Read CHAPTER III - CHINESE WAR AND TAIPING REBELLION of General Gordon A Christian Hero , free online book, by Seton Churchill, on

A stout old Scotch lady when asked about her health, replied that she was “weel i’ pairts, but ower muckle to be a’ weel at ane time.” If the old lady was too large to be perfectly well all over at the same time, may it not be said that in this respect China resembled her in 1860? The largest empire in the world was suffering from external as well as internal troubles. A great portion of the country was given up to all the horrors of civil war conducted on an enormous scale, while the united armies of England and France were assaulting it from without.

Space does not permit a detailed account of the causes which led England to declare war on China. This war was but a phase in a dispute that had been going on since 1837 between the two countries. In 1842, to our shame it must be said, by force of arms we compelled the Chinese to receive opium from India, and thenceforward a very sore feeling existed against us. Just before the Indian Mutiny this feeling was awakened by a trifling event, and war was again declared, though, owing to the outbreak of the Mutiny, we did not press matters for a time. As soon as our hands were free in India, operations in China were actively pushed forward, the French troops joining us on account of the murder of some French missionaries. The war was practically a walk-over, for the Chinese army was quite incapable of meeting trained forces; and a treaty having been agreed upon, the representatives of the English and French returned home.

In March 1859 Mr. Frederick Bruce, brother to Lord Elgin, was sent out as Minister Plenipotentiary to China, and instructed to proceed to Pekin to exchange the ratifications of the treaty. He was to be accompanied by Admiral Hope, the English admiral commanding in China. Pekin lies inland about a hundred miles, being connected with the sea by the river Peiho, the entrance to which was commanded by the Taku Forts. For some reason, the Chinese did not want Mr. Bruce to proceed to Pekin, or at all events they objected to his proceeding by the river route, as he proposed. Obstacles to the progress of our ships were put in the way, and the Chinese refused to remove them. Mr. Bruce thereupon called upon the Admiral to take steps for their removal, and on his attempting to do so, the Chinese fired on the English ships with such telling effect that four gunboats were placed hors de combat. Nor was the Admiral more successful when he attempted to storm the forts. The result of that day’s work was that out of 1100 men in the English force nearly 450 were killed or wounded. The feeling in England was, that though Mr. Bruce had acted very hastily in thus committing England to another war without definite instructions from home, the matter could not be allowed to rest. The French again joined us, and Sir Hope Grant, who had distinguished himself in the Indian Mutiny, was appointed to the command. This General, it may be remarked, was an earnest Christian no less than an eminent soldier. The Taku Forts were captured and the troops were marching on Pekin, when the Chinese sought to open negotiations, in order to prevent our army from entering their capital. Our representatives consented to enter into negotiations at Tungchow, a place about a dozen miles from Pekin. Some English officers, accompanied by a few of the staff of the English and French envoys, went forward to Tungchow, to make the necessary arrangements for the interview of the envoys with the Chinese commissioners. A misunderstanding arose, and twenty-six British and twelve French subjects were seized, in spite of the flag of truce, and hurried off to different prisons. Their sufferings as prisoners were frightful, the result being that half of them died, while the remainder, when released, bore evident signs of the ill-treatment they had undergone. The allied armies at once marched on Pekin, and Lord Elgin refused to treat with the Chinese till the prisoners were restored, which did not take place till the gates of the city were about to be blown in. The Chinese were compelled to pay L10,000 for each European and L500 for each native soldier captured, in addition to having their famous Summer Palace, valued by some at the almost fabulous sum of L4,000,000, destroyed.

Gordon at this time was adjutant of engineers at Chatham, a post a good deal esteemed by officers of his rank. He had lost the opportunity of seeing active service in India, but he was determined that it should be no fault of his if he were not sent out to China. He resigned his appointment at Chatham, an act which greatly annoyed his father and many of his friends. Even a high official in the War Office considered that he was damaging his prospects for life; whereas it turned out that by going to China he got that opportunity of exercising his talents and displaying his abilities which he might otherwise never have met with. Not leaving England till the 22nd of July 1860, he was too late to take part in the principal action, the taking of the Taku Forts, which were assaulted on the 21st August. He writes to his mother from Hong-Kong, “I am rather late for the amusement, which will not vex you.” He arrived at Tientsin on September 26th, and marched with Sir Hope Grant’s force to Pekin. The following is his description of the only part he was allowed to take before the Chinese surrendered:

“We were sent down in a great hurry to throw up works and batteries against the town, as the Chinese refused to give up the gate we required them to surrender before we would treat with them. The Chinese were given until noon on October 13 to give up the Anting gate. We made a lot of batteries, and everything was ready for the assault of the wall, which is battlemented and forty feet high, but of inferior masonry. At 11.30 P.M. on the 12th, however, the gate was opened, and we took possession; so our work was of no avail.”

