Hugh Purvis

Patriot Led a Life of Military Service, Culminating in Medal of Honor

By Mike Miller

Pvt Hugh Purvis received the Medal of Honor in 1872, for his heroic actions during the Korean Expedition in 1871.

Students of Marine Corps history may know about the bravery of Hugh Purvis, who received a Medal of Honor for his actions in the 1871 Korea expedition. But what is not well-known about Purvis is that he was a veteran of the Civil War. Purvis became a Marine in 1869, the first of many years of a long and distinguished career wearing the eagle, globe and anchor. Before that, however, he was a soldier who fought in the Battle of Gettysburg.

With the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Hugh Purvis was struck with patriotic fervor and joined the 23rd Pennsylvania Infantry, a three-month regiment, serving in Maryland in order to secure Washington, D.C., from Confederate incursions. At the end of his enlistment, Purvis decided that military life suited him well and joined the 28th Pennsylvania Infantry for three years. After a quiet winter on the Potomac River near Harper’s Ferry, Purvis faced sustained battle for the first time at Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862. More combat awaited at Chancellorsville in 1863, which began the road to Gettysburg. The 28th Pennsylvania was fragmented, with Purvis now belonging to the newly formed 147th Pennsylvania.

On July 1, 1863, Private Hugh Purvis and the other 297 officers and men of the 147th Pennsylvania Infantry marched hurriedly toward Gettysburg, drawn by the sounds of cannons and the knowledge that they must face General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia on their native soil. As dawn broke on July 3, 1863, Private Purvis and the 147th Pennsylvania were ready to meet the expected Con­federate advance at the base of Culp’s Hill. Across a cleared field and stone wall, the 1st Maryland Infantry (Confederate), the 3rd North Carolina and two Virginia regiments made ready to charge directly into the Union regiment’s line. Lieutenant Colonel Ario Pardee moved his men down a slight slope to the low ground to a better firing position where they would not be on the skyline. Hugh Purvis and the 147th Pennsylvania readied for battle.

The woods where the 147th Pennsylvania Infantry lay at the time of the charge of the rebels on Culp’s Hill, Gettysburg, Pa.

At 8 a.m., the Confederates charged down the slope with the “rebel yell,” led by the Maryland regimental mascot Gracie, a black Labrador retriever. Pardee allowed the Confederates to approach to 100 yards and then opened fire. The volley tore through the enemy ranks, breaking the charge into fragments that continued to attack until they could go no further. Within minutes, the surviving Confederates drew back up the hill to safety, leaving the field littered with the bodies of the dead and wounded southerners.

The sight before the 147th Pennsylvania was horrendous. One wounded Maryland soldier pulled up to load his rifle, which caused many nervous Federals to sight in on the injured man. Major John Craig ordered the men to hold fire as it was obvious that the warrior could do little damage. The intent of the wounded man soon became clear. All watched carefully as he slowly loaded his weapon, pulled the hammer back and then placed the muzzle of the rifle under his chin. As the Federals watched in horror, the soldier placed his ramrod on the trigger and fired the weapon, ending his suffering. No one who witnessed the incident could ever forget the Maryland soldier. The field at Gettysburg would forever be known as Pardee Field, after the commander of the 147th Pennsylvania.

Purvis next saw action in the Western theater in the 1863 battle of Lookout Moun­tain and the 1864 Atlanta Campaign at Dug Gap, Resaca, New Hope Church and Kennesaw Moun­tain. On Sept. 26, 1864, he returned home at the end of his enlistment. Civilian life seemed not to suit Purvis, and he joined the Vet­erans Volunteer Corps in 1865, serving in the defense of Washing­ton, D.C., until the end of the war. Purvis remained in this service until July 20, 1866, when he again rejected civilian life for the duty of a soldier, enlisting for three years initially with the 26th Infantry Regiment. As the Army reduced in size, Purvis’ regiment was consolidated with other units.

