The Limits of Tartary: Manchuria in Imperial and National Geographies." Journal of Asian Studies 59 (2000): 603-46.
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  • "China", Encyclopædia Britannica, 1944, v. 5, pp. 536–537;
  • William L. Langer, An Encyclopedia of World History (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1948), p. 879.
  • Foote 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.
  • Typed extracts, log of SAN JACINTO, 16 Nov 1856, Archives, HQMC.
  • Typed extracts, log of PORTSMOUTH, 16 Nov 1856, Archives, HQMC.
  • Foote to Armstrong, 26 Nov 1856, East India Squadron Letters.
  • "Ibid.;" Simms to CMC, 7 Dec 1856, Historical File, Marines, National Archives.
  • Typed extracts, log of the PORTSMOUTH; Foote to Armstrong, 5 Dec 1856, East India Squadron Letters.

12. 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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