Formosa Expedition of 1867
Until the end of the Vietnam War, it was commonly believed by Americans that the nation had never lost an armed conflict with a foreign power. That may explain why the 1867 Formosa Expedition is so little known since it was a crushing defeat by a modern and veteran United States military by an indigenous people.
It began when a US ship, a merchant vessel named Rover, ran aground on a reef near Formosa. Its crew escaped and made it ashore where they were attacked by island natives called Paiwanans. When a British vessel learned of the massacre and reported it to the American East India Naval Station, a retaliatory expedition was launched in the form of the USS Ashuelot and a US Marine contingent.
Soon two more American warships were sent to Formosa to support the expedition, which Formosan authorities blamed on rogue natives. Nearly 200 American sailors and marines were eventually landed to seek out and destroy the Paiwanans, who used guerrilla tactics in the island’s jungles to offer a stiff resistance. Casualties on both sides were light, but progress through the thick jungle by the Americans was nearly non-existent. One American officer was killed towards the end of the fighting.
The Americans withdrew to their ships and soon returned to their base in China, having failed completely to achieve any of their objectives established when the mission was undertaken. Rather than re-commit American ships and troops to a second attempt, the American commander recommended that the United States help pay for attempts led by local chieftains and manned with their own warriors – a sort of precursor for what would in a later day be called Vietnamization.
Formosan attacks on American merchant ships wrecked in the treacherous waters of the area continued for many years, with American diplomacy shifting focus to establishing friendly relations with Japan. In 1874 the Japanese, with American encouragement and support, successfully suppressed the Paiwanans during the Taiwan Expedition.