An account of the last few years of the Taiping Rebellion, with a focus on British involvement. Although sparked by a religious movement, the author characterizes the Taiping as a long-suppressed reaction of the majority Chinese to centuries of (mis)rule by the foreign Manchu invaders, ie. the Qing Dynasty. The Qing were ripe for overthrow and quite ineffectual by this point; their demise was postponed 50 years or so by two factors; first that the British (eventually) threw in their lot with the Qing against the Taiping on rather flimsy and biased reporting by just a few officials, and second that Zeng Guofan declined to take power for himself when he definitely could have done so.
British policy during this period flip-flopped or otherwise struggled to find a direction. Technically, they claimed to be neutral in the Chinese civil war … but at one point, they were fighting separately against both parties. British in Shanghai were defending against a Taiping assault while a British fleet attacked the Qing’s Taku forts and the Summer Palace at Beijing in the climax of what is now called the Second Opium War. Soon after, the British were persuaded by Frederick Bruce that the Taiping were up to no good and the only hope for stability in China would be to help the Qing stay afloat.
Many others, including historians today, believe the Taiping were on the road to victory and would have done alright, in spite of the somewhat crazy behavior of the founder, Hong Xiuquan. (Sidenote – not much on Hong Xiuquan’s rise or Taiping doctrine or society in this book; really just about the war. At one point though it said that Hong Xiuquan was claiming to be the new member of the Trinity, replacing the Holy Spirit…)
A fascinating character when thinking about what the Taiping might have turned into is Hong Rengan, Hong Xiuquan’s cousin. Long before his cousin’s visions, Hong Rengan was a Christian convert in Hong Kong and worked as an assistant to foreign missionaries. When the Taiping became ascendant, he was sent to his cousin with high hopes that “true Christianity” would replace the Taiping creole. At first things seemed to go better than their wildest dreams – Hong Xiuquan heartily welcomed his cousin and offered him the title of “Shield King” and responsibility as the foreign minister for the Taiping government. Hong Rengan had a grand plan of strong friendship and cooperation with Western powers in a bid jumpstart Chinese industry and technology, much like the reforms of the Meiji Restoration later in Japan. (Another sidenote – the author points out the Japan profited well by observing China’s problems – first by opening up to the West peacefully whereas the Chinese went kicking and screaming via Opium Wars; second by accelerating technological progress to catch up to the West whereas the Qing stagnated.) Despite his best efforts, Western perception of the Taiping went downhill and Hong Rengan’s plans were never to be.
Finally we have Zeng Guofan, the scholar-general. A Qing government official (though not a Manchu) and product of the examination system, he became a local militia leader in Hunan in the fight against the Taiping mainly because no one else at all was left to take the job. From the accounting in this book, he seemed very methodical in his leadership — he thought deeply about the problems at hand, devised a strategy with much careful deliberation, and then stuck to that strategy no matter what until the goal was achieved. He became something of a warlord and ignored direct orders from the Emperor when they went against his own strategy — not out of disloyalty, but because he knew that the Emperor didn’t know as much about the “situation on the ground” as he did. Anyway, at the end of the day, Zeng’s army conquered the Taiping capital of Nanjing, effectively killing the movement. He very well could have taken his army on to Beijing and toppled the severely weakened Qing, but did not. Perhaps something of a George Washington character (leaving after two terms instead of becoming King George) or maybe he just didn’t want to take on all the empire’s problems any longer.
Both Zeng, the other Qing, and the Taiping were very brutal in this conflict. Entire populations of cities, whether the Manchu district if conquered by Taiping, or everyone if conquered by Qing, were murdered upon their capture. Cannibalism became common in besieged cities and also in the countryside at large, being devasted by a decade of roving armies. Not a fun time to be alive.
This short book meanders all over the place (see what I did there?) but manages to transport the reader to the lower Mississippi valley in the first half the the 1800’s. The river was heavily traveled, mainly from North to South on makeshift rafts carrying raw materials to sell in New Orleans. Before the advent of the steamboat, it was just not too practical to go upriver, although it was done.
