A Unique American Military Presence in Mid-19th Century China
By L. L. Wong
In December of 2018, an entertainment industry news item announced that a certain American film director was developing an action movie about Frederick Townsend Ward. A previous abortive attempt with Hong Kong director John Woo failed back in the 1990s. The possibility of a typically bad and inaccurate Hollywood portrayal of the original namesake of China Post 1 immediately came to mind.
American relations with China have never been simple and in these ongoing affairs the history of China Post 1 is intertwined. This article is a historical snapshot that condenses and highlights the subject to provide some context to the tangled Sino-American relationship that dates as far back as the 18th century. During the mid-19th century, the exploits of one particular American, Frederick Townsend Ward; would gain the respect and admiration of many contemporary observers and inspired the first post name of CP1 to honor this man. He was a pioneer of American military involvement in China in many ways and his deeds are deeply relevant to the CP1 story.
I. The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom & The Qing Dynasty
The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom was a grass roots rebellion that arose in the years after the first Opium War as a “Christian” mystic sect founded by Hong Xiuquan (Hung Hsiaochuang, 1814-1864). A questionably sane self-converted Chinese Christian, Hong proclaimed himself as Jesus’s younger brother after contact with Western religious literature and Protestant missionaries. He crowned himself as the Heavenly King on earth and his closest followers were ranked as lesser kings. Hong concocted a mishmash of his own biblical interpretations and condemned Daoism, Confucianism, Buddhism and other traditional folk beliefs. Hatred of the Manchu dynasty was also a deeply held feeling among a huge majority of Chinese and this animosity fit in with the Taiping belief system and this sentiment was actively stimulated. The Taiping religious-ideological movement was the opposing force which Frederick Townsend Ward would face off.
Ethnolinguistically, the Manchus are a non-Han Chinese people and had overthrown the last native Chinese Ming dynasty in 1644. The Manchus adopted the dynastic name Qing (Ching) and would rule China for two hundred sixty-eight years. They adopted Confucianism in order to effectively rule but at the same time imposed the mandatory hairstyle of the shaved forehead and queue or pigtail on the Chinese as a sign of submission to the Manchus. This was enforceable by death. At the height of their reign in the 17th to 18th centuries, China had thrived in a period of relative stability under several effective Qing emperors. By the 19th century the dynasty was in decline. The Qing grew progressively more corrupt, decadent and incompetent as time went on. Natural disasters, overpopulation, poverty, food shortages and more Western contact would put the continuation of Qing rule to the test.
Hong Xiuquan was possessed by millennial visions from his newfound religious awakening and the Taiping movement would clash with the Imperial establishment as its beliefs caused further upheaval in a country already wracked by violent civil unrest. The Taipings would even abandon the pigtail hairstyle as an act of defiance. Hong and his disciples would lead a massive uprising against the unstable Qing dynasty — branding everyone and everything that stood in his way as demonic. The rebellion broke out into wide scale civil war for fifteen years from 1850-1864. It was the largest of the numerous revolts that gripped China at that time. Besides the massive deaths from see-saw battles and sieges of cities and towns; wholesale atrocities and summary executions were routine for all sides. Collateral damage from war’s apocalyptic companions, famine and disease; contributed to the huge death toll conservatively estimated at fifteen to twenty million people.
II. Frederick Townsend Ward and Western Trade
Frederick Townsend Ward (1831-1862) of Salem, Massachusetts was a sailor and adventurous soldier-of fortune by 1850. He was unsuccessful at finding his fortune during the California Gold Rush and while supportive of the Union cause did not stick around for the American Civil War. Instead he was drawn to the possibilities of more profitable opportunities with increasing trade in China. Britain and China had signed the Treaty of Nanking in 1842 which ended the first Anglo-Chinese Opium War. Shanghai was one of the five treaty ports established to better facilitate trade as concessions to the British. Later in 1844, the United States would negotiated with China the Treaty of Wangxia (Wanghsia) to gain the same favorable trade advantages that Britain enjoyed but without having resorted to war, pushing opium as a government trade policy, making territorial demands or committing other heavy-handed coercive persuasion in Chinese affairs.
