Boshin War Summary

The Boshin War was fought between nobles and clans supporting the ruling Tokugawa shogunate and those supporting the Emperor (Imperial Court) between the years 1868 to 1869.

Many young samurai, nobles and clans were dissatisfied with shogunate’s handling of the opening of Japan during the prior decade.

Samurai during Boshin War
Samurai during Boshin War

An alliance was formed between many young samurai and three powerful clans of Choshu, Satsuma and Tosa. Soon they secured control of the Imperial Court and young Emperor Meiji.

Shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu realized the hopelessness of his situation and decided to voluntarily transferred shogun’s power to the emperor.

Shogun Yoshinobu thought that by doing this, he can preserve the House of Tokugawa and participate in the future government.

However, Shogun Yoshinobu was forced to launch a military campaign to capture the emperor’s court in Kyoto as his enemy launched partisan violence and call out for abolishing the House of Tokugawa.

Both side mobilized around 69,000 men for the war and around 8,200 soldier died during the war.

Small but modernized imperial army won series of battle ending with surrender of Shogun Yoshinobu.

However war was not over as some of the Tokugawa loyalist retreated to Hokkaido prefecture where they founded the Republic of Ezo.

The imperial forces at last defeated forces loyal to Tokugawa shogunate at the Battle of Hakodate.

This resulted in complete destruction in power of shogun and control of imperial forces throughout the whole of Japan.

One of the prominent leader of the imperial faction Saigo Takamori, insisted on showing mercy on many former shogunate leaders and samurai. Imperial court latter gave positions of responsibility under the new government to these nobles.

However the victorious imperial faction did not pursue one of its main objective of expelling foreigners from Japan, instead they continue to pursue the policy of modernization with the hope of renegotiation of the unequal treaties once Japan became more powerful.

The modernization of the Japan led to the end of the privileged social status of the samurai class.

This in turn led to the bloodier Satsuma Rebellion between the samurai and the modernists in the imperial court.

What caused the boshin war?

From 1600 AD to 1854 AD to Tokugawa shogunate has imposed a strict policy of isolationism on Japan. They restricted all the interactions with foreign power isolated places like Tsushima, Ryukyu Islands and Dejima

In 1854, and expedition led by Commodore Matthew C. Perry’s of United States Navy forced Japan to open its ports to foreign trade under threat of force. The subsequent unequal treaty lead to rapid growth in foreign trade and westernization of Japan.

Commodore Matthew Perry Forced Japan to Open for Trade
Commodore Matthew Perry Forced Japan to Open for Trade

The humiliating terms of the treaty angered many samurai and powerful nobles, who soon started the movement to overthrow the Tokugawa shogunate and expel the foreigners.

Why did the boshin war start?

Soon, Japanese Emperor Komei broke centuries old imperial tradition of not taking active role in matters of state and sided with rebels. He spoke strongly against the treaties with western powers.

Soon he issued an order in March 1863 calling for the expulsion of Barbarian.

The order was ineffectual as shogun has no intention of enforcing it. This in turn led to attack on shogunate and foreigners in Japan.

Under attack from rebels, foreign powers also retaliated like British bombardment of Kagoshima.

Soon open rebellion erupted when rebels from Choshu Domain tried to seize imperial city of Kyoto where emperor held his court. However, forces loyal to shogunate repelled the attack.

Boshin War Maps - 1
Boshin War Maps – 1

Later shogunate forces led the expedition to Choshu where rebel surrendered without the fight. This led to the end of first rebellion against Tokugawa shogunate.

However this success of Tokugawa shogunate was short lived as shogun was unable to reassert full control over the country over next few years as many nobles started ignoring their order and started questioning their authority.

Later nobles of Satsuma Domain secretly joined the rebel coalition and began to modernize its army and navy with help of British.

Soon Tokugawa shogunate realized that future war is inevitable and they also begin to its army and navy with help of French.

Within few years shogunate not only formed the powerful army but also built eight warship making shognate navy strongest navy of the Asia.

The extremist factions came to power in Choshu Domain following coup d’état. Shogunate opposed the power grab by extremist factions and prepared to launch second expeditions to Choshu.

This forced rebel in Chosun to form alliance with nobles of Satsuma Domain. When in summer of 1866, Shogunate forces invaded Chosun, they were easily defeated by Chosun rebel. This loss led to considerable erosion in the authority of Shogun.

However later that year both Shogun Tokugawa Iemochi and Emperor Kōmei died, which forced both side to declare truce.

