Philo N. McGiffin, Naval Academy Graduate, Dies of Wounds Suffered in Sino-Japanese War

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Philo N. McGiffin, Naval Academy Graduate, Dies of Wounds Suffered in Sino-Japanese War

Philo N. McGiffin as Superintendent of Chinese Naval Academy, c. 1892
Photo from book "Real Soldiers of Fortune" by Richard Harding Davis (1912 edition)
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: February 11, 1897

Our mini-history lesson for the week is the story of a man once described as a "soldier of fortune." He completed his schooling at the U.S. Naval Academy, but failed to receive an American naval commission. He chose to offer his services to a foreign government, and it proved his undoing.


McGiffin's ancestors came from Scotland, settling in western Pennsylvania in the late eighteenth century. His great-grandfather fought in the American War of Independence, and his father participated in the Mexican-American War and the War Between the States.

Philo Norton McGiffin was born on December 13, 1860 near the town of Washington, in Washington County in southwestern Pennsylvania. [I mention this because I was also born in that area.] After matriculating for about one year at the local college – Washington and Jefferson College – McGuffin contacted his U.S. congressman and wrangled an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD.

Nearly 140 years later, McGiffin's time at Annapolis has become legendary; he acquired the reputation as a prankster that got him into trouble time and again. However, his hijinks apparently never interfered with his scholarly pursuits. After completing his studies, he spent two years serving aboard American ships on the high seas. At the end of that time, he and the other members of his class (about 90 midshipmen) took a series of examinations to compete for the 12 officers' commissions offered for service in the U.S. Navy. [This was the norm at that time, as the U.S. Navy was quite small, and only a small number of positions were open for Navy service.] Unfortunately, McGiffin's test result were adequate, but not high enough to earn one of the coveted commissions. As a consolation prize of sorts, each of the unsuccessful midshipmen were given a year's officer pay, about $1000.

Naval Career in the Far East

Though disappointed, McGiffin did not let this setback stop him. He had read in the newspapers about a war raging in the Far East between France and Imperial China, known variously today as the Sino-French War, the Franco-Chinese War, or the Tonkin War (1884-1885). Intent on offering his services to the Chinese military, McGiffin booked passage from San Francisco to Nagasaki, then on to the port of Tientsin, the site of the Chinese Naval Academy.

[In a letter to his family, McGiffin wrote that during the voyage to China, the ship he was on was chased by two French gunboats. His vessel escaped its pursuers, and arrived safely. However, as he was arranging a meeting with Imperial Chinese naval officials, McGiffin heard the bad news…the war with the French was over.]

This fact did not deter the brash Yank. McGiffin arranged a meeting with the director of the Chinese Naval Academy, and offered his services in whatever capacity they could provide. At first, his age (then 24) was an impediment. But after he passed a number of tests, he was offered a commission as a lieutenant in the Chinese Navy.

For the next 9 years, McGiffin toiled as an instructor at the Academy, teaching seamanship and gunnery. He also advised the Chinese Navy on ship construction. The young American was appointed to a number of commands, where he trained his crews in seamanship and gunnery skills.

[It was not unusual for foreigners to receive commissions in the military forces of Japan, China, or other nations. During this time period, many native rulers hired British, French, German, and American military trainers or "advisors" to train their people. You will recall that a certain Baron von Steuben came to America during the American War of Independence and helped train the American army during the winter of 1777-78 at Valley Forge, PA. His lessons on how European armies marched and maneuvered were valuable in helping this country to attain its independence.]

Battle of the Yalu River

Former Chinese "battleship" Chen Yuen after its capture by Japanese, c 1895 or later
Former Chinese "battleship" Chen Yuen after its capture by Japanese, c 1895 or later

In August of 1894, Japan and China went to war (the First Sino-Japanese War). The major theatre of the conflict took place on land in Korea and in the sea to the west of the peninsula. At that time, Korea was a vassal of China. In the forty years since Japan had been opened to Western commerce and military contacts (1854), this was the first war which truly tested the emerging Japanese Imperial military. A number of land battles took place in August and early September.

In September, 1894 the Imperial Japanese Navy encountered the Chinese Beiyang Fleet ("Northern Seas Fleet") off the estuary of the Yalu River. The Beiyang Fleet had just finished escorting a convoy of army reinforcements to Korea. On September 17, the Beiyang Fleet sailed in the Yellow Sea to confront the Japanese fleet.

Philo McGiffin was on board the Chinese pre-dreadnought battleship Chen Yuen (or Zhenyuan), serving as the ship's executive officer. In McGiffin's account of the battle which appeared in the August, 1895 issue of the Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, he referred to his vessel merely as an "ironclad".

The Beiyang Fleet outnumbered its Japanese counterpart, not only in number of ships, but in tonnage and the size of its main armaments. However, the Japanese warships boasted more modern, rapid-fire cannon, and most of their warships were better built. The Japanese Navy was probably much better trained. In addition, the Chinese military – army and navy – was thoroughly infested by corruption and graft, often known as "the squeeze." In some cases, naval ammunition had their gunpowder removed, sold on the black market, and the powder replaced by cocoa, cement or porcelain.

The battle was a hard-fought engagement which lasted some five or six hours. Eight of the Beiyang Fleet's warships were sunk, but the Chen Yuen was not one of them. Due to its 14-inch thick armor, the "ironclad" absorbed a great deal of damage, but was very low on ammunition and withdrew from the battle.

"Commander McGiffin in hospital after the Battle of the Yalu [River]"; Photo from book "Real Soldiers of Fortune" by Richard Harding Davis (1912 edition)
"Commander McGiffin in hospital after the Battle of the Yalu [River]"
Photo from book "Real Soldiers of Fortune" by Richard Harding Davis (1912 edition)


Philo McGiffin, however, was not so lucky. He sustained a number of serious injuries from shrapnel, and suffered severe damage to one of his eyes. Shortly after the battle he was released from his commission and came home to the United States. He wrote of his experiences in the Chinese Imperial Navy, but his mental instability (perhaps PTSD?) and the horrific pain from his many wounds, forced his admission to the Post Graduate Hospital in New York City (now the New York University Langone Medical Center).

According to a number of sources, McGiffin was in a great deal of physical pain and mental anguish for two-and-a-half years after the battle of the Yalu River. On February 11, 1897 he asked a hospital orderly to allow him access to his personal effects box. Shortly afterwards, asking the orderly to run an additional errand for him, McGiffin removed his service revolver from the trunk and committed suicide.

Historical marker dedicated to Philo McGiffin, downtown Washington, PA
Historical marker dedicated to Philo McGiffin, downtown Washington, PA

Footnote #1: In 1947 the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission erected an historical marker in front of the Washington Country Courthouse, in memory of Philo McGiffin.

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