The Taiping Rebellion

and the formation of the Ever Victorious Army

chinese archers in Taiping Rebellion If western history books even mention the great war which devastated China in the mid-19th Century at all, it's euphemistically referred to as the "Taiping Rebellion". However this wasn't merely another uprising of poverty-stricken farmers and religious fanatics, but probably the bloodiest war that had afflicted humanity in its history before the 20th Century, when the use of industrial weapons of mass destruction was introduced. It's estimated that the Taiping Rebellion cost the lives of 15-20 million people and left more than half of the country's one thousand prospering cities in charred ruins.

Originally the Taiping were a religious sect strongly influenced by Protestant missionaries. Their leader bore the title "Heavenly King" and considered himself part of the Holy Trinity, talking regularly with his "older brother" Jesus, or with "his father" God. Over time however the Taiping become more and more of a social revolutionary movement, and after initial successes against the government troops, the uprising turned also against the foreign Manchus and became a serious threat to the ruling Qing dynasty. The corrupt and incompetent imperial generals were no match for the fanaticism of the Taiping, who finally conquered 17 provinces; in 1853 they even managed to take Nanjing.

As always happens when religion, nationalism and social protest are mixed, this victory gave the movement a tremendous momentum, but also had devastating impact on the conduct of warfare. The war was waged on both sides with unimaginable cruelty and lack of mercy, with the imperial troops taking a leading role in slaughtering civilians. When the Taiping conquered a city, they normally killed all inhabitants they believed to be Manchu supporters without pity. If imperial troops retook the city they massacred the rest of the population, since they had fraternized with the enemy.

Western opium production in China The colonial powers (first England, then France and finally as a newcomer the USA) were content for a long time to sit on the sidelines, because a weakening Empire came in handy for them and furthermore the Taiping were regarded somewhat as Christians. Most importantly for them was that their trading privileges and autonomous concessions, which they had wrested from the Manchus in the course of several wars, remained untouched. But the Taiping had no intention of retaining these extremely unfavorable contracts for China. From the point of view of the colonial powers the worst transgression was that the Taiping fought mercilessly against the opium trade in the areas they controlled. The Europeans considered it their sacrosanct privilege to sell as much opium to the Chinese as these could afford, and made enormous profits in doing so. England had even fought the infamous Opium War (1839-42) to enforce this version of the free market economy in China.

However, the Europeans were unwilling to finance a costly war against the Taiping. Of course they sold the imperial army weapons and gunboats for good profit, and sometimes supported them here and there with naval gunfire. But their own precious troops they wanted to keep purely for defending their concessions in Shanghai. While the Europeans sat on the fence and the Taiping pushed victoriously further towards Shanghai, the city filled up with hundreds of thousands of refugees, and supply became increasingly difficult, while hunger and crime grew alarmingly. Every day countless dead bodies were carried with the ebb through the channels of the delta towards the sea, only to return the next day with the tide. These were unmistakable signs of the approaching fighting. At times the stench was so terrible that most residents of Shanghai wore perfumed gauze masks. When the rich Chinese merchants and bankers saw their lands being ravaged in the countryside and watched as trade collapsed in the isolated towns, they decided to do something about it and looked around for foreign professionals. They found Frederick Townsend Ward.

Frederick Townsend Ward Ward was born in 1831 in Salem, Massachusetts. He was very restless as a child and applied unsuccessfully to the Military Academy at West Point. At 15 he ran away from home to take part in the war against Mexico, before his father sent him as a cabin boy on a clipper to China. Thus began his adventurous life. He went sea-faring, smuggled Chinese coolies into the States, dug for gold in California and served as an instructor in Walker's filibuster army in Nicaragua. According to some sources he served also as a Texas Ranger, a military adviser in Mexico and a French officer during the Crimean War. By 1859 he was back in Shanghai. The news of the war and the business it made possible had by this time attracted a lot of adventurers and dubious characters to Shanghai. Some took service as gunners in the Imperial Army, or as officers on their gunboats, while others smuggled opium or supplied the Taiping with weapons illegally. This last occupation was especially dangerous, but brought a lot of money. For an old musket from the remnants of the Napoleonic wars, which sold in Shanghai for a few dollars, the Taiping were willing to pay up to one hundred.