The English and French armies left Pekin on November 8th, a little over three weeks after the fall of the city, and returned to Tientsin, to take up their quarters for the ensuing cold weather. Captain Gordon was the senior engineer officer left behind, and he remained till the spring of 1862, performing the ordinary engineer duties of providing accommodation for men and horses. During his stay at Tientsin there is little of any interest to record. He wisely relieved the monotony of camp life by making a journey to the Great Wall of China, which has been visited by very few of our countrymen. He was doubtless prompted by curiosity to undertake this expedition, but other motives were also at work. He was a born soldier, he was good at surveying, and doubtless he was anxious to ascertain by personal observation if any other route existed than the well-known one by which a Russian army could march on Pekin; but he was unsuccessful in finding one. During the journey the cold was very severe; in one place, he says, “the raw eggs were frozen hard as if they had been boiled.”

It has been already mentioned that China was troubled by an extensive civil war, which had been going on for many years. It appears to have commenced in the province of Quang-Tung, and to have been headed by a schoolmaster, Hung-tsue-schuen. That there must have been good cause for the dissatisfaction which caused the outbreak is clear from the fact that not only did thousands join the rising, but that among the rebels were men of great ability. The leader seems to have been a strange mixture of good and evil, and at one time appears to have had an inclination towards Christianity. Unfortunately the evil part of his nature predominated, and his head was turned by his success. During the time the Chinese troops were engaged in war with the English, the rebels had it pretty well their own way, and large tracts of the country were devastated. Intoxicated with success, the rebels threatened to attack Shanghai, and the merchants there, seeing how incapable the Government was to protect them, subscribed to form a small army to protect their interests. The command of this force was given to an American named Ward, who appears to have been a born soldier. His career was short, but he was engaged in seventy actions and never lost one. So successful was he, that the Pekin authorities conferred on his troops the pretentious title of “Ever-Victorious Army.” Unfortunately for that army, it soon lost its able commander, for in September 1862 he was killed when assaulting a city near Ningpo. He was succeeded by an American adventurer named Burgevine, who turned out a complete failure, being one of that type of unprincipled men who do so much harm in non-Christian countries. When he was dismissed, application was made to the English General to appoint an English officer to take command. Major Gordon had been ordered to Shanghai from Pekin at the beginning of May 1862, and consequently had come under the command of General Staveley, with whom, it will be remembered, he was acquainted in the Crimea. General Staveley’s duty was to clear the country for thirty miles round Shanghai of the rebels, and in the performance of this task Major Gordon had been employed. The opinion that General Staveley had formed of Gordon’s courage and ability in the Crimea was confirmed in the operations around Shanghai, and the following account is given by that General of Gordon’s plucky conduct:

“Captain Gordon was of the greatest use to me when the task of clearing the rebels from out of the country within a radius of thirty miles from Shanghai had to be undertaken. He reconnoitred the enemy’s defences, and arranged for the ladder-parties to cross the moats, and for the escalading of the works; for we had to attack and carry by storm several towns fortified with high walls and deep wet ditches. He was, however, at the same time a source of much anxiety to me from the daring manner in which he approached the enemy’s works to acquire information. Previous to our attack upon Singpo, and when with me in a boat reconnoitring the place, he begged to be allowed to land, in order better to see the nature of the defences. Presently, to my dismay, I saw him gradually going nearer and nearer, by rushes from cover to cover, until he got behind a small outlying pagoda within a hundred yards of the wall, and here he was quietly making a sketch and taking notes. I, in the meantime, was shouting myself hoarse in trying to get him back; for not only were the rebels firing at him from the walls, but I saw a party stealing round to cut him off.”

There is not much more of interest to record of Gordon’s doings at this period. The rebels having been cleared out of the thirty-miles radius, Gordon was deputed to commence a complete survey of the whole district, and in December we find him so engaged. This occupation gave him a thorough insight into the ways of the people and the nature of the country. In this month he writes as follows:

“The people on the confines are suffering greatly and dying of starvation. This state of affairs is most sad, and the rebellion ought to be put down. Words cannot express the horrors these people suffer from the rebels, or the utter desert they have made of this rich province. It is all very well to talk of non-intervention, and I am not particularly sensitive, nor are our soldiers generally so; but certainly we are all impressed with the utter misery and wretchedness of these poor people.”

