How A Band of Japanese Ronin Helped Win The American Revolutionary War
By Chris Oakley
Summary: In the first three chapters of this series we recalled the founding of the Japanese settlement New Kyoto in Virginia; New Kyoto’s growth into a full-fledged town; and the role which the descendants of the original New Kyoto settlers played in winning the American Revolutionary War and in the process of creating the US Constitution. In this segment we’ll review how Japanese-American soldiers and sailors served with distinction during the War of 1812 and helped shape America’s westward expansion.
The Leopard incident of 1807 was the match that would light the fuse for an explosion of renewed anti-British feeling among Japanese-Americans. When the British ship of the line seized the American naval frigate Chesapeake and impressed several of its crew for service with the Royal Navy, at least four of those men were of Japanese descent-- and of those four two were descendants of one of the original settlers of New Kyoto. This outraged Japanese-Americans no end, and they were clamoring for then-President Thomas Jefferson to avenge the insult. As things worked out, however, it would actually be during the tenure of Jefferson’s successor, James Madison, when Japanese-Americans took up arms against the British Empire once more.
Some Japanese-American men didn’t wait for the US government to make an official declaration of war against Great Britain; shortly after President Madison was first sworn into office, a hundred or so men from New Bedford’s Japanese enclave formed their own volunteer militia brigade to make hit-and-run attacks on British outposts along the U.S.-Canada border. This turn of events served to further chill already frosty diplomatic relations between the Madison Administration and Great Britain...
...and would later be cited by historians on both sides of the Atlantic as a major casus belli for the War of 1812. British colonial authorities in Canada were outraged by the Japanese volunteer brigade attacks on their frontier bases, and they demanded that London send troops to strengthen their defenses. In response, the British Army began dispatching men to Canada to discourage any further raids by the Japanese militiamen. This in turn prompted President Madison to begin deploying additional troops to the American side of the border, and as the months went by the danger of another war between the United States and Great Britain grew accordingly.
Of course, the British were at something of a disadvantage when it came to such troop deployments. Not only did they have their hands full trying to fight a major war against Napoleon and maintain order in an empire spanning the entire globe, but they also had to contend with the stark reality that British troops had to cover a much longer distance to reach the U.S.-Canadian border: just to get to Canada they had to cross the rough waters of the North Atlantic. The Americans, by contrast, could afford to concentrate on a much narrower battlefront and had numerous overland routes at their disposal with which to bring men, equipment, and supplies to the forts which guarded the U.S. side of the U.S.-Canada frontier. Furthermore, some of the men who would be called on to defend America’s northern borders lived merely a stone’s throw away from those borders and knew the territory intimately. And last but not least, the regular U.S. troops the British would have to fight if and when war came could supplement their strength by drawing on volunteer militias from the states immediately neighboring Canada.
When the War of 1812 finally began in earnest, among the first U.S. troops to go into battle were-- fittingly --a detachment of Japanese- American infantry mustered in Virginia near New Kyoto. Within two days of the official U.S. declaration of war on Great Britain, they were on the march toward the U.S.-Canadian frontier to fight the British Army. In New Bedford, a U.S. Navy man-of-war whose was composed primarily of sons of members of the city’s Japanese-American fishing fraternity put to sea within scarcely more than a week after hostilities between the United States and Great Britain were formally initiated.
Isaac Yomiuri, U.S. Naval Academy class of 1807, was serving on board a sloop on patrol off the coast of Georgia when the war broke out. He had gotten into the U.S. Navy hoping to see action against the notorious Barbary pirates of Algeria, but the First Barbary War was already over by the time he graduated the Academy. Any combat he might have missed off the Barbary coast, however, he more than made up for the first time his ship faced the Royal Navy in the line of duty. In a ferocious clash between his own vessel and a British man- of-war, Yomiuri sustained at least five wounds from shrapnel resulting from the impact of RN cannonballs on his ship; he also suffered a stab wound when a British seaman trying to board Yomiuri’s ship sliced his arm with a dagger. "He was utterly contemptuous of the dangers around him." his captain would later recall in a letter home. "Had I allowed it, I am certain he would have attempted to confront the whole British fleet single-handed."
Yomiuri himself was considerably more modest about his exploits that day. In a biographical account of his naval service published thirty years after the War of 1812 ended, he described his actions as simply "necessary to preserving the safety of my crewmates and defending my homeland". But when the war was over and Yomiuri had returned home to New Bedford, pulp novelists of the day had managed to make Yomiuri’s encounter with the British seaman sound like it was the most important naval fight since Trafalgar.
While Yomiuri was risking life and limb in defense of America’s coast, thousands of his fellow Japanese-Americans were trading rifle and cannon shots with the red-coated troops of His Majesty’s army. The New Kyoto volunteers in particular kept finding themselves in the thick of the ground war against the British; research by modern-day scholars suggests that one out of every eight Japanese-Americans who fell in battle during the first six months of the War of 1812 were members of the New Kyoto militia. Of that number, one of every four men were shot or bayoneted at close range, a clear reflection of how bitter the fighting could be.
One of the bloodiest battles the New Kyoto volunteers ever took part in was the American assault on Fort George, Ontario in May of 1813. They lost two dozen of their number in the first minutes of the attack alone, and before the fort was finally taken casualties to the New Kyoto militiamen would top out at 128 dead and 57 wounded, maimed, or missing.1 To this day, in fact, Japanese and American tourists still come to Ontario to visit the cemetery where the New Kyoto militia’s dead from the Battle of Fort George are buried.