At first Ward served as first mate on a gunboat on the Yangtze. The boat belonged to a small fleet financed by Chinese merchants to curb piracy, which had increased dramatically during the war. Once he had become acquainted with the political situation and had seen what a few Europeans equipped with modern arms could achieve, he started to make his own plans. In May 1860 he made on offer to the rich banker Taki, who was the spokesman for the Chinese businessmen in Shanghai. With appropriate funding, he would set up a mercenary force of Europeans and with it expel the Taiping from the Delta around Shanghai. Taki agreed after a short consultation, and Ward received $100 a month for privates and up to $600 for the officers. This was a lot of money in a time when a skilled worker in the U.S. earned $30-40 per month. Furthermore they agreed upon premiums from $45,000 up to $133,000 for the cities to be conquered.

Well provided with money Ward recruited as deputies the American soldiers of fortune Henry Burgevine and Edward Forrester, the latter of whom he had already served with in Nicaragua. The rank and file weren't a problem either. Shanghai was constantly full of European sailors, many of whom were deserters or had been impressed against their wills. Not without reason the forced recruitment of sailors was called "shanghaiing " about this time. The almost princely pay and the prospect of looting rich Chinese cities quickly lured recruits to Ward's camp. The Chinese, whom the sailors knew mostly only as coolies in the harbors, were regarded as cowardly and extremely unsoldierly. It was therefore assumed as certain that every European would outweigh dozens of Chinese in battle.

Chinese city walls with moat After Ward had collected about 300 men - mostly American, British and French - and had them quickly trained, he started with the first attack on the city Sungkiang, which was about 40 km southwest of Shanghai. Since it was well known that large parts of the Taiping were armed only with bamboo spears, old swords and rusty muskets, none of Ward's men doubted the outcome. To celebrate the upcoming victory the Europeans had taken with them plenty of alcohol. So they marched drunken and noisily through the night and imagined themselves with the booty they were about to make. Sufficiently warned by this behavior the Taiping received the attackers with a murderous musket fire when they started to climb the walls with their scaling ladders. After just a few minutes Ward's proud force was completely routed and in full flight. Nevertheless, over one hundred were left behind for dead.

Back in Shanghai, Ward dismissed most of his mercenaries, and started from then on to pick his men with more care. He preferred deserters from warships and those who had already gained some experience in combat on other continents or the vastness of the South Seas. A particularly reliable group was provided to him by the Filipino Vicente Macanaya. It consisted of around 200 so-called "Manilamen", seafarers from the Philippines, who were esteemed on European ships not only as sailors, but also as fighters of solid repute. In July he attacked Sunkiang again with his new band and a few guns. To breach the medieval walls didn't present much of a problem for the artillery and his snipers cleaned up the rest. Nevertheless, the Taiping fought bravely before they were finally driven from the city after a bloody struggle. By then the spoils were immense, and Ward's sailors returned to Shanghai with pockets full of silver and loaded with precious fabrics. Moreover the conquest of Sunkiang was honored with a reward of $133,000, from which everybody also received his share.

This victory, and of course the hope for more booty, caused a great afflux from the deserters and adventurers in Shanghai. Thus reinforced, Ward attacked shortly afterwards the larger town Tsingpu. But this time the Taiping were better prepared, and their artillery was commanded by a former British lieutenant called "Savage". After storming the walls Ward's men were caught in an ambush and pushed out from the city with heavy losses. Undeterred, Ward was not willing to give up and rushed to Shanghai to recruit anyone who was willing to accept his money. This time he found mainly Greek and Italian sailors without any military training (the nationalities of the soldiers depended heavily on what ships had just arrived). With these troops he made another desperate attack shortly afterwards on Tsingpu, which ended in an even bigger disaster. He himself was severely wounded and lost a third of his soldiers and all his boats and guns. The retreat became a flight, which ended only at the gates of Sungkiang.

It looked like the end had arrived for this mercenary force. Ward had hardly recovered from his wounds when Admiral Hope, the commander of the British Navy in Shanghai, had him arrested. At the same time his men were prosecuted as deserters and criminals. The North China Herald wrote about them: "Some have probably suffered capital punishment at the hands of the Chinese, some have fallen in action, some are expiating their offences against our laws in common jails, and some few have escaped it is hoped with sufficient examples before them never to again engage in such an illegitimate mode of earning a livelihood as enrolling themselves in such disreputable ranks as those of a Chinese Foreign Legion."