Ario Pardee

Purvis made a fateful de­cision on Oct. 27, 1869, leav­ing the Army for an enlist­ment in the Ma­rine Corps with his first sta­tion fittingly the Marine Barracks at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. He left the City of Brotherly Love for Boston the fol­low­ing month, fol­lowed by a quick as­signment to the Marine detachment on USS Alaska on Dec. 29, a new wooden hulled screw sloop of war. Purvis had little time to learn the ways of the Ma­rine Corps before going to sea. On April 8, 1870, Purvis found himself on his way to join the Asiatic Squadron commanded by Rear Admiral John Rodgers.

Private Purvis arrived on station just as tensions between the United States and Korea escalated over the 1866 disap­pearance of an American flagged ship, S.S. General Sherman, and the American Sailors who were supposedly shipwrecked on Korean territory. There existed no formal diplomatic relations between the two countries, so when the ship vanished, no method existed to investigate the in­cident. American warships visited Korea over the next two years, but no information was gained.

Rear Admiral John Rodgers was tasked to visit Korea and assist American diplomats in establishing some form of diplomatic relations. He assembled his squadron in Nagasaki, Japan, and sailed for Korea on May 16, 1871, aboard the screw frigate USS Colorado, accompanied by USS Alaska with Pvt Purvis aboard, the screw sloop of war USS Benicia, side wheel gunboat USS Monocacy and the gunboat USS Palos. The expedition reached Ko­rean waters three days later but was immobilized by thick fog that prevented any further movement. When the weather cleared, RADM Rodgers anchored his squadron near Eugenie Island on May 23. Rodgers sent out the gunboat USS Palos with steam launches to survey the area.


This map shows the location of the forts and batteries engaged by land and water forces of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet, June 1871. (Courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command)

At noon on June 1, USS Monocacy began the sounding mission with Commander Homer C. Blake on USS Palos steaming up the river behind three steam launches and a steam cutter performing the actual soundings. As the Americans neared the Korean forts at a bend of the river, the Sailors “observed the flags, an indication of the forts being occupied by soldiers.” As the Americans came closer, they saw the cannons in the fort were fully manned, and “the face of the hill occupied by lines of men, perhaps a thousand in number.”

The sound of a rifle shot echoed across the river, signaling the guns to open a blistering fire upon the American craft. Blake’s Sailors replied with a fusillade of cannon fire which quickly caused the gun crews to abandon their cannons. The American ships passed the fort at full speed and anchored, still firing at any sign of Korean resistance; however, USS Monocacy struck a rock and was leaking water at a rapid rate. The small boats re­ported little ammunition remaining from the fight. The Americans withdrew to re­join the rest of the squadron, firing on the forts as they passed with no response from the Koreans. The Americans lost only two Sailors wounded during the engagement.

RADM Rodgers regarded the fire from the Korean forts as an insult to the American flag and informed the Korean government he would give them 10 days to make an apology before taking further action against the forts. Ambassador Low concurred with RADM Rodgers’ arrangements. The 10 days allowed him time to plan for battle and to take advantage of the neap tide, which would provide optimum conditions for a landing. There would be no more dueling with the cannon from the river. This time, RADM Rodgers planned an am­phibious landing that would capture each fort as necessary. He pulled together a landing force of Sailors and Marines from Colorado, Alaska, and Benicia, totaling 759 men, including 105 Marines, commanded by Captain McLain Tilton. As each day passed, there remained no response from the Korean government.

On June 10, at 10 a.m., Rodgers ordered his landing force into motion with the mission to punish the forts which fired on the American vessels. USS Monocacy bombarded the first offending fort, identi­fied as the “Marine Fort,” while the Palos towed 22 small boats loaded with Sailors and Marines, including Pvt Purvis and the landing party from Alaska. The Koreans returned fire but were driven from their guns by Monocacy’s cannon. Benicia made for a landing in an inlet below the fort, flanking the Korean defenders, who scattered as the boats neared shore, leaving their stronghold vacant.

USS Monocacy towing landing boats in the Han River during the Korean expedition in May-June 1871.

