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Satsuma Rebellion: Battle of Shiroyama

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Conflict:

The Battle of Shiroyama was the final engagement of the Satsuma Rebellion (1877) between the samurai and the Imperial Japanese Army.

Battle of Shiroyama Date:

The samurai were defeated by the Imperial Army on September 24, 1877.

Armies & Commanders at the Battle of Shiroyama:

Samurai

  • Saigo Takamori
  • 350-400 men

Imperial Army

  • General Yamagata Aritomo
  • 30,000 men

Battle of Shiroyama Summary:

Having risen up against the repression of the traditional samurai lifestyle and social structure, the samurai of Satsuma fought a series of battles on the Japanese island of Kyushu in 1877. Led by Saigo Takamori, a former highly respected field marshal in the Imperial Army, the rebels initially besieged Kumamoto Castle in February. With the arrival of Imperial reinforcements, Saigo was forced to retreat and suffered a series of minor defeats. While he was able to keep his force intact, the engagements reduced his army to 3,000 men.

In late August, Imperial forces led by General Yamagata Aritomo surrounded the rebels on Mount Enodake. While many of Saigo's men desired to make a final stand on the mountain's slopes, their commander wished to continue their retreat back towards their base at Kagoshima. Slipping through the fog, they managed to elude Imperial troops and escaped. Reduced a mere 400 men, Saigo arrived in Kagoshima on September 1. Obtaining what supplies they could find, the rebels occupied the hill of Shiroyama outside of the city.

Arriving in the city, Yamagata was concerned that Saigo would once again slip away. Surrounding Shiroyama, he ordered his men to construct an elaborate system of trenches and earthworks to prevent the rebel's escape. Orders were also issued that when the assault came, units were not to move to each others support if one retreated. Instead, neighboring units were to fire into the area indiscriminately to keep the rebels from breaking through, even if it meant hitting other Imperial forces.

On September 23, two of Saigo's officers approached the Imperial lines under a flag of truce with the goal of negotiating a way to save their leader. Rebuffed, they were sent back with a letter from Yamagata imploring the rebels to surrender. Forbidden by honor to surrender, Saigo spent the night in a sake party with his officers. After midnight, Yamagata's artillery opened fire and was supported by warships in the harbor. Reducing the rebel's position, the Imperial troops attacked around 3:00 AM. Charging the Imperial lines, the samurai closed and engaged the government conscripts with their swords.

By 6:00 AM, only 40 of the rebels remained alive. Wounded in the thigh and stomach, Saigo had his friend Beppu Shinsuke carry him to a quiet spot where he committed seppuku. With their leader dead, Beppu led the remaining samurai in a suicidal charge against the enemy. Surging forward, they were cut down by Yamagata's Gatling guns.

Aftermath:

The Battle of Shiroyama cost the rebels their entire force including the renowned Saigo Takamori. Imperial losses are not known. The defeat at Shiroyama ended the Satsuma Rebellion and broke the back of the samurai class. Modern weapons proved their superiority and the path was set for the building of a modern, Westernized Japanese army that included from people of all classes.

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