Asia at the Time of Gettysburg
Image Credit: Wikicommons

Asia at the Time of Gettysburg


Between July 1 and July 3, the armies of the United States of America and the Confederate States of America ground each other down just south of the small Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg.  The Battle of Gettysburg ended Robert E. Lee’s second invasion of the north, and marked the end of Confederate hopes to win the war through decisive battle. With over 46,000 casualties between the two armies, Gettysburg was, and remains, the largest battle ever fought in the Americas.

Politics does not stop when war begins, even if war causes us to ignore everything else.  Even as the American Civil War drew the world’s attention, the nations of the Asia Pacific continued to pursue their interests, and sort through their problems. The Civil War had little direct impact on the Pacific; beyond some skirmishing and political machination at the beginning of the war, the only significant Pacific action came in the form of the CSS Shenandoah, a raider which captured 38 ships towards the end of the war. Nevertheless, the North American fratricide of July 1863 was matched by instability, revolution, and state collapse in Asia. 

In China, the Taiping Rebellion ground inexorably toward its bloody end.  The military forces of the Qing Dynasty, including the “Ever Victorious Army” under the command of Charles Gordon, had broken the momentum of the rebellion, and by Gettysburg were in the early stages  of the decisive siege of Nanking. Nearly a million died in the American Civil War; perhaps twenty times that many, soldier and civilian, perished in the Taiping Rebellion. The Qing victory would not have the same long-term effect as the Union victory in North America. Instead of solidifying regime control, the rebellion weakened the state, leaving it unable to either assert control domestically or resist foreign demands.

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In Japan, the “Edict to Expel the Barbarians,” delivered in March 1863, helped demonstrate the impotence of the Tokugawa Shogunate in the face of Western encroachment.  On June 25 the American merchant ship Pembroke came under fire from the Choshu clan, provoking a response from the USS Wyoming, which attacked the Choshus at the Battle of Shimoneski Straits two weeks after Gettysburg. Over the next year, a combined campaign by the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and the Netherlands would punish the Choshu and help spur Japanese reform.

With the benefit of hindsight, we can detect other trends in the Asia-Pacific; American economic penetration of the Kingdom of Hawaii increased steadily while the Spanish occupation of the Philippines helped create both a national consciousness and an educated Filipino elite that would soon produce a quarter-century of rebellion.  French encroachment into Indochina continued apace, with Cambodia becoming a protectorate in August. Off the western coast of South America, island disputes would soon lead Spain into war against several of its former colonies.

The events at Gettysburg were important for the Asia-Pacific; a victory by the Army of Northern Virginia might have extended the war, or (less likely) led to the international recognition for what was left of the Confederacy.  This would have left the United States less prepared to continue its campaign of Pacific expansion in the second half of the nineteenth century, with potentially major effects in Hawaii, the Philippines, and elsewhere.  Still, history didn’t sit on its hands awaiting the results of Pickett’s Charge; the world was not sufficiently globalized, and the United States not sufficiently important, that developments in a small Pennsylvania town could captivate global attention.

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