Soon, Tokugawa Yoshinobu became the Shogun and Prince Mutsuhito became the new emperor under the new name of Emperor Meiji of Japan.

In 1867, Noble of Tosa Domain advised Shogun Yoshinobu to resign from his post. Under the pressure of Nobles and Samurai, Shogun Yoshinobu resigned from his post and transferred his authority to the emperor.

On November 9, 1867, rebels from Satsuma and Choshu Domain created a secret order in the name of Emperor Meiji calling for killing of the Yoshinobu.

While Yoshinobu’s has resigned from the post of shogun, he still controls various apparatus of Japanese government. Moreover many close allies as well as family member of Tokugawa family still holds powerful offices.

Imperialist rebels of Satsuma and Choshu believed that Tokugawa family might play prominent role in running of future government. This was unacceptable to rebels.

 Boshin War Battles

 On January 3, 1868, rebels seized imperial palace in Kyoto. Same day 15 year old Emperor Meiji declares full restoration of his own power.

Boshin Civil War - 2
Boshin War Maps – 2

Initially, Tokugawa Yoshinobu agreed with restoration proclamation. However, two weeks later on January 17, 1868 denounced restoration proclamation and called for its repeal.

Some Imperialist sympathizer started burning government building in Edo and went so far that they burned outer works of Edo Castle, which was the main Tokugawa residence.

Tokugawa Yoshinobu blamed Imperialist Satsuma rebels for the attack on government building and next day attacked Edo residence of rebel nobles where his enemy imperial rebels were hiding.

Tokugawa Yoshinobu ordered killing of many opponents and burning down of rebel residence.

On January 24, he prepared to attack Satsuma and Choshu forces and take back Kyoto.

Battle of Toba-Fushimi

On January 27, 1868, shogunate forces attacked the forces loyal to Choshu and Satsuma imperialist rebels near southern entrance to Kyoto near Toba and Fushimi.

Boshin War Maps - 3
Boshin War Maps – 3

Shogunate forces had 15,000 troops, who were trained by French military advisers but army was not fully modernized.

Imperialist army had only 5000 troops but it was fully modernized with Armstrong howitzers, Minie rifles and a few Gatling guns.

On the first day when shogunate forces attacked imperialist position, imperialist soldier defended the position and quickly sent the shogunate troops in disarray and retreat.

On second day, king presented an Imperial banner to the rebel imperial troops making the forces officially an imperial army.

When imperial flag was unfurled many nobles who up to this point loyal to the Tokugawa Yoshinobu, switched side and defected to Imperial side.

These defections tilted the military balance in favor of the Imperial side.

Tokugawa Yoshinobu realized that emperor is giving his full backing to Satsuma and Choshu and fled to Edo following the defection of his loyalist to imperial side.

Shogunate forces were demoralized following the flight of Tokugawa Yoshinobu and defection of nobles.

Soon they retreated back to Edo. Thus battle of Toba-Fushimi ended in victory for Imperial forces.

Battle of Awa 

Day after the end of battle of Toba-Fushimi, Shogunate navy and Satsuma navy fought a naval engagement called Battle of Awa in Awa Bay near Osaka.

In this battle Shogunate navy scored a decisive victory over imperial Satsuma navy.

Diplomatic Negotiation

Representative of foreign nations gathered in the open harbor of Hyogo to discuss their response to fast developing situation in Japan.

Soon they issued a proclamation in which declared Shogunate as only rightful government in Japan.

This gave Tokugawa Yoshinobu some hope that foreign nation might consider an intervention in his favor.

Fearing foreign intervention, Imperial delegation soon met with Representative of foreign nations and told them that they have abolished the office of Shogun.

However, Imperial delegation promised them that harbors would remain open and foreigners would be protected in accordance with International treaties.

However, rise in anti foreign sentiment resulted in many attacks on foreign national.

In one such in attacks group of samurai killed 11 French sailors in Tosa. In another event group of samurai attacked the British ambassador in a street of Kyoto.

Finally, Representative of foreign nations decided to recognize the new imperial government.

In early March, the British ambassador influenced other foreign ambassador to sign a strict neutrality agreement.  As per agreement they would not intervene or provide military supplies to either side.

Battle of Koshu-Katsunuma

After the victory in battle of Toba-Fushimi the Imperial army reached the Tokugawa stronghold of Kofu and occupied it with a struggle. On March 29, Imperial army then met and fought with the Shogunate forces in battle at Katsunuma.

As Shogunate forces were outnumbered 10:1, so imperial forces easily defeated the Shogunate forces

Fall of Edo

After the Battle of Koshu-Katsunuma Imperial forces eventually surrounded Edo in May 1868.

