The Star Spangled Empire: The Japanese-American War of 1853 and Beyond

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  • Hello! I am Potato Cannon, long time lurker, first time writer. Though I am only mildly versed with US history in the mid 19th century, I find the period fascinating regardless and hope to make a fun and engaging story. A story with twists and turns, academic and personal retellings, and with a lot of eagles and fireworks.

    In this tale of alternate history, we turn the clock back to 1853, with the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry in Japan. In our timeline, Perry successfully followed through with the orders given to him by President Millard Filmore to “reopen” Japan, and allow for further diplomatic and economic contact between Japan and the rest of the world. In this timeline, however, tragedy strikes. Rather than peace, an unfortunate series of events leads to the attempted boarding of the USS Susquehanna, and the death of Commodore Perry. The fallout is immediate and the course of history changes forever.

    So, without further ado, let us begin our journey into …

    The Star Spangled Empire: A History of the United States

    (Excerpts taken from ‘Disaster in the East - America’s War with Japan’ by Daniel Douglas, Philadelphia International Publishing, 1991)


    Commodore Matthew Perry (1794-1853), photographed before the expedition, 1852

    Commodore Perry, veteran of the Mexican-American War and ‘father of America’s steam navy’, is a complicated figure in American history. To some, he is seen as a tragic figure in American history whose vision for the future was cut short. To others, he is a martyr for the American dream, a man whose sacrifice sparked the beginning of America’s hegemony. And finally, some see him as little more than a petty imperialist whose death was the perfect excuse for America to try and catch up with the imperial powers in Europe. Regardless of what one considers Perry, he is without a doubt one of the most influential persons in American history, comparable to the likes of Washington, Grant, and Lee. A tenacious commander with a knack for bravado, Perry’s expedition to Japan would prove to be a tumultuous and ultimately bloody endeavor.


    Originally given the orders by US president Millard Fillmore, Commodore Perry’s expedition to the Tokugawa Shogunate was intended to “open” the country, through either diplomacy or force, and allow for more foreign ships and traders to visit Japan. Gathering a small fleet of ships, comprised of the warships Susquehanna, Mississippi and Powhatan, alongside several armed supply ships and a number of light sloops, Perry’s fleet was imposing despite its relatively small size. Setting out from Virginia in late November of 1852, and despite making the arduous journey across the Atlantic Ocean to the Far East, Perry’s trip went relatively smoothly. With the use of paddle driven steamers and more up to date forms of navigation and knowledge of the regions, Perry’s small fleet of ships was able to snake its way across the Indian Ocean and finally into the Pacific. Due to the infancy of American shipbuilding in the recently acquired California, such a long trip was an unfortunate requirement.


    USS Susquehanna, in port in Shanghai, 1853

    The first signs of trouble would come in May of the next year, following the arrival of Perry’s ships in the Ryukyu islands. Here, Perry threatened the locals with his warships, stating that he would land with “some of the most ruthless men of the United States Marines” should they refuse to allow him audience with King Shō Tai of the Ryukyus, completely disregarding the claims to the islands made by the Satsuma Domain. Despite his warning, and even the landing of more than 150 Marines on the shore as a show of force, Tai refused to bow to the threats. Knowing that any and all news would be sent to Edo and heard by the Tokugawa government, Perry was ultimately forced to relent. With some of the proverbial wind taken out of his sails, Perry failed to properly negotiate an opening of the Ryukyus, and was forced to continue northwards. Regardless of this, Perry and his men sailed onwards.

    Rethinking his strategy, Perry moved to implement “Gunboat Diplomacy”, or the show of military threats to force parties to the negotiating table, in full. With his bluff called by Tai, Perry knew that the time for more peaceful dealings was running out. Finally, on June 22nd of 1853, Perry’s ships steamed their way into the harbor of Edo, specifically Uraga, to begin their negotiations with the Shogun. Knowing of the failure of Captain James Biddle to properly bring the Japanese to the table, Perry moved to press past Japanese watch towers and moved ever closer towards the bay itself. Taking the Susquehanna and Mississippi, as well as the sloop Saratoga, Perry sailed past several Japanese warships that had been sent out to try and force Perry’s ships back out to sea.

    With word of the debacle in the Ryukyus nearly a month earlier, the forces of the Shogun had been on high alert for Perry’s ships since. The small number of cannons in possession of the Uraga Bugyō, officials tasked with the defense of the harbor, fired blanks in an attempt to stop Perry’s ships. Finally, three larger vessels sailed within a thousand feet of both port and starboard sides of the Susquehanna. As the ships halted, a small number of boats had departed from their warships, hoping for an audience with Perry and his men. Throughout the afternoon, Perry refused to allow the men to come aboard, and instead demanded that he be given a personal audience with representatives of the Shogun, and eventually the Shogun himself. The Japanese refused, stating that Perry’s actions were “reprehensible” and “barbaric”, and that “such violent threats and actions cannot be rewarded with pomp and circumstance.” A volley of blanks were fired by both shoreline cannons and the lightly armed Japanese warships. By the late afternoon, Perry’s ships had been almost surrounded.

