China Relief Expedition:  The Boxer Uprising


Chapter 15


Extracted from






The Boxer Uprising

Acquisition of the Philippines tended to stimulate further a growing interest in China among Americans for both commercial and humanitarian reasons.  One important argument advanced for retaining the Philippines was that they would serve as a convenient way station in carrying on trade and protecting American interests in the Manchu empire.  The dominant problem in China at the end of the nineteenth century was its threatened partition by the Great Powers.  Both the Americans and the British opposed this, and in September 1899 the United States announced it had secured agreement from the interested powers for maintenance of an Open Door policy in their relations with China.

The already extensive exploitation of their country by foreign states, however, had aroused widespread resentment among younger Chinese.  They formed the nucleus of a secret group called Boxers by Westerners which, with tacit support of the Dowager Empress, undertook a campaign against foreign influences and foreigners.  By early 1900 this movement had brought much of China to the verge of revolution.  Boxers in the northern provinces attacked and killed hundreds of Chinese Christians and foreigners, mostly missionaries.  The wave of violence was climaxed by murder of the German Minister on June no.  In fear for their lives in what appeared to be the beginning of a general uprising, most remaining foreigners as well as many Chinese converts fled to the foreign legations area in Peking, defended by a composite force of some 600 soldiers and civilians.  Soon they were besieged there by a much larger force of Boxers assisted by Chinese imperial troops.

Although the McKinley administration disliked the idea of becoming involved in an election year in an international incident with overtones of entangling foreign alliances, it agreed to join with the other powers in taking such steps as seemed necessary to rescue their beleaguered nationals.  In establishing the limits of American diplomatic co-operation with the intervening powers, Secretary of State John Hay admonished the United States Minister that ". . . we have no policy in China except to protect with energy American interests and especially American citizens....  There must be no alliances."  And on July 3 Hay circulated a second Open Door note among the interested powers, stating that it was the policy of the United States "to seek a solution which may bring about permanent safety and peace to China, preserve Chinese territorial and administrative entity, protect all rights guaranteed to friendly powers by treaty and international law, and safeguard for the world the principle of equal and impartial trade with all parts of the Chinese Empire."

Already in June the Navy's China squadron, under Rear Adm. Louis Kempff, had joined with other foreign naval units in bombardment of the Taku forts guarding Tientsin, the port city nearest to Peking, and had supplied a contingent for an international landing force composed of marines and other available troops.  Formed into a rescue column, including more than a hundred Americans, this force had encountered overwhelming opposition and failed to break through to Peking.  The powers then had taken immediate steps to organize a large relief expedition to drive through to the Chinese capital.

Because of the Philippine Insurrection the United States had sizable Army units available fairly near China.  It could therefore contribute one of the larger contingents to the international relief force.  Although General [Arthur] MacArthur, commanding in the Philippines, was somewhat reluctant to weaken his already overextended forces, he agreed to dispatch to China immediately the 9th Infantry and later the 14th Infantry and some artillery units.  Other units, including the 6th Cavalry, came directly from the United States. Using Manila as a base and Nagasaki, Japan, as an advance port, the United States eventually assembled some 2,500 soldiers and marines in China under command of Maj. Gen. Adna R. Chaffee.  On July 13, elements of this force, officially designated the China Relief Expedition, participated with troops from several other nations in the attack on Tientsin, which surrendered on the same day.

By early August, an allied force of some 19,000, including British, French, Japanese, Russian, German, Austrian, Italian, and American troops, was ready to move out of Tientsin toward Peking, some seventy miles distant.  Fighting a number of sharp skirmishes en route, this force reached the Manchu capital on August 12 and prepared immediately to assault the gates leading into the Outer City. Lacking effective central direction, the relief expedition's attack was poorly executed.  The Russian contingent prematurely forced an entrance into the Outer City on August 13, only to be thrown into confusion and require rescue by other allied troops.  The next day, in a more carefully coordinated assault, elements of the U.S. 14th Infantry scaled the so-called Tartar Wall and provided cover for the British as they entered the Outer City in force, relieving the legations compound.  Then on August 15, Capt. Henry J. Reilly's Light Battery F of the U.S. 5th Artillery shattered the gates leading into the Inner City with several well-placed salvos, opening the way for the allied troops to occupy the center of Peking.  Although American troops had suffered comparatively light losses—slightly more than 200 killed and wounded—they did not take part in subsequent military operations, which consisted primarily of suppressing scattered Boxer elements and rescuing foreigners in the provinces.  The McKinley administration, anxious to avoid further involvement in China, wanted to get Army units back to the Philippines before winter.

In a few months all resistance had ended and the Dowager Empress sued for peace, offering to pay an indemnity and reaffirm previously existing commercial concessions.  During prolonged negotiations an international army of occupation to which the United States contributed a small contingent of Regulars remained in north China.  It was withdrawn in September 1901 under terms of the Boxer Protocol.  This agreement also provided that the powers maintain a fortified legation in Peking, garrison the Tientsin-Peking railway—an American contingent served as a part of this force until 1938—and receive reparations of $333 million.  Of this amount the United States claimed only $25 million.  In a few years it became apparent that even this sum was more than was needed to indemnify claims of American nationals and in 1907, and again in 1924, the United States returned portions totaling nearly $17 million to China, which placed the money in a trust fund for education of Chinese youths in both countries.

Our thanks to the Center of Military History, United States Army, Washington, DC for the information on this page, excerpted from the Army Historical Series "American Military History", chapter 15, Emergence to World Power, 1898-1902, pages 339-342, available online at


China Relief Expedition:  The Boxer Uprising
Copyright © 2012  14th Infantry Regiment Association
Last modified: April 17, 2016