Fearing certain death, shogun‘s Army Minister, tried to negotiate his surrender but was forced to surrender unconditionally.

Boshin War Maps - 4
Boshin War Maps – 4

Some element of shogun army refused to surrender. Soon Imperial forces attacked and defeated them in the battle of Battle of Ueno in northeastern Edo, on 4 July 1868.

Soon Tokugawa Yoshinobu went into voluntary confinement at Kanei-ji temple.

The leader of shogun‘s navy also refused to surrender and took all his ship to Northern Province in the hope of staging a counter-attack against imperial army from north.

On 3 September 1868, Emperor Meiji renamed city of Edo to Tokyo (“Eastern capital”), and moved his capital to Tokyo. He took up residence in Edo Castle, now called Imperial Palace.

Battle of Hokuetsu

Most of the Clans, Nobles and Samurai accepted the rule of the Emperor. However, most domains in the north including the Aizu clan continued the resistance.

Soon, northern alliance raised around 50,000 troops to fight imperial forces.

In May 1868,the army of northern alliance inflicted high losses on the Imperial troops in the Battle of Hokuetsu mainly due to the deadly use of Gatling guns.

Boshin War Maps - 5
Boshin War Maps – 5

After many deadly back and forth action Nagaoka castle was captured by the Imperial troops on September 15. Thus Imperial army emerged victorious in this battle.

Battle of Bonari Pass

The Bonari pass provides the strategic access to the domain of Aizu which became main center of resistance for the northern alliance.

Imperial army continued to march north and defeated the the coalition army at the Battle of Bonari Pass.

Loss of Bonari pass cleared Imperial army path for the attack on castle of Aizuwakamatsu, the capital of northern alliance.

Siege of Aizuwakamatsu Castle

After a month under siege, commander of the Aizuwakamatsu castle agreed to surrender to Imperial Forces.

The Emperor exiled the samurai to Aizu domain to Tsugaru Peninsula and Aizu Domain ceased to exist.

Boshin War Maps - 6
Boshin War Maps – 6

Despite the surrender of Edo Castle and Aizu Castle many of the samurai and leaders loyal to the former Tokugawa shogunate refused to accept defeat.

Battle of Hakodate

After the fall of Ezo, Shogun loyalist Admiral Enomoto took a portion of the Tokugawa navy led by fled to the northern island of Hokkaido.

He along with several thousand soldiers and a handful of French military advisors established the Republic of Ezo.

Boshin War Maps - 7
Boshin War Maps – 7

They adopted American Model of governance and after the election; Admiral Enomoto was elected as president with a large majority.

Admiral Enomoto reaches out to foreign delegate present in Hakodate for formal recognition but was unable to garner any international support.

Admiral Enomoto even offered to accept Imperial authority if emperor gave Hakodate territory to the Tokugawa shogun. The Imperial Governing Council declined the offer.

During the winter, Admiral Enomoto fortified defenses of southern peninsula of Hakodate and built the new fortress of Goryokaku at the center.

Meanwhile, Imperial forces completely consolidated their hold on mainland Japan.

Who Won the Boshin War?

Later in April 1869, Emperor dispatched 7000 strong infantry along with Navy to Ezo, starting the Battle of Hakodate.

The Imperial forces quickly won the naval engagement at Hakodate Bay, and surrounded the fortress of Goryokaku.

Boshin War Maps - 8
Boshin War Maps – 8

French soldier advising Admiral Enomoto decided to escape on French ship stationed in Hakodate Bay. They first traveled to Yokohama and later sailed to France.

Completely surrounded by Imperial Army, the position of Admiral Enomoto was hopeless.

Commander of imperial army called for Admiral Enomoto surrender but he refused. To avoid further bloodshed, commander of Imperial forces continued to convince him to surrender.

He finally surrendered on June 27, 1869, when Commander of imperial army told told him that deciding to live through defeat is the truly courageous way: “Dying is easy; you can do that anytime.”

He accepted the Emperor’s rule, and the Ezo Republic ended with his surrender. Boshin war was won by Imperial forces loyal to Emperor Meiji.

End of Boshin Civil War

When last Shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu surrender in 1868, he stripped of all titles and land and placed under house arrest.

Emperor later released him when he demonstrated lack of interest and ambition in national affairs.

In 1902, the Emperor Meiji gave him the highest rank in the peerage of prince for his loyal service to Japan. He took a seat in the House of Peers and later resigned in 1910.

Imperial court did not executed instead imprisoned many leading supporter of the former shogun.