Each boat grounded on the beach, allowing the ready Marines and Sailors to jump ashore to an unopposed landing, at least in theory. No one performed a reconnaissance of the ground itself, which proved to be the major opponent of the day. The inlet possessed a seemingly bottom­less mudflat, which grasped the Marines by their legs and refused to let go. “The men, stepping from the boats, sunk to their knees, and so tenacious was the clay,” Rodgers reported, “that in many cases they lost gaiters and shoes, and even trouser legs.” Even worse were the gun crews of the nine howitzers, which quickly disappeared in the mud up the axles of their gun carriages. Dry land was a distant quarter mile to half a mile, depending on the landing site.

The lack of Korean resistance, even with obsolete weapons, allowed the Ameri­cans to avoid a disaster as the hill above the fort completely dominated the mud flat. Time was also necessary to plow through the mud and cross cavernous tidal channels in the sludge to reach dry land. Purvis and the Marines took a direct route to the fort, pulling themselves from out of the mud into the abandoned fort; however, the landing guns took a deeper route out of the swamp, avoiding the steep banks of the hill at the fort. Each cannon was pulled out by 75 to 80 Sailors and Marines manning drag lines with raw force to overcome the morass and requiring more than two hours of labor.

Once out of the mud, the sodden Ma­rines and Sailors immediately began the destruction of the abandoned fort, tossing the smaller cannons into the river while spiking the larger cannons to prevent any further use. Other working parties pulled down the walls of the fort while powder, uniforms, rations and anything else burn­able were put to the torch, send­ing blank clouds of smoke into the air. The destruc­tion went on into the later after­noon when the Americans went into camp on the heights above the smoldering fort. The Marines took position in advance of the main encampment, armed with one of the boat howitzers, placing a strong picket line to detect any counterattack by Korean forces from the additional forts upriver. A force of Korean soldiers harassed Pvt Purvis and the Marines at midnight with desultory rifle fire but was soon driven away by several howitzer shells.

Daylight of June 11 allowed complete destruction of Fort Marine, and a request was sent to Admiral Rodgers for further instructions. Rodgers signaled back, “Go ahead and take the forts.” Commander Lewis A. Kimberly ordered the landing party into motion, marching toward the principal Korean forts 3 miles upriver. Pvt Purvis and the rest of the Marines led the advance, approaching a second fort on a high ridge overlooking the river. Once again, the Korean forces evacuated their fort, allowing the Americans to destroy the large number of cannons remaining behind. When the walls were pulled down, the American column began to march the final 2 miles to the heart of the Korean defense. If there would be a battle, it would be in the final fort complex ahead, the headquarters of the Korean commanding general.

Elbow Fort, one of the defenses of the Han River, as photographed from Fort McKee shortly after its capture on June 11, 1871.

The final 2 miles to the Korea citadel proved exhausting, and Admiral Rodgers described it as “a succession of steep hills, with deep ravines between, over which foot soldiers passed with great fatigue.” Entire companies deployed on the drag ropes of the artillery, hauling every cannon up each vertical ravine and then lowering the gun down into the next gulley in a never-ending struggle, yard after yard. As the American column moved wearily forward, columns of Korean infantry appeared on their left flank, threatening the advance. Commander Blake ordered three companies of Sailors and five of the howitzers to keep the Korean advance at bay until the main column reached their target.

At 11 a.m., Blake’s men reached the base of the peninsula holding the main Korean position well sited once again on a commanding hill overlooking the river. The approach from the land side proved most formidable with the only way to attack the position constricted by the peninsula into a narrow kill zone, commanded by the fort. The Sailors and Marines wasted little time getting into position, eager to complete their relentless attack. Purvis and the rest of the Marines moved in defilade to within 150 yards of the fort and then paused to recover their strength for the decisive attack.

An oil painting by John Clymer, USMCR, depicting the landing of Marine infantry and field artillery on Kang-Wa Island in the Han River in Korea, June 10, 1871. USS Monocacy provides gunfire support in the background.

