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Medal of Honor Monday: Marine Corps Sgt. John Mapes Adams

July 20, 2020 | BY Katie Lange , DOD News

Not all Medal of Honor recipients participated in the major wars we've studied so closely in history classes. Marine Corps Sgt. John Mapes Adams is one of the few recipients who earned a grateful nation's highest honor outside of a significant war period in U.S. history.

Adams was born on Oct. 11, 1871, in Haverhill, Massachusetts, under a different name: George Lawrence Day. He attended high school at Phillips Exeter Academy, a selective boarding school. When he was 23, he joined the Marine Corps under his birth name but eventually switched to the alias John Mapes Adams.   

A man in a uniform stands for a photo.
John Mapes Adams
Marine Corps Sgt. John Mapes Adams.
Photo By: Marine Corps
VIRIN: 981201-M-ZZ999-237

Adams was a seasoned Marine with Company F, 1st Marines Regiment, by the time his actions earned him the Medal of Honor at the Battle of Tientsin during China's Boxer Rebellion.

The Boxer Rebellion Explained

The Boxer Rebellion began in 1898 when a Chinese militia group known as the Boxers became discontent with the foreign powers that had been establishing spheres of influence throughout the country. The Boxers soon began an anti-foreign, anti-Christian uprising in northwest China, which spread to other parts of the country.  

The foreign influencers the Boxers wanted out included an alliance of the world's largest powers — the U.S., Austria-Hungary, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Japan and Russia — which all had interests in China.

In May 1900, the Boxers started burning railroad stations in the city of Peking — current-day Beijing — and threatening the alliance's religious representatives and mission groups, known as legations. These legations called their respective countries for help, and all eight responded by moving in Marines and others to guard the legations.

A man holds a spear in one hand and a flag in another while a shield rests at his feet.
Chinese Boxer
A Chinese Boxer circa 1900.
Photo By: National Archives
VIRIN: 000713-O-ZZ999-123

Tensions grew among all of the factions. By June 18, 1900, it was clear China would declare war. The country offered foreign powers 24 hours of safe passage as far as Tientsin — current-day Tianjin — about 2 hours southeast of Peking.

The alliance's foreign ministers declined the offer. So, on June 20, the Boxers and Chinese soldiers seized Peking.

Marines Move In

The U.S. Marine Corps' 1st Marine Regiment moved into China and tried to seize Tientsin, but they were initially driven back. On June 23, the regiment was finally successful in entering the city, where they held a position until U.S. Army reinforcements were able to join them on July 12. Troops from Great Britain, France, Germany, Russia and Japan joined with the U.S. forces to create an allied force.

The next day, that allied force launched an attack against Tientsin to get rid of the remaining Chinese and Boxer forces that were still inside the city's inner walls. Fighting took place most of the day with little to show for it. Finally, a Japanese night attack broke through the Chinese defenses, allowing the international force to enter the city's inner walls.

Men with rifles over their shoulders stand in line and at attention.
Boxer Rebellion
U.S. Marines were part of the international relief expedition during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900 were sent to lift the siege of Peking, now known as Beijing.
Photo By: National Archives
VIRIN: 000713-O-ZZ999-124

During this engagement, Adams and three other Marines were cited for "meritorious conduct," which led to Adams earning the Medal of Honor. However, it's unclear exactly what those specific actions were. Online records don't elaborate.

Eventually, the allied forces made it to Peking, and the fighting came to an end. A formal peace treaty known as the Boxer Protocol was signed in September 1901.

Thirty-three enlisted Marines earned the Medal of Honor for actions taken during the Boxer Rebellion. Marine Corps officers weren't eligible to earn it until 1913. 

Adams' received his medal on July 19, 1901, shortly before he turned 30.

Adams lived for nearly two more decades. He died at age 49 on Jan. 6, 1921, and was buried at Cypress Hills National Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York. 

This article is part of a weekly series called "Medal of Honor Monday," in which we highlight one of the more than 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military's highest medal for valor.