Most of them only served two to three years of imprisonment and later released in order to serve new government.

Adminal Enomoto was also released from prison and would later serve as an envoy to Russia and China as well as the education minister of Japan.

In 1869, the Emperor approved building of Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo in honor of the victims of the Boshin War.

After victory in boshin war, Imperial Court proceeded with unifying the country under a legitimate and powerful rule of Emperor Meiji.

The Emperor embarked on major reform where samurai class was permanently abolished and political powers of the nobles were progressively eliminated.

In 1871, Imperial court transformed the domains into prefectures, where emperor appointed the governors to rule the prefectures on his behalf.

The policy of modernization of Japan started by Shogun during the last years of the shogunate, was ultimately adopted by Meiji government.

Even the initially objective of Imperial supporters of expelling the foreign interests from Japan was not pursued by imperial court.

In early days of the Boshin War, after approval from Emperor, new signboards appeared all over the Japan specifically repudiated violence against foreigners.

Upon his coronation, Meiji issued his Charter Oath, promised the following to people of Japan-

1.     Increased opportunities for the common people

2.    Abolition of the evil customs of the past

3.    To seek knowledge throughout the world to strengthen the foundations of Japan

Satsuma Rebellion

Many Samurai soon realized that many of the early Meiji reforms were seen as detrimental to their interests.

The creation of professional army made of low born commoners, as well as the loss of hereditary prestige and financial support, angered many former samurai.

Soon, angered turned in rebellion, causing 1874 Saga Rebellion, 1876 Choshu Rebellion and finally most important 1877 Satsuma Rebellion.

In Satsuma Rebellion, Samurai made last ditch effort to maintain their social status. They call out for new government by raising the slogan “”new government, high morality”.

However, rebellion ended with complete defeat for Samurai in the Battle of Shiroyama

Boshin War Weapons

Imperial Faction- The rebel of Choshu and Satsuma who were supporting the Emperor Meiji were fully modernized with Armstrong Guns, Minie rifles and one Gatling gun.

The Imperial as well as the Shogunate side also used native Japanese cannons, with Japan making cannons domestically as far back as 1575.

For artillery, Imperial Faction used state-of-the-art Armstrong cannon which fired explosive shells.

Shogunate Faction- The shogunate forces lag slightly bihend Imperial forces in terms of equipment, although the French advisors had recently trained a core elite force.

The shogunate faction heavily relied on soldiers supplied by allied domains, who were not equipped with modern military equipment. Thus shogunate army had both modern and outdated elements.

When Boshin war started both side found that procuring modern armament was becoming difficult, so they made last-minute efforts to build cannons made of wood and reinforced with rope.

They usually fired stone projectiles from these wooden cannon. These cannons can usually fire four or five projectiles before bursting. They were usually installed on defensive structure like Castle.

Boshin War Rifles

Both sides used different types of modern smoothbore muskets and rifles imported from foreign countries like France, Germany, the Netherlands, Britain, and the United States.

Due lack of supplies, both sides even used traditional rifles such as the tanegashima matchlock.

Tanegashima Matchlocks
Tanegashima Matchlocks

Imperial Faction- Imperial army mainly used muzzle-loading Minie rifles, which can fire about two shots per minute. As compared to smoothbore muskets, Minie rifles were much more accurate, lethal, and had a much longer range.

Minie rifles
Minie rifles

In Battle of Ueno in July 1868, Imperial army also used Snider rifles which has a firing rate of about ten shots a minute.

During the last phase of conflict, Imperial army also used American-made Spencer repeating rifles.

Imperial army also used American-made handguns such as the 1863 Smith & Wesson No. 2 Army.

Shogunate Faction- Shogunate army usually used smoothbore muskets, around 200,000 of these weapons were imported over last 250 years.

In 1866, shogunate official an order for 30,000 modern Dreyse needle guns.

Due to lack of modern weapon, Shogunate army also used antiquated tanegashima matchlocks.

Napoleon III of france sent around 2,000 state-of-the-art Chassepot rifles to Shogun Yoshinobu, which he used to equip his personal guard.

Boshin War Uniforms

Shogunate Faction- They wore western-style uniforms for modernized troops with rounded helmet.

The officers usually wore French or British uniforms. Traditional troops such as samurai retained their samurai clothes.

Imperial Faction- They wore western-style uniforms for modernized troops with tall conical helmet for the troops from Satsuma and flat conical helmet for troops from Choshu.

Officer of Imperial army also wore peculiar headgear, involving long and colored bear hair.

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