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REMARKS ON THE TAKING OF THE BARRIER FORTS."
THE PORTSMOUTH CONCLUDED.
The action narrated in the preceding chapter, in the judg. ment of competent witnesses, was, in a military point of view, a brilliant one. The English and French were loud in their praises; and as the gallant Portsmouth dropped down the river, the ship of the British admiral, Sir Michael Seymour, as well as his commodore's vessel, manned the rigging, and gave three rousing cheers for the Portsmouth, while the bands struck up “llail Columbia” and “Yankee Doodle"-a compliment rarely paid to our ships by rival nations.
This action made a deep impression. In China, to this day, Commander Foote is well remembered ; and the storming of the “ Barrier Forts” taught the mandarins a lesson which they never forgot, made the American flag respected eren by that stolid and peculiar people, and led the way to the advantageous treaties of Mr Reed and Mr. Burlingame.
The battle was varied in its emergencies by sea and land, and called forth the best judgment as well as courage of the commanding officer; and althongh he was opposed by semi barbarians, the odds in respect to numbers were great on the side of the Chinese--some 5000 to 280 Americans. The forts were strong, and capable of doing immense mischief if further strengthened. But Foote did not wait for this. He urged upon the commodore the necessity of immediate reprisals for the insult to our flag and the wanton assault upon the boats, feeling that a lesson should be given. The commodore was on board the Portsmouth during the first cannonading, but, being
Approval by the Government.
ill, he withdrew, leaving all in the hands of Foote. He, in fact, took the responsibility and carried the thing through. The boldness with which his vessels were laid alongside the forts, up to the very teeth of the cannon, and the straight, impetuous storming work which followed their cannonade, remind us of a scene more fresh in our memories, and are characteristic of the man and of his mode of going to work.
The American Government added its approval of the conduct of her Navy on this occasion. The following is an extract from Secretary Dobbin's dispatch to Commodore Armstrong of February 27, 1857:
“Our national flag was borne by American officers on waters where it was legitimate to show it. The mission of those bearing it in the small boat was peaceful. No notice had been given by the Chinese, no shot of warning was fired over the boat; but shot and shell were fired deliberately at the officers and men, with a view to their destruction. My reflections upon the whole case convince me that it was indispensably necessary promptly to vindicate the sacredness of our national flag, and to inflict a degree of punishment sufficiently impressive to deter these people from again rashly and recklessly insulting us. Had the offensive act been temporarily submitted to and referred to the tardy process of Chinese explanations, this trifling with our flag would probably have been repeated, and led to still more serious consequences.
“I approve, therefore, of the course pursued by you and those under your command. The brave and energetic manner in which the wrong was avenged is worthy of all praise. The gallantry, good order, and “intelligent subordination displayed by all engaged in the various conflicts with the enemy; the precision and admirable success with which the guns were managed, are highly creditable to the service. Be pleased, sir, to communicate to the officers, seamen, and marines the Department's high appreciation of their good conduct.”
In the “Blue-Book” presented to the British Parliament, the notices of the capture of the “Barrier Forts,” made by Consul Parkes and Rear-Admiral Sir Michael Seymour, were in marked terms of commendation both of the skill and the gallantry displayed by the Americans.
There were not wanting those who criticised both privately and publicly the conduct of the American Navy in this affair, as involving itself hastily and unnecessarily in the English and Chinese difficulty. A most indignant and caustic letter, written by Commander Foote himself to Chaplain James Beecher, shows that he could fight with the pen as well as with the sword. In this letter he defends himself from every charge. On the point of the Chinese firing upon the boats, which, it had been intimated, was a natural thing for them to do in their indiscriminate and unintelligent hatred of foreigners, he says:
"The fact of the trade of all nations being suspended; the fact that we are not at war with China; that French armed boats, as well as boats of different nationalities, were passing the ‘Barrier Forts' unmolested, as they had a treaty right to do, before and after my own boat was fired upon, show your general views to be as crude as they are perverse where the honor of your country's flag is involved."
It may be that Mr. Beecher and others were right in their criticisms; it may be that Commander Foote was over-ready to fight in this instance (a failing of his); it may be that a longer forbearance would have resulted in more good; but it is difficult, with the facts before us, to see these things. We should be the last to defend him in that which is wrong; but we must in this instance fall back upon his superior knowledge of the facts of the case, and upon his established character as a man of high principle and humanity. His professional duty pressed him to act energetically. He did so act, and we are not aware that by truly competent authority, both civil and military, he has been adjudged to have acted rashly, or to have merited aught but praise.
