On July 2, 1853, the American squadron, four ships, 61 guns, 967 men, headed finally for Edo (Tokyo) Bay.
With Japan a few days’ distance, Perry pressed ahead with his preparations for any eventuality. Beyond defending the squadron against an attack by the Japanese, Perry was also readying his men for the possibility that they would have to make a landing and deliver President Millard Fillmore’s letter to the emperor by force.
There were daily musters at general quarters and frequent target practice with both the big guns and small arms. The one break from shipboard routine came on July 4th, when the order came to “splice the main brace,” and the crew was treated to an extra ration of grog as the ships’ guns thundered a salute across the empty ocean. The salute, Wells Williams wrote in his journal, announced “the coming of the universal Yankee nation to disturb (Japan’s) apathy and long ignorance.”
At four in the morning on July 8 the two steamers with the sloops of war in tow churned on once again for the entrance to Edo Bay, and soon, despite the haze, they could see the precipitous Izu Peninsula and an occasional junk headed seaward. When they first spotted land, a surge of excitement ran through the crews of the four vessels. As they passed more and more junks, the Americans could see the Japanese sailors standing and gesturing, evidently amazed by the sight of four black ships moving effortlessly over the water at eight or nine knots without a sail set, thick, black smoke pouring from the two lead ships.
Perry reviewed his plans for dealing with the Japanese . . . . He would “confer personally with no one but a functionary of the highest rank in the empire. . . . I was well aware that the more exclusive I should make myself and the more exacting I might be, the more respect these people of forms and ceremonies would be disposed to award me.” Finally, whether he would land troops by force would “be decided by the development of succeeding events.”
When the commanders returned to their ships, the decks were cleared for action. Sections of the forward rail on the steamers were removed to provide a clear shot for their bow guns. Ports were lowered, guns were run into place and loaded, ammunition was organized, muskets, cutlasses and boarding pikes were laid out for use, and the men were called to general quarters.
Among the men, elation gave way to anxious excitement. Would they face combat or at least a shelling once they came within range of the shore? As the ships drew within two miles of the cape, a dozen boats sporting large banners put out from the shore, but in little or no time were left bobbing in the steamers’ wakes.
At about five o’clock, the four ships anchored in a line so that their guns could be brought to bear on Uraga and two forts that lay along the peninsula to the north.
. . . It was now clear enough to see the shore distinctly. The Americans quickly noted that both Cape Sagami and the headland under which they were anchored appeared to be heavily fortified. . . . After two and a half years of planning and preparation, Perry had finally reached the Land of the Gods. The two nations had come to a moment of decision. As guardboats rushed from several directions toward the four ships, the Japanese and the Americans faced one another down the barrels of their cannon. They shared for a brief time the opportunity to begin their inevitable relationship either on a friendly or a warlike basis.
Meanwhile, the story of the fearsome black ships jumped from village to village as word filtered up from the coastal towns into the interior. In no time, the populace was in a state of panic. Soldiers moving toward the coast from their encampments . . . pushed past the first fear-stricken villagers who were headed in the opposite direction with their possessions on their backs.
As dusk gathered, the Japanese were alarmed by the sound of a sunset gun from the squadron, but when all appeared quiet around the ships, there was little to do but maintain the tense watch over the four dark forms that lay off the shore.
. . . Steam was kept up on the Mississippi and Susquehanna while armed watches were ordered to keep an eye out for fire ships that might be sent down upon the American vessels.
. . . At midnight, highlighting the eerie specter of the four great ships anchored off the dark shore, a spectacular comet--a blue fireball with a red wedge-shaped tail--lit up the sky. Like a fiery rocket trailing bright sparks, it bathed the American ships in a strange blue light as the glow played along their decks and spars. From just above the horizon in the southwest it moved in a straight line toward the northeast, where it finally disappeared just before dawn.
“The ancients,” an officer wrote, “would have construed this remarkable appearance of the heavens as an omen promising a favorable issue to an enterprise undertaken by them, and we may pray God that our present attempt to bring a singular and half-barbarous people into the family of civilized nations may succeed without resort to bloodshed.”
1990, Peter Booth Wiley. Used by arrangement with Viking Penguin.
BOOK REVIEW: “Yankees In the Land of the Gods” by Peter Booth Wiley is reviewed on Page 4 of today’s Book Review section.