Ward acquired his maritime experience from having been born in a downwardly mobile mariner family and going to sea as a youth at a time when China trade was growing. He always had an interest in military affairs and originally aspired to West Point but was not accepted. His military skills were acquired from a brief attendance at a military academy in Vermont and freelance soldiering with the doomed American filibuster William Walker in Latin America. The Crimean War next caught Ward’s restless energy and he was commissioned as a lieutenant in the French army and according to some accounts resigned after striking a superior officer.
Ward’s previous seagoing days had already taken him to China before and the exotic country would draw him back. He arrived again in 1858, penniless; but his fortunes in life would took a dramatic turn. Ward brought his restless entrepreneurial energy to bear to the situation he found. He proposed to local Shanghai merchants the raising of a security force for the defense of the Shanghai area from the Taipings who threatened international business interests. Funded by the merchants, he founded the Shanghai Foreign Arms Corps. It originally was made up of about two hundred non-Chinese mercenaries drawn from various opportunists in the Shanghai area — mainly foreign sailors — who were willing to bear arms for pay.
III. Building & Leading A Winning Army
The unit evolved into what was then called Ward’s Chinese Corps or even more simply the Ward Corps by Westerners. These were just two of the names used. Chinese personnel had been recruited to replace the non-Chinese due to the unit’s early military failures, high casualties and desertion. Nowadays it is best known by the name which the Chinese dubbed it in honor of its subsequent battlefield successes: The Ever-Victorious Army.
The EVA served as a model for the organization, arming and training of Chinese troops in Western fashion. All commands were given in English. The EVA would become the most famous of the half dozen or so foreign led Chinese contingents that fought the Taiping rebels. Ward commanded the EVA from inception until his death from a mortal wound sustained in combat in September of 1862. What started out as a private venture eventually was subordinated to the Qing regime through the Chinese mandarins of the merchant class whose financial resources controlled the EVA and kept it afield. The honors, awards and bonuses doled out by the Qing for Ward’s battlefield victories also helped ensure loyalty.
Ward was a courageous man. He went into battle dressed in a simple dark frock coat, unarmed except for a rattan cane, and led from the front. He was wounded in action fifteen times; the last being fatal. Because of his checkered past and independent personality, he was a complicated and mixed bag of contradictions to both Westerners and to his Imperial Chinese employers. As with the European nations, the official U.S. government policy during this Chinese civil war was neutrality. Ward had not come to China as a representative for any American mercantile enterprises or on behalf of the United States government.
The Ever Victorious Army was mainly an infantry formation augmented with an artillery component. It later included numerous river craft as floating gun batteries and troop transports to provide an amphibious capability on the inland waterways. During its existence, EVA strength and fortunes rose and fell due to factors such as battlefield setbacks, undertrained and unreliable manpower, and political maneuvering between the Western powers and the various cliques and factions within the Chinese government. By the time of Ward’s death, the EVA was multi-ethnic but still predominantly a Chinese force numbering almost five thousand disciplined men organized into four battalions with light and heavy artillery batteries. Ward always referred to his troops as “my people.”
The EVA was regularly at the forefront of the offensives against the rebel attacks in the Shanghai area. As the EVA won battles, other similar units were raised, trained and led by British and French officers. Partly driven by jealousy and also wishing to emulate Ward’s successes, Britain and France felt that their units would have ultimate loyalty specific to their respective Western sponsor governments.
In addition to the Western formations, antiquated and inept Imperial armies composed exclusively of Manchu, segregated Han Chinese, and intermingled Manchu/Mongol/Chinese troops also took to the field against the Taipings. Meanwhile newer Western-style ethnic Chinese units were being organized by Zeng Guofan (Tseng Kuofan) and Li Hongzhang (Li Hungchang), two famous Chinese mandarins who were powerful and effective regional leaders holding both senior military rank and civil office. Zeng and Li were early manifestations of the warlords who would proliferate in the early 20th century. Their newly raised exclusively indigenous Chinese troops would at times participate in joint operations with the Western led units. At the same time, the Taipings were also recruiting into their ranks Western mercenaries and traitors possessing technical skills who still found the rebel enticements irresistable.