Nearly two years later, the surviving troops of the militia would help write the War of 1812’s final chapter in the town of New Orleans. General Edward Pakenham, commander of the British forces which fought unsuccessfully to capture the Crescent City, later marveled in his war diaries at the absolute fearlessness of the militiamen: "They were, so far as I was able to discern, utterly disdainful of every danger in their midst. They did not halt their attacks even when our cannonballs crashed into their ranks." Even Andrew Jackson, hardly a timid soul himself, was astonished at the way the Japanese volunteers continued to strike at the British forces after sustaining casualties that would have crippled or destroyed most other regiments.
Not until Colonel Jackson himself personally ordered the New Kyoto militiamen to cease fire did they stop battling the British, and even then there were a few troopers who yearned for the opportunity to run a katana through a British soldier’s throat one more time. As it was, they devoted their energies after the battle mainly to burying their dead and tending to their wounded; a few days later, they would start the long march home.
As America’s boundaries began to expand during the 1820s and ‘30s, the descendants of the original New Kyoto settlers were among those at the forefront of that expansion. Like their European-descended fellow Americans, they were starting to feel somewhat crowded in the narrow strip of land along the Eastern Seaboard which was then the limits of the borders of the United States. They anticipated finding more "elbow room" in the vast territories west of the Mississippi River; some of them also hoped to reach the Pacific coastline in order to establish port colonies along the shores of what are today the states of Oregon and California. There were even those among them who thought that the move westward might someday lay the groundwork for Japanese in America to re-connect with the island nation from which their forefathers had emigrated in the 1600s. One of the first Japanese-American settlements to be established west of the Mississippi was a farming colony set up in 1825 near what is today Houston, Texas; among its citizens were two dozen or so veterans of the War of 1812, some of whom would later take up arms anew to fight in the Texan war for independence from Mexico.2 When the armies of Santa Anna tried to put down the incipient uprising in Texas, his troops got a swift and painful example of what a katana blade could do if properly used. Modern history scholars estimate that at least 13 percent of the casualties sustained by the Mexican army in the first months of the Texan war for independence were inflicted by Japanese-American volunteer fighters.
At the Battle of the Alamo, six Japanese-Americans were among the 180 men who perished defending the venerable mission-turned-fortress against repeated attempts by Santa Anna’s troops to capture it. When the Mexicans finally did take control of the Alamo after thirteen days of some of the bloodiest fighting ever seen on North American soil, it was a Japanese-American who fired the last shot for the Alamo’s Texan defenders.
As the Texan war for independence went on, other Mexican troops would get an unpleasant first-hand lesson in the fighting skills of the Japanese-American soldier. It eventually got to the point where some Mexican troops preferred to risk incurring stiff penalties for desertion rather than confront the ferocious enemy who had killed so many of their comrades. Even Santa Anna himself, hardly a shrinking violet by any stretch of the imagination, found himself feeling a bit of added trepidation whenever his regiments sent word that they had made contact with Japanese-American militia.
When Texas finally gained its independence from Mexico in 1836, many Japanese-Americans flocked to its Gulf coast region to take up the maritime occupations which their ancestors had once pursued and their relatives back east were still engaged in. Many others pushed onward towards the grasslands of the Great Plains in search of land where they might carve out farms or build homesteads. Still others, following the examples of their Anglo-Saxon or Hispanic neighbors, went into the cattle business and amassed herds of impressive size; beef from these herds became a popular item on the menus of eateries back East.
As had been the case with the Powhatans more than two centuries earlier when the original Tamagura expedition landed on the Virginia coast, the Native American societies which inhabited the plains and deserts of the American West greeted the arrival of Japanese-American visitors to their lands with a certain degree of wariness. Although it would be another decade before the two cultures had their first direct armed confrontation, stories about the Japanese-Americans’ ferocity as fighters had been filtering across the Mississippi for decades; even the most warlike indigenous peoples were somewhat reluctant at first to tangle with these sword-wielding newcomers. And it wasn’t just the Japanese settlers’ katana blades that made the Plains and Southwestern tribes nervous-- they were also worried about the lethal new kinds of firearms the settlers brought with them. Two-plus centuries of living and fighting alongside European-Americans had made Japanese-Americans learn to appreciate the value of having a good rifle close at hand to defend one’s home against anything or anyone which threatened it.
In October of 1846 the Edwards Plateau in Texas witnessed the first major armed confrontation between the Japanese-Americans and a western Native American foe. A party of Lipan Apaches outraged at the newcomers’ steadily growing encroachment on their home turf attacked a Japanese-American settlement west of the present-day site of the city of San Antonio; the settlement’s citizens immediately counterattacked, and a battle ensued in which both sides took heavy casualties. Though the fight ended in a stalemate, the Lipan Apaches came away from it with the awareness they had met an adversary whose fearlessness in the face of death matched (and sometimes surpassed)their own.
While the settlers at Edwards Plateau were facing a new foe, their brethren were getting reacquainted with an old one. By the time the Edwards skirmish took place, the United States had been at war with Mexico for at least a year....
To Be Continued
 According to modern U.S. Army historical estimates.
 One of these men, in fact, would later provide the inspiration for Sergio Leone’s classic spaghetti Western Rio Grande Samurai.