When General Staveley was applied to for an officer to take command of the so-called Ever-Victorious Army, his thoughts not unnaturally turned to Gordon, who, by the way, had received the brevet rank of major at the end of 1862. Gordon, having seen the failings and shortcomings of our generals in the Crimea, longed for an opportunity to exercise the gifts of which he felt conscious. General Staveley, however, shrank from recommending him for such a dangerous post. He knew well the plucky, chivalrous nature of the young engineer, and not unnaturally feared that he would expose himself too much to danger. His affection for Major Gordon made him at first refuse to recommend him for the command, and it was not till Gordon repeatedly urged him to yield, and promised not to expose himself more than necessary, that he consented to submit his name to the authorities at home. A temporary commander being urgently required, he appointed the chief of his staff, Captain Holland, of the Royal Marines, to the post, pending the decision of the War Office with regard to Gordon. Before the reply arrived from England two expeditions took place, one against Fushan, under Major Brennan, and one against the city of Taitsan, in which Captain Holland commanded in person. Both were disastrous to the reputation of the Ever-Victorious Army. In the attack on Taitsan some 7500 men were engaged, about one-third belonging to the Ever-Victorious Army, while the remainder were Chinese Imperial troops. Unfortunately, Captain Holland took it for granted that the Mandarins were correct when they informed him that the moat around the city contained no water, whereas it proved to be at least thirty feet deep. This was not discovered till the assaulting party arrived without bridges, and with nothing but escalading ladders, which they attempted to use as bridges. The ladders were of course not strong enough to bear the weight of the men, and broke down. The assault was very soon turned into a rout, and the “Ever-Victorious Army” not only lost several hundred men, but allowed two guns to fall into the hands of the enemy.

Such a disaster clearly indicated that an abler man was required at the head of the Ever-Victorious Army, and forthwith Major Gordon was appointed. A letter written home at the time shows that he was conscious that his father would not be pleased at the step he had taken:

“I am afraid that you will be much vexed at my having taken the command of the Sung-kiang force, and that I am now a Mandarin. I have taken the step on consideration. I think that any one who contributes to putting down this rebellion fulfils a humane task, and I also think tends a great deal to open China to civilisation. I will not act rashly, and I trust to be able soon to return to England; at the same time, I will remember your and my father’s wishes, and endeavour to remain as short a time as possible. I can say that if I had not accepted the command, I believe the force would have broken up, and the rebellion gone on in its misery for years. I trust this will not now be the case, and that I may soon be able to comfort you on the subject. You must not fret over the matter. I think I am doing a good service.... I keep your likeness before me, and can assure you and my father that I will not be rash, and that as soon as I can conveniently, and with due regard to the object I have in view, I will return home.”

Gordon’s father has been much misrepresented by some biographers. It has been practically said that he was not able to appreciate his son’s nobility of character; but there is not a word of truth in this. The old man saw that the post accepted by his son was one of great danger, made all the more dangerous by that son’s daring, and the fact that he did not understand the language of the people and was not cognisant of their manner of conducting warfare. He also was of opinion that the Chinese Government ought to be able to deal with their own internal affairs, and put down any rebellions that might occur without making a cat’s-paw of his son. One cannot blame the father, who only looked at the matter in a natural way, judging the circumstances from his own standpoint. It is impossible to consider the whole facts, and to read the letters concerning them, without feeling that neither father nor son had anything of which to be ashamed.

One of the most painful things in life is for a man who is fond of his parents to have to take a step which he feels will not meet with their approval, and we may be quite sure that Major Gordon gave this subject his earnest and prayerful consideration. The path of duty seemed to him to be clear, and the call was distinct. The whole country was practically deluged in blood, and not only strong men, but hapless women and children, were suffering. Could Gordon, knowing what he did, and feeling conscious of his power to put down the rebellion, have declined to enter the path so unexpectedly opened to him? Some would have done so. But opportunities such as this, not seized, are seldom repeated. His ability, his energies, and his powers might never have found full scope, and might have proved a curse to him rather than a blessing. How often one sees in life men with marked ability who are not only unhappy themselves, but make every one around them equally so. They seem to have missed the object for which they were created, and instead of doing their duty in a large sphere, as they might have done, their stunted energies prevent them from properly filling even a smaller and humbler sphere. They have missed the opportunity of being really great, and yet their abilities prevent them from being satisfied with anything short of this. The call came to Gordon to take his share in the battle of life, and to do his best to mitigate the sufferings caused by a horrible civil war, and doubtless he pondered those words, “He that loveth father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me.” He decided to take the path which appeared to him the one of duty; nor need we be surprised when we know that he was a thorough Englishman of the highest type, of whom the words are true

“There’s a heart that leaps with burning glow
The wronged and the weak to defend;
It strikes as soon for a trampled foe
As it does for a soul-bound friend.”