A letter written about this time makes mention of one of these newspaper notices of his conduct to which reference has been made; and as it bears directly on the main point in the case, it is quoted in full:
Letter of A. H. Foote.
“U.S. SHIP ‘PORTSMOUTH,' Hong-Kong, June 27, 1858. “MY DEAR BRADFORD,—I have read your letter published in the Philadelphia Press. It does you intellectually great credit, and certainly I believe it to have been written, notwithstanding its wholesale errors about our force in Canton, with that moral sentiment which I always have considered as a feature in your character.
“You were not in Canton when our force was there. Consequently the assertion in your letter that it was not asked, but, on the contrary, that a request was made that it might be withdrawn, as it was unnecessary for protection, must have been made on other authority than your personal knowledge. The credibility of that authority may be seen by the inclosed copy of a letter addressed to me by Consul Perry, showing that the force was officially and immediately urged by the highest American functionary in Canton-Dr. Parker, the commissioner, being with you at that time in Shang-Hai. And so far from the force not being wanted by the Americans, and they having requested its withdrawal, I need only to remark that, after having been in Canton a fortnight, I received orders from the commodore to proceed with the ship to Shang-Hai. On making these orders known, one of the merchants said that he hoped I would not leave them; that a letter signed by the Americans, showing the necessity of a force for their protection, would, if I wished it, readily be furnished. I declined the proposal, remarking that in the existing state of affairs I should not leave Canton, and had no doubt but that the commodore would, as he afterward did, fully approve my course.
Besides this, every American house in Canton—I do not remember a single exception-importuned me for sentinels to be posted within their premises. And still further, I call upon your informant, or any American then in Canton, to say that he gave me the slightest intimation that our force might be withdrawn, until it had been there more than a fortnight, and accomplished fully the object for which it was placed there—for the protection of our citizens, and their persons and property; when I announced my intention of conferring with the commodore on the propriety of withdrawing the men, and having the Levant brought up to the city as a place of refuge in case of emergency.
“Although the government has unqualifiedly approved our course, as may be seen in the copy of a letter in my possession, still, if there remain a doubt on the subject in the minds of persons whose opinions are worthy of my regard, I hope that the whole matter may be reopened by agitation, investigation, probing, and sifting, so far as my own agency in
taking the force to Canton is involved, as well as the subsequent course of the squadron at the ‘Barrier Forts.'
“I still feel, as I often have expressed myself, that had I not promptly taken the force to Canton, and in counsel and deed approved the capture of the ‘Barrier Forts' for having on three different occasions fired upon our flag, I ought to be turned out of the Navy as one wholly unworthy of holding a commander's commission in it. Had you been there, holding my commission, I believe also that your course would have corresponded with my own.
“I thus have freely commented, as I am justified in doing, on that part of your letter referring to acts in which I bore a prominent part; and now take the liberty of a friend in remarking that our sentiments toward the English are antipodal. I hold them to be a nation altogether in advance of any European in promoting Christian civilization and the highest interests of mankind. Your Anglophobia, pardon the expression, often leads you, though no doubt unintentionally, to do them an injustice. I am quite proud of our ancestry, even with all their faults, when I compare them with the other nations of Europe.
“I am truly yours,
" (Signed) A. H. Foote.” The Portsmouth lay off the “ Barrier Forts" for some days, to carry out the work of demolition. In one of his dispatches to the commodore, Foote says, “ We don't work, of course, today. I have preached aboard and in the fort.” The destruction of the forts was completed in ten working days. Some men were unfortunately killed, and others wounded, by a premature explosion. Of this work of demolition, Commander Foote writes to a friend :
“The governor (Yeh) in his correspondence with the commodore has given no satisfaction, and therefore we have taken it by utterly demolishing his forts. He now says that he also desires peace, and matters look more pacific, at least till the pleasure of our government is known. American merchants here, and missionaries too, unanimously regard our course as having been necessary to show the Chinese that the Americans are as powerful as some other nations with whom they have been in conflict. It is the first display of American force in China, and it was desirable that it should be effectual."