Fist Of History

April, 2012Archive for

Ever Victorious Army – an odd historical synergy

Wednesday, April 18th, 2012

An odd historical connection between the United States and China is the short, colorful history of the Ever Victorious Army, an armed force created by the merchants of the city of Shanghai to protect the city from armed rebels.  The army was initially formed and lead by an American, Frederick Ward, from 1860 to 1862, where he died in battle.  Leadership then passed to a British officer in the force, Charles Gordon (a.k.a. “Chinese” Gordon due to his being active in this military force.)  Ward is up there on the left and Gordon on the right.  What makes this particularly odd though is the entire sequence of events that lead to these two men forming a professional mercenary force that was one of the best units fighting for the Chinese government, indirectly, and that provided a model for the modernizing of the Chinese military.

This story begins with the Taiping Rebellion, a massive uprising in 1850 lead by a charismatic religious leader, Hong Xiuquan, who believed he was the brother of Jesus Christ.  Tapping into local unrest against the Qing government, this movement was able over a series of years to gain control of most of southern China.  The Chinese government was not able to muster enough military forces to contain the rebellion at its height and called upon local governments and governors to raise additional troops to protect their own territory when under threat.  Shanghai at the time was a city dominated by foreign merchants and trading interests and was one of the cities informed by the Chinese government it would need to see to its own defense.  The local merchants responded by hiring Mr. Ward to organize a mercenary force to assist in defending the city.  (Mr. Ward was in Shanghai precisely trying to get hired to do this, due to a previous adventurous life fighting with U.S. citizens waging private wars in Central America – a tradition at the time known as “filibustering.”)

The Ever Victorious Army initially was composed of a few hundred Europeans hired from the Shanghai docks – criminals, mercenaries, seaman, whatever Ward could scrape together.  Armed with modern European weapons, and modern tactics, this scratch force was successful in combats.  After some initial rough battles, and fleshed out with hired Chinese troops, the Ever Victorious Army earned its name by winning multiple battles against heavy odds.  It was successful, under first Ward and then Gordon, in not only defending Shanghai but also extending its safely controlled territory to the near countryside surrounding the city.

By 1864 the army had shrunk in size and was no longer combat effective, the Chinese government paid off the remaining troops and officers.  But it took the trained core of leadership, as well as the modern weapons, and used them as a model for reforming the Chinese army into a more modern force.

Sources:

Wikipedia entries on the Ever Victorious Army and the Taiping Rebellion

Online brief history of the city of Shanghai

Book – A Travelers History of China