By 1864 the Taiping movement was in its final days after a series of major defeats. Nanking would be re-taken by Imperial forces and Hong would commit suicide. But the changing circumstances between the European powers relationship with China would lead to the disbandment of the EVA.
IV. Ward’s Legacy
To most of the public, Frederick Townsend Ward is unknown. At best his place in mainstream history is only a footnote incidental to 19th century China trade. Besides the efforts of China Post 1, his significance has only been preserved by specialized historians. Ward has been long overshadowed by his eventual British successor to the EVA, Major Charles “Chinese” Gordon (later of Khartoum fame), the final commander of the unit until its disbandment in 1864.
Ward was reviled and dismissed by detractors as merely an opportunistic freebooter. However his accomplishments included introducing military innovations that led to the successful defense of Shanghai, and the eventual victory over the Taipings. This was recognized by many of his contemporaries which included high ranking and influential Westerners.
Among them was Anson Burlingame, the famous American diplomat appointed by President Lincoln to the position of Minister to China. Burlingame would become an enthusiastic advocate supportive of Ward in political circles. A few knowledgeable and influential British officials and military/naval officers also recognized Ward’s abilities as a capable military leader and helpful to Western interests.
Admiral Sir John Hope, the commander of British naval forces in China, was originally highly critical of Ward. He accused Ward of impressing British sailors into mercenary service and also being the cause of desertions. The admiral had once even arrested Ward and hoped to prosecute him but Ward escaped. Admiral Hope would later became a good friend and ally of Ward as Britain’s China policy evolved with changing situations and Ward was seen as a solution for Western countries caught in the sticky situation of being in the middle of the rebellion. At one time the British had even thought of increasing the size of the EVA to ten thousand men. Enlightened Americans in China admired Ward’s military talents and uniquely American spirit. He was a charming and popular personality well known, respected and liked in the Western expatriate community. Most saw that he was not driven only by a mercenary profit motive as some skeptics had claimed. Ward treated his Chinese soldiers and their families well. He humanely treated enemy prisoners and civilians caught in the fighting. He respected the Chinese people. This was unlike the age old practices of treating one’s own troops poorly and the indiscriminate slaughtering of captured enemy troops and non-combatant civilians.
European governments were wary of Ward because his methods meant defining new ways of diplomatically dealing with China. He was a harbinger of the forces of unstoppable modernization and reforms, particularly military; necessary for China to absorb in order to reform and progress as a nation state acting according to international standards of diplomacy and conduct. The colonial mentality of European nations dominated their respective foreign policies towards China, which was viewed as a failing state ripe for exploitation. It must be recalled that during the Taiping era, the Second Opium War also broke out between the European powers led by the British and French against Imperial China. This conflict ran concurrently from 1856-1860 with the Taiping Rebellion and further complicated Sino-Western relations.
Imperial China existed in its own reactionary time warp — the Middle Kingdom’s arrogantly Sinocentric world view was virtually frozen in time in a xenophobic medieval political, military, economic and socio-cultural state. The ruling dynastic mindset was stuck trying to preserve the status quo of the good old ways just like back in the good old days. It was uninterested in East-West trade and cultural contacts and in its dealings with the European nations none of the parties’ diplomacy particularly improved bilateral relations.
Ward’s abilities and leadership marked him as a potentially dangerous man to the future of the Qing dynasty and traditional Chinese culture. His successes fighting the Taipings also helped prop up the Manchu rulers. With his independent thinking, American values and ways, he made the possibility of regime change a frightening possible threat to the Qing dynasty and the established order. Just four decades later following the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, the Imperial Court would be driven to flee from Beijing (Peking) by Western Allied forces during the relief of the beleaguered foreign legations. The Qing dynasty collapsed and would be totally swept away by the republican revolution in 1911.