Taiping officers But sometimes fate and moods change fast. Under a new, competent general, the Taiping advanced again and managed to convert more to Protestantism with a reviewed interpretation of their religion. In addition, they controlled vast areas with the prosperous silk and porcelain industries. Admiral Hope even negotiated personally with some of their representatives, but quickly realised that the Taiping weren't willing to make any guarantees or concessions concerning western trade privileges or the prohibition of the opium trade, which were crucial for the British in China. So it became clear that the British would have to support the Manchus not only with material but also with troops. Finally, British and French even had to actively participate in the defense of Shanghai and push back the Taiping with the help of their naval artillery and naval infantry. After that Admiral Hope was willing to negotiate with Ward, who made the Admiral a surprising offer: in the future he would abstain from recruiting British deserters, and instead train mainly Chinese. In return the British would provide him generously with weapons.

Ward's plan looked ridiculous from the perspective of every European, who took the Chinese for quite un-warlike and regarded it as a hopeless undertaking trying to turn them into soldiers. But Ward had gotten to know the Taiping as tough fighters, and revealed here his true talent. Like some of the few truly great leaders of mercenaries, and unlike many of his officers, he had no racial prejudices, but instead the firm belief that with discipline, good training and regular payment you could turn most people into competent soldiers. From the rest of his old forces, which Forrester and Burgevine had held together in Sunkiang, he kept only the ones he could use as officers or instructors. The rest were dismissed. Only the Manilamen formed a separate unit which served as Ward's future bodyguard and elite shock troops.

Taiping - Jiangsu Contrary to the prevailing expectations, the training of the Chinese progressed quickly. They developed rapidly into good marksmen and were even trained as artillerymen. Soon the best were promoted to sergeants. The Chinese were not only more disciplined than the permanently rebellious sailors, they were above all much cheaper and less demanding regarding sustenance. The pay ranged from $8 a month for a common soldier up to $20 for a sergeant. That was not much compared to the $150 which the lowest white officer received, but still several times what a Chinese could expect to earn normally. Already by the end of 1861 Ward had a small army of about 3,000 men at his disposal, and except for 100 Europeans and 200 Manilamen all were Chinese. Additionally there were some artillery batteries and a small fleet of steam-powered gunboats.

To train the newly formed units in real combat he started with attacks on smaller towns. For a better understanding it's important to know that the whole province of Jiangsu is crisscrossed with thousands of canals. Some were the size of European rivers, but were reduced by a giant network of smaller and smaller canals down to the narrow ditches with which the fields were irrigated. Vessels for transportation and pontoon bridges were therefore of fundamental importance. Above all the steam-powered and well armed gunboats gave Ward invaluable advantages. The cities themselves were mostly protected by medieval city walls and moats. These gates and walls were indeed no match for modern guns, but scaling ladders still had to be used to cross the moats and to clamber over the shattered walls. Very often large field fortifications were also used, which consisted of earthen walls with bamboo stockades. For the most part the war was fought for control of the cities, which with their bridges also served as important nodes in the canal network.

Chinese cannon The Taiping often led tens of thousands - sometimes even hundreds of thousands - of fighters into battle. But these numbers shouldn't be overrated. These armies, particularly when they were very large, consisted mainly of undisciplined, conscripted peasants who were equipped only with bamboo spears and proved to be worthless on the battlefield. Even the better Taiping troops were often armed only with swords, bows and arrows and antiquated muskets. Parts of their cannons were products of the 17th Century. As for the imperial troops, who were certainly much better equipped, it was once reported that during the defense of a town the cannon balls were too small for the canons. As the guns fired they produced a lot of smoke, but the projectiles fell harmlessly into the moat. So it's no doubt that despite many Taiping units fighting very bravely, they had no chance against modern-armed troops with superior firepower.

Ward soon became an expert in this kind of warfare. He learned to deploy his artillery and gunboats effectively and to move his troops quickly along canals and dikes. He himself was often at the forefront, always in civilian clothes and armed only with a small walking stick. Of course, this appearance was also coldly calculated, playing on the beliefs of his men, who considered him invulnerable and attributed to him magical powers. After his first successes Ward was officially appointed General by the Emperor and his small army was given the title "Chang Sheng Chüng", or the "Ever Victorious Army", and under this name they became famous.