    It is here that the beginning of what has been referred to as the “Edo Massacre” starts, and accounts have yet to be cleared. The most common line of thought is that a Japanese sailor, carrying a matchlock firearm, had accidentally loaded his gun with a bullet rather than just powder, which was being used to startle the Americans and force them away. The bullet, traveling several hundred feet and losing significant velocity, nonetheless struck an American sailor in the shoulder right in front of Perry, who was on the deck at the time. Thinking quickly, Perry gave the orders to fire a single round at the Japanese vessel. The cannon, a Paixhan shell gun, landed a shell directly through the main mast of the Japanese ship, shattering it and seriously wounding several dozen sailors on board. How accurate this account is is largely unknown, as the events unfolded so quickly that many witnesses were unable to corroborate a single narrative.

    Immediately, the Japanese responded with a full volley of gun and cannon fire, most of which passed by or did minor damage to the Susquehanna and Saratoga. However, several cannonballs tore into the deck of the Mississippi, setting her alight and forcing her to retreat as to avoid further damage. The Susquehanna responded with a full broadside at the nearest Japanese vessel, destroying it in an instant after striking the ship’s small powder storage. Perry gave the orders to fall back, but a cannonball struck the starboard paddle of the Susquehanna, causing her to turn awkwardly and be slowed significantly. Before Perry could fully respond, sailors on deck spotted several small boats on a direct course for the ship.

    Ordering marines and sailors on deck, a short firefight took place as bullets fired from both the Susquehanna and the Japanese boats hit dozens of men on both sides. Despite the overwhelming firepower of the Americans, the Japanese vessels continued forward, and three boats filled with armed sailors managed to hold tight to the port side of the Susquehanna and begin offloading men. The initial boarding seemed to be in the American’s favor as ropes and boarding ladders were either cut or broken, causing the Japanese to send only a small trickle of men aboard. However, quickly the Americans were overwhelmed, and a ferocious melee began on board the ship. Perry’s men sought to move him to a lifeboat and try to get him aboard the Saratoga, which itself was repelling boarding attempts. Perry refused, and instead drew his cutlass and revolver, and attempted to join the frey.

    It is here where Perry was fatally struck with a bullet to the chest, striking him in the right side and toppling him backwards. To this day, no one is sure where the bullet was fired from, or by who. Though the news of Perry’s injury rippled through the decks of both ships, the sailors and marines continued to fight back the Japanese. For hours, the Americans beat a fighting retreat out of the harbor, and the Japanese defenders finally relented after the arrival of the rest of Perry’s fleet, falling back into the harbor. The Susquehanna finally managed to repel their attackers, and suffered serious losses as a result. The Saratoga was lost after a fire engulfed the ship, forcing the crew to abandon ship, either to be rescued by the Americans or captured by the Japanese.

    By the late evening, in a cabin barricaded with furniture and guarded by haggard marines, Perry struggled with his injuries. The bullet had shattered several two ribs, and punctured his lung. Surgeons, trying their best, managed to remove the bullet but were unable to prevent the internal bleeding. Grabbing the wrist of Commander Franklin Buchanan, who had also been wounded by several cuts to his arm and a torn leg muscle, Perry gave his final, apocryphal words.

    “I hope God is more merciful to them than America will be.”

    At roughly midnight, thousands of miles away from his homeland, and surrounded by his closest officers and compatriots, Commodore Matthew Perry succumbed to his injuries. With his body preserved as best as possible, the fleet steamed away from Japan and towards Shanghai, narrowly avoiding several small patrols that had been sent to try and intercept them. The Mississippi, heavily damaged from the fighting, was eventually scuttled two days into the journey after stresses to the hull caused her to begin taking on water. Arriving in Shanghai five days after departing, information was sent as quickly as possible. Within weeks, European newspapers began relaying the story of Perry’s death and the “Edo Massacre”. With every new print of the story, the number of dead rose, and the stories of the actions of the Japanese became more and more brutal.

    Finally reaching Washington D.C. weeks after the arrival of Perry’s fleet, President Franklin Pierce was incensed. An opportunity for economic exploration of the Far East had been lost, alongside one of the brightest and best commanders of the United States Navy. Above all, America had been humiliated. “Ships Lost to Japanese Natives!”, “Perry Murdered by Nipponese[1] Savages!”, “Sailors Massacred!” were among the hundreds of headlines printed across the United States. This, alongside the slavery debate that had begun to rapidly deteriorate over the past few years, dominated the American media and the minds of the average citizen.