Today Frederick Townsend Ward’s grave in Salem, Massachusetts is an empty tomb. Some of his remaining personal effects which include parts of his Chinese military uniform are now fortuitously preserved at the Peabody-Essex Museum of Salem, Massachusetts. General Ward’s historical significance was not forgotten when China Post 1 was founded.
As of December 2019, no further announcements have emerged out of the entertainment world about any progress in the film project about General Ward. There is a minimal profile on Frederick Townsend Ward on the Internet Movie Database (IMDB).
A future article will describe more aspects of the intriguing Sino-American relationship during first half of the 20th century which is the continuing saga of the story of China Post 1.
For readers who want to learn more about General Ward and the Taiping Rebellion, the following books by scholars and based on extensive historical research are recommended as essential reading. These authors all wrote favorable accounts. Many first hand observations about Ward and the EVA have been preserved in a variety of newspaper articles, official and private correspondence and memoirs from that time. Regrettably, Ward’s many personal letters to his immediate family were destroyed by other surviving family members.
THE DEVIL SOLDIER. Caleb Carr. 1993. The title of this book about Frederick Townsend Ward is based on the name that the Taipings called him. It is a well-written, authoritative and balanced biography by a military historian and explores many aspects of his short, heroic and tragic life. It fairly represents the man and helps preserve his legacy. Ward attained mandarin and general rank from the Qing dynasty and upon his death would be elevated in status to Confucian sainthood. The invading Japanese army in WW2 would ransack his gravesite. Chinese Communists would later desecrate his remains and destroy his memorial hall. The gravesite was razed and paved over and presently is a public park with no trace of remembrance. The present day Taiping Rebellion museum in Nanjing gives a nod to Ward as the leading adversary of the Taipings.
GOD’S CHINESE SON: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan. Jonathan D. Spence. 1996. This book by a noted Sinologist is a portrait of the Taiping leader’s mad visions and his God-worshipping heaven on earth domain. It delves into his strange millenial beliefs inspired by his repeated academic failures to attain Confucian civil service officialdom and his twisted absorption of Christian religious teachings. After the Taiping capture and establishment of Nanjing as their capital, Hong would retreat into seclusion and religious weirdness; continuing to issue religious proclamations to his kingdom. Many of his subordinate commanders were annointed as lesser kings and would continue with visions and proclamations of their own and engage in deadly internecine conflicts while still fighting the Qing dynasty. Hong’s death when Nanjing was besieged and retaken by Imperial forces in 1862 did not immediately end the Taiping era. The remaining Taipings would be hunted down and totally vanquished by 1865.
Some Western missionaries and diplomats have gone so far as to entertain the possibility that the Taipings were a viable alternative to the Manchus as future rulers of China and be more favorable towards Christianity and foreign trade. They were obviously wrong. Since the final demise of the Heavenly Kingdom, the Taipings have been lauded as proto-communist revolutionaries by the Communist Party of China.
TO CHANGE CHINA: Western Advisors in China 1620-1960. Jonathan D. Spence. 1969. The five M’s of the mid-17th to mid-20th century China were Manchus, Mandarins, Missionaries, Merchants and Mercenaries. These were major players from the cast of characters on the Chinese historical stage which various interested governments tried to direct. This overview of Western influences in the modernization progress of China spans four centuries and also encompasses the entire period of Manchu rule. The last big M to come was Mao Zedong.
MERCENARIES AND MANDARINS: The Ever-Victorious Army in Nineteenth Century China, Richard J. Smith. 1978. This scholarly work recognizes Ward for his role during the Taiping Rebellion however it emphasizes the victory over the rebels as particularly credited to the Western-style Chinese units commanded by ethnic regional Chinese leaders; units which ultimately took to the field in far larger numbers than the Western contingents given the scale of the rebellion.
FREDERICK TOWNSEND WARD