River life was dangerous. First there was the river itself, which often flooded. The valley is at a very low elevation, which allowed the river to meander and actually change course to some degree with every storm and flood or new “snag” (a tree caught in river bottom mud). The currents were strong and unpredictable, and the water was extremely cold due to the ice melt from northern streams. The climate and the heavy presence of travelers made for a slew of endemic diseases like yellow fever.
Besides the natural dangers, river life seemed to attract dangerous men as well. Something about being able to easily make a clean getaway simply by floating down the river may have encouraged thieves and con-men. (Sandlin said that the “code phrase” con-men used to identify each other was “Do you live on the river?” — implying that everyone who did was a cheat and a scoundrel.) Gamblers were in every town (at least in the seedy part of town, down near the levee) and it seemed like everyone was drunk, pretty much all the time.
Some interesting specific vignettes were about the siege of Vicksburg during the Civil War (the North tried to divert the river via digging a canal, but failed) and the nearly mile-long panoramas painted by John Banvard and others.
Interestingly, shortly after the end of the Civil War the old river life was all but gone. The reason was bridges and railroads — it was a much easier, not to mention safer, mode of transportation than river travel.
Wicked River is available from Amazon.
I initially thought the photo on the cover was a Civil War soldier, but actually he’s Robert Lee Hodge, a particularly “super hardcore” (vs “farb-y”) reenactor — or “living historian,” if you will. These guys spend lots of time and money getting period-specific gear, down to the correct stitching on shirts and semi-edible rations of slightly rancid pork-belly. They camp out in open fields in freezing weather and revel in tick bites and going hungry, all to achieve the “period high,” a sort of communion with what their forebears (usually, but not always) endured during the Civil War. (They don’t usually participate in actual battle reenactments though; it’s kind of hard to be authentic in that regard without real bullets.)
Why the Civil War fosters such devotion, and how the War is remembered today, are the focus of this book. Tony travels throughout much of the South looking for answers. As one individual he meets states, “The North has forgotten the War but the South is still fighting it.” The book is a good 15 years old or so now; but I think a lot of the reporting is still true.
The controversy over displaying the Confederate battle flag seems to embody a lot of the attitudes surrounding the remembrance of the war. Some white southerners rightly regard it as a symbol of their heritage. Even more often, though, it seems to have become a symbol of continued rebellion against the system: “The banner seemed instead to have floated free from its moorings in time and place and become a generalized ‘F You,’ a middle finger raised with ulceric fury in the face of blacks, school officials, authority in general – anyone or anything that could shoulder some blame for [their] difficult lives.”
In 1995, 19-year-old Michael Westerman was shot by a group of black teenagers after displaying the flag on his truck. Flag supporters and white supremacist groups hailed him as “the last Civil War martyr,” dying for honoring the Cause of his great-grandfathers. But really, as Tony found out from his girlfriend, he just thought the flag looked good on his red truck. The shooter didn’t know anything about the War either; just that for some reason whites knew that blacks hated the “Dukes of Hazzard” flag and like to rub it in their faces. Funny, but sad.
White and black Southern history has yet to be integrated. “You Wear Your X, I’ll Wear Mine” — meaning the Confederate battle flag “X” and the “X” symbolizing Malcolm X. However, ironically enough, each group honors more or less the same ideals of sacrifice, courage, and honor. At a Civil Rights memorial, the speaker “urged the audience to remember the martyrs and the ’cause for which they fought.’ I realized I’d heard all this before…Almost every sentence began to carry familiar echoes…marching all day and sleeping in the fields between Selma and Montgomery – just as rebel soldiers had done in Virginia. She recalled other hallowed fields of battle – Birmingham, Tuscaloosa, Little Rock – which resonated with her audience as powerfully as Sharpsburg and Shiloh did for many white Southerners.”
The passages on Civil War reenactors are a bit more lighthearted:
“Casualties are a problem. Nobody wants to drive three hours to get here, then go down in the first five minutes and spend the day lying on cowpies.”
“Suddenly, drums began banging to our rear. I turned and saw about a hundred tourists marching behind us, evidently inspired by our example….’Sir, the Tourists of Northern Virginia are close on our rear.'”