    In the senate, senator from Michigan Lewis Cass demanded action, gathering the attention of both his allies and opponents. “We cannot allow ourselves to be brought to heel by some eastern monarchy. We cannot allow the deaths of our men, the destruction of our ships, and the tarnishing of our pride be left unanswered!” he shouted, speaking for hours on end, joined by several sympathizers. This display of rage was answered by President Pierce, who agreed with the sentiment and presented a plan to congress. After weeks of deliberation with representatives and military leaders, an emergency session of the senate was convened.

    On July 9th, 1853, the United States Senate voted to declare war on the Tokugawa Shogunate on the grounds of the murder of American citizens, and the destruction of military assets. The vote was passed 56-6, with opponents of the decision derided publicly by both fellow senators and the American public at large.

    The Japanese-American War had begun.


    [1] ITL phrase - A misinterpretation of 日本 (Nihon) to "Nippon", usually used as a derisive name for the Japanese
    Preparations for War Part 1 - The Americas
  • Part Two - Preparations for War: The Americas
    (Excerpts taken from ‘Disaster in the East - America’s War with Japan’ by Daniel Douglas, Philadelphia International Publishing, 1991)

    After the vote on July 9th, both congress and the private sector rushed to begin securing funding and making the necessary preparations for launching a war thousands of miles from the American homeland. Almost immediately, the issue of projecting America’s force so far was a massive hurdle that would be a gargantuan expense to clear. Providing transportation, supplies, wages, medicine and payments to governments to allow for transit racked up into the millions of dollars. As a result of this, President Pierce addressed both the Department of War and Congress to try and secure funding.


    (Portrait of President Franklin Pierce (1804-1871))

    Despite the overwhelming support for war against the Japanese, Congress suddenly became divided on the issue of funding. Among the arguments were those in favor of implementing wartime taxes on the wealthy and a short period of hiked tariffs, while others supported a mixture of federal spending and private contracts as a means of relieving pressure on direct spending by the government. Though supportive of the war effort like most, Senator from Massachusetts Charles Sumner’s proposal to raise taxes as a means of funding the war, Sumner was immediately attacked by his opponents. Sumner’s vehement anti-slavery positions were used as a criticism by pro-slavery southern Democrats, who believed Sumner’s proposal was “specifically made to target the businessmen and industrialists of the American south” and “seeks to strip the wealth of the South first and foremost”. Sumner and his allies were outnumbered, and his tax plan was shot down before it could even be properly heard.

    Meanwhile, Senator from Illinois Stephen Douglas met with several other Democratic leaders, and gave his own proposal. Quickly given the name the “Wartime Investment Act”, this proposal gave private citizens the ability to directly contribute or participate in the war effort as “Authorized Non-Combatant Assistance”. This act served two purposes, first to prevent “atrocious and unnecessary” overspending by the government, while also allowing for those outside of the military to assist the US military. Several amendments were immediately made to the bill as it was hotly debated on the floors of congress. The Wartime Investment Act promised an up front payment of 25% of the worth of any cargo being carried by private vessels, with another 25% being given upon the vessel’s return. Privateers were contracted and levied, and restrictions on arming privately held ships were relaxed.

    The bill passed after a lengthy session of debates and filibusters by its opponents. With a vote of 38-24 in the Senate, President Pierce signed the Wartime Investment Act into law, and with its signing, immediately began seeking out investors and volunteers. With the spending issue “handled”, at least for the time being, the other preparations were being made. The first issue at hand was procuring reliable transport for the men and supplies that would be needed not only for the journey, but for the possibility of a prolonged war against Japan. The population of the United States was, at the time of the 1850 census, 23 million people. In comparison, the total population of Japan was roughly 25 million. The efforts required to project America’s power overseas and maintain any sort of advantage would be enormous, as the sheer size of Japan would be an “unconquerable morass”, as said by then Colonel Robert E. Lee.

    Knowing the dangers full well, the Department of War looked to gather the largest naval force possible that would allow for an overwhelming thrust into Japanese waters. Commodore Perry’s expedition had roughly a dozen ships in total. The planned naval force, made up of several different squadrons, including armed merchantmen and privateers, numbered nearly 30. Within this force was the formidable USS Cumberland, armed with thirty 32pdr guns, as well as a refit with new cannons built to fire explosive shells, which was quickly made the flagship of the newly designated “Pacific Fleet”. The privateers were numerous, consisting of either armed merchant ships, or supply ships with armed guards.

    Finally, the fleet had seven privately held and hired ships quickly refitted to carry a total of 800 United States Marines, under the command of Brigadier General Archibald Henderson, Commandant of the Marine Corps, specially reassigned to oversee the mission in Japan. After three months of bickering in congress and frantically meeting with business heads and private interests, the United States had prepared the Pacific Fleet for war. The journey would prove to be harsh, and the war even moreso. Regardless, on October 27th, 1853, the Pacific Fleet set sail from Virginia to head down the same path taken by the late Commodore Perry.

    A shorter update than the OP. Sorry, been swamped with work and family
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