The final charge would have to be made up yet another steep hill and then face the walls of the fort itself without scaling ladders. “Our men kept up a fire from their resting place upon the fort whenever an enemy exposed himself,” Rodgers noted, “and this they did constantly with the most reckless courage, discharging their pieces as fast as they could load.” The Koreans desperately defended their position, returning the fire with a ven­geance. A bullet struck Marine Private Denis Hanrahan of the Benicia, killing him in the exchange of fire.

At last, the order to charge was given. Purvis sprinted ahead down a slope into an 80-foot ravine and then up the final yards to the walls of the enemy fort. The Korean defenders fired quickly on the charge until the Americans reached the wall, and then instead of pausing to reload, threw stones and boulders down the attackers. Luckily for the Americans, several gaps were blown into the wall before them, allowing them to enter the wall without a fatal climb.

Navy Lieutenant McKee was the first American in the fort and immediately engaged in hand-to-hand combat with the Koreans, falling with two mortal wounds, a spear in the side and musket ball in the groin. The Koreans fought hard against the Marines and Sailors. “The fighting inside the fort was desperate,” Rodgers related, “they apparently expected no quarter, and probably would have given none.” Private McNamara, of Benicia, took on a Korean soldier on the parapet, wrenching the match­lock weapon from the grip of his opponent and then killing him in a hand-to-hand fight. Navy Landsman Seth Allen of Colorado was killed while climbing the parapet as the Korean soldiers struggled with the Marines and Sailors. “Our men fought, some with cutlasses, others with their muskets and carbines, using them as clubs,” Commander Silas Casey of Colorado related, “the Koreans with spears, swords, stones and even threw dust to blind us.”

Rodgers related the Koreans “fought to the death, and only when the last man fell did the conflict cease.” The American flag flew from the parapet of the fort at 11:15 a.m. The Korean soldiers fought bravely but could not survive the American modern firepower in the close confines of the fort. At least 108 bodies of the Ko­rean garrison were counted inside the citadel, and another estimated 20 prisoners were captured, many of whom were wounded. The garrison bravely gave their lives to defend their fort. Two Marines—Private Hanrahan and Private Michael Owens of Colorado—were killed in the fight.

Private Purvis was among the first to enter the fort and charged with Captain Tilton and Corporal Charles Brown on the large yellow 12-foot square flag of the Korean general. “The Alaska Marine [Purvis] was then a second or two before me and my corporal [Brown], but while he was unknotting the halliards, my Corporal and I tore the flag down.” Tilton noted in his report that Purvis rightly deserved credit for the capture. Both Purvis and Brown were recommended for Medals of Honor, but Cpl Brown deserted before he was awarded his medal. Pvt Purvis received his medal in 1872. He left the Marine Corps with the memories of his round the world cruise fresh in his mind. Yet, Purivis would not remain a civilian for long. On May 18, 1874, he found a new home and a new start by reenlisting in the Marine Corps at the Marine Barracks Annapolis, Md. Interestingly, Purvis rejoined his comrade of the Korean forts, Capt McLane Tilton, who was in command of the station.

Here, Purvis found his niche, remaining at the barracks for the next 10 years until 1884, when he was discharged from the Marine Corps as a corporal. He continued to serve as armorer and mechanic at the Naval Academy for many years. Purvis also met Mary Alice Jackson of Annapolis, and they were married by 1880. The two had three children. After a long and certainly interesting life, Purvis died on Feb. 12, 1922, in Annapolis and is buried in Saint Anne’s Cemetery beside Alice, who lived long enough to have the honor of sponsoring the USS Hugh Purvis (DD-709), commissioned in 1945.


Inside Fort McKee after its capture on June 11, 1871. (Photo courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command)

Author’s bio: Mike Miller has written five books and many articles about Ma­rine Corps and Civil War history. A long­time Leatherneck contributor, he retired in 2016 after a 34-year career in the Marine Corps archival, museum and history pro­grams. His latest book is “The 4th Marine Brigade at Belleau Wood and Soissons: History and Battlefield Guide.”