Marines Hold the Line – and the Wall

David D. Winkler
(historian with the Naval Historical Foundation)

This article first appeared in the November 2001 issue of Sea Power Magazine, official publication of the Navy League of the United States, and is posted with their permission.

Within Asia, a radical group, with government connivance, engaged in a terror campaign to rid the region of Western influence. Although the scenario seems to be taken from contemporary headlines, this story – about the Boxer Rebellion in China – took place a century ago.

  At the end of the 19th century, bandit groups roamed the Chinese countryside terrorizing villages. China’s weak central government was unable (or perhaps unwilling) to act effectively, though, so various martial-arts groups literally took the law into their own hands to beat back the bandits. Because of the indoctrination they received, many in these groups, which became known as Boxers, believed they were invulnerable to swords, spears and more modern Western weapons.

  Missionaries challenged these beliefs, and for that reason Christians soon were being persecuted and attacked. Many Boxers also resented the colonial powers that had undermined Chinese sovereignty through special concessions. Floods, locusts, drought, and massive crop failures added to the desperate situation that many peasants faced.

  In May 1900, thousands of Boxers poured into Peking (Beijing), causing fear within the foreign communities. On 30 May, responding to a request from the foreign ministers, local Chinese authorities allowed the Americans, British, French, Italians, Japanese, and Russians to augment their embassy guard forces. The next day, 337 men arrived from foreign naval ships anchored off Taku (Dagu). Included in the contingent were 50 U.S. Marines, led by Captains John Myers and Newt Hall. Over the next few days, reports of atrocities against missionaries filtered into the legations from the countryside, and the foreign ministers called for additional reinforcements.

  At Taku, Vice Adm. Sir Edward H. Seymour formed an international rescue force of 2,056 troops, including 112 U.S. Marines, to move inland by train on 10-11 June. Ho0wever, the relief column met heavy resistance from the Boxers northwest of Tientsin (Tianjin) and were forced to fight their way back to that city.

  In Peking, tensions escalated into rioting around the section of the city hosting the cluster of foreign legations, and communications to the outside world were cut. Inhabitants of the legations and refugees built defensive positions. On 24 June, the Boxers attacked along the whole legation perimeter, occupying “the Tartar Wall” across from the American compound. The next day, a force of U.S. Marines led by Myers seized the wall. The stalemate continued.

  Reacting to the Chinese construction of a siege tower that would make the American position untenable, Myers led a mixed group of 46 American, British, and Russian troops during the early morning hours of 3 July and took out the tower. The fighting continued, though, with the Marines withstanding several attacks on 13 July alone.

  On the night of the 14th, Hall sent Private First Class Daniel J. Daly, an ex-New York City paperboy, to hold a forward position, while his fellow Marines deployed into a new defensive perimeter. Daly fended off repeated attacks throughout the night. As dawn broke, numerous dead Chinese lay before Daly’s position.

  Fighting ceased on the following day when the Chinese offered to allow the legations to withdraw – unarmed. The ministers delayed before responding, to allow time to shore up their defenses.

  Meanwhile, a larger second expedition, including the U.S. Army’s 9th Infantry Regiment, had rescued the Seymour expedition and secured Tientsin as a logistical base for a move on Peking. Further reinforcements, including the Army’s 14th Regiment, then arrived. On 5 August, a multinational force of over 14,000 troops began moving up the Pei Ho River.

In Peking, the truce had ended on 28 July; knowing, though, that a relief column was on the way, the Chinese redoubled their efforts to reduce te legations. On 13 August, the U.S. Marines fought valiantly to hold the Tartar Wall while the defenders of the other legations held their sections against vicious attacks. The next day, the 14th Infantry Regiment broke through to lift the siege. Later, 21 of the Marine defenders, including Daly, were awarded the Medal of Honor.

  At the insistence of the European legations, heavy indemnities were imposed on the Chinese, and many of the Boxer leaders were executed. “The invasion of the eight foreign powers” and the aftermath added greatly to the already strong Chinese resentment against the Western powers. For the Marines, though, the Boxer Rebellion set a standard for combat excellence, and for individual heroism, that would be repeated numerous times over the course of the following century.

Material derived from Richard O’Connor’s The Spirit Soldiers: A Historical Narrative of the Boxer Rebellion (Putnam, 1973).

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