What was the Battle of Shiroyama?

Introduction

The Battle of Shiroyama (城山の戦い, Shiroyama no tatakai) took place on 24 September 1877, in Kagoshima, Japan.

It was the final battle of the Satsuma Rebellion, where the heavily outnumbered samurai under Saigō Takamori made their last stand against Imperial Japanese Army troops under the command of Generals Yamagata Aritomo and Kawamura Sumiyoshi.

The battle culminated in the annihilation of Saigō’s army as well as his death, marking the end of the Satsuma Rebellion. The Imperial Army’s victory consolidated their power, and they would not see another instance of internal mutiny.

The Battle

Following defeat at the Siege of Kumamoto Castle and in other battles in central Kyūshū, the surviving remnants of the samurai forces loyal to Saigō Takamori fled back to Satsuma, seizing the hill of Shiroyama overlooking Kagoshima on 1 September 1877.

Imperial army troops under the command of General Yamagata Aritomo and marines under the command of Admiral Kawamura Sumiyoshi began arriving soon after, and the rebels were promptly surrounded. In the mere six weeks since Saigō’s failed Siege of Kumamoto Castle, a combination of defections and combat losses had shrunk the size of his army from 20,000 to 500, compared to the Imperial Army’s 30,000.

Yamagata, although greatly outnumbering Saigō, bided his time constructing a series of fortifications to encircle Saigō and preempt any chance of a breakout, additionally requisitioning five warships to bombard the rebels and reduce their defences. He was planning an attack from all sides, and in an effort to prevent another escape, ordered that any position engaged by the enemy was to be fired upon, regardless of friendly casualties. Saigō defended his position with limited support from Snider-Enfield breechloaders and artillery, but had a critical lack of ammunition for both. He had to resort to melting down metal statues to produce bullets and tending to injuries with a carpenter’s saw.

After firing a final barrage of artillery lasting the night, Yamagata’s men attacked Saigō’s position. At 4:00 am, the battle began. The samurai, under heavy fire, charged the lines of the Imperial Army, which had not been trained for close-quarter sword fighting. In just a few minutes, the once organized line turned into disarray. Highly skilled samurai swordsmanship prevailed against an army with very little traditional training. For a short time, Saigō’s lines held, but were forced back due to weight of numbers.

Saigō was mortally wounded in the femoral artery and stomach, and was carried by Beppu Shinsuke downhill to find a place to commit seppuku. Serving as kaishakunin, Beppu cut off Saigō’s head and hid it to prevent it from being found by the enemy. After Saigō’s death, Beppu, now in command, charged downhill and was himself shot to death – without any ammunition, the rest of the samurai drew their swords, charged downhill, and were subsequently killed. With these deaths, the Satsuma rebellion came to an end.

Aftermath and Legacy

Financially, crushing the Satsuma Rebellion cost the government greatly, forcing Japan off the gold standard and causing the government to print paper currency.

The rebellion also effectively ended the samurai class, as the new Imperial Japanese Army built off conscripts who were all ‘heimin’ (commoners) had proven itself in battle. More critically, the defeat of the samurai displayed the power of modern artillery and rifles, against which a banzai charge had no appreciable effect.

On 22 February 1889, Emperor Meiji pardoned Saigō posthumously. Statues in Ueno Park, Tokyo and near the ruins of Kagoshima Castle stand in his memory. Saigō Takamori was labelled as a tragic hero by the people, and his actions were considered an honourable example of bushido and Yamato-damashii.

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