on January 27, 1999
Caleb Carr's portrait of Fredrick Townsend Ward, an obscure American mercenary who rose to prominence during China's bloody Taiping rebellion, offers a fascinating look at a civil war that took place at the same time as the battle between the States, but in a completely different world. A far cry from Carr's previous thrillers, his historical work is still infused with the authors' powerful descriptive narrative. Readers will find themselves immersed in the Shanghai of the 1850's and 60's as quickly and totally as Carr plunged them into turn of the century New York, awash in the quasi-Christian Taiping rebellion, a massive and bloody attempt to wrestle power from millennia old Imperial China. Indeed, the city on the Huang-Pu river is as much a character in the story as any of the soldiers, rebels, merchants, peasants and Imperial Courtiers that lived in that turbulent time and place. Using western officers, often mercenaries, to train and lead Chinese troops in the western style of warfare, Ward raised up the "Ever Victorious Army" and turned the tide against the rebellion. He led his troops into battle in scenes as gripping as any taking place half a world away in our own Civil War, using battle strategies that would have held him in high rank amongst Grant, Sherman and Lee. In doing so he was awarded the status of Mandarin, the first westerner to ever enter the upper caste of the Confucian order. An epic tale of a long forgotten adventurer that offers a window into a remarkable time and place. It's too bad that Mr. Carr's success with fiction will most likely rob us of one of our most compelling and adept biographers.
on June 15, 2000
The Taiping Rebellion in China was a very bloody affair. It cost the lives of over 25 million people. In addition it helped set the stage for the collapse of the Qing Dynasty and the whole Dynastic System which ruled China for 1000's of years.
Though also a biography, the Devil Soldier is an interesting overview of the Rebellion and its eventual defeat. This book is much more readable than Spence's "Gods Chinese Son."
Carr is a great writer, his novels are great historical mysteries of early NYC. This book benefits froms Carr's ability to write and tell a story.
Anyone interesting in this time period will enjoy this book. Again it is much better than the one on basically the same topic by Spence.
In 1859 a 28 year-old sailing officer from Salem Massachusetts took service under the Chinese Empire to defend it from mortal danger. When this young man died in battle in 1863 he had put down the largest and bloodiest civil war in human history (the American Civil War raging at the same time pales in comparison), he had been made a general and a mandarin, he had married a Chinese princess, and he was interred in his own temple. Perhaps most impressively was the fact that he did all of this while retaining the reputation among his friends and foes of being a man of decency, fairness, honor and incorruptibility. And yet for all this, he is nearly forgotten in both his native and adopted country.
Frederick Townsend Ward's history was erased largely because he was feared by both his Manchu masters and by the European powers that were seeking to dismember China for their own mercenary ends. The author speculates that due to his contempt for the cruelty and corruption of the Manchu's, that had he survived, he might have turned the instrument of his "Ever Victorious Army" against them in order to restore the Ming Dynasty. Had that happened, the history of China could have far different in the century that followed. It is clear that Ward found the concept of ending the Empire as unthinkable- which is why the later republic never honored his memory.
One other thing struck me while reading this book: Ward wanted to attend West Point but was not able to obtain an appointment because he lacked "connections." In the long run this didn't seem to hurt him too much....
If this story were fiction it would surely be dismissed as too far-fetched to ever be believed.
on February 18, 2008
It seems fitting that one of the most implausible films ever made should be based "loosely" on a book about one of the most implausible real-life figures of history. Frederick Townsend Ward, the Devil Soldier, had nothing to do with the civil war in Japan; neither did any other American officer. But Ward did play a huge role in the defense of the Manchu imperial government against the forces of Chun Wang, the syncretic Sino-Christian rebel, in the Taiping civil war, supposedly the bloodiest conflict of the 19th Century. My five-star rating of this book is contingent upon also reading Jonathan Spence's book about the Taipings, God's Chinese Son. Otherwise you will have less than half the story. Caleb Carr writes very well, but this is not a novel, and as a history it is far too partial.
In his prologue, Carr declares: "No man's life can be truly understood out of context, but in Ward's case the context is especially vital." No kidding, Caleb! In Ward's case, the context is virtually all we have, since nothing of Ward's own letters or thoughts has survived. Thus Carr is writing a biography so much as a social history of a moment in time, that moment when the vast culture of China first "discovered" the West. Carr's short moment of importance was his organization and training of the "Ever Victorious Army" of Chinese soldiers using Western military training and tactics. For better or worse, Ward's model army became the nucleus of the forces that destroyed the Taipings, though the man who replaced Ward as commander after Ward was killed, the scoundrel known as Chinese Gordon, has replaced him in historical memory also.
More novelist than historian, Caleb Carr might fairly be criticized for overdrawing his sources, or for not maintaining sufficient academic reserve. It would be wrong to ignore this book, however, if you have any interest in the history of modern China, in which FT Ward was a meteor in the sky, an omen of things to come.
on May 17, 1999
I read the book because of my interest in history. I'm Chinese from Taiwan, recognizing Ward and "Ever Victorious Army" from text book. The book certainly is well researched and written, however, it will not be for general consumption. The writer tried very hard to elevate Ward's importance, such as the sub-title "The American became a God..." which he explained later "more like a saint". Ward did not become a God. Chinese respect deceased in general, it may appear to Westerner as worship, THEN and NOW. It is not right to down play his role, but at the same time, don't do the opposite. The idea of training Chinese soliders was a logical move, Ward was there and he did it first. However, to say his existence impacted modern China, will be self-serving. Read it as a page of interesting history if you're interested. By the way, Ward's standard was upside down in the picture insert. Just compare it with the cover picture on the lower part.
on August 11, 1999
Due to the lack of surviving information concerning Ward, Carr's book is less biography and more historical portrait of the Taiping Rebellion from Shanghai. Excellent read.
on March 8, 2000
The author has done excellent research in developing a biography of the life and times of Frederick Townsend Ward during China's Taiping rebellions during 1860 through 1863. But as a historian seeking accuracy of facts, the author commits several types of "avoidable" error in just writing.
In attempting to get the who, what, where, when, and why about people and places, he clouds these issues with such overwhelming "context", that it becomes difficult to read at times to see the forest because of the trees. Quite often his sentences are just too long, many running 200 words or more, with the result that the reader has to go back and re-read them again. It's easy to get lost because of his verbosity in spite of the fact that he uses simple words.
The author makes excessive use of parentheses to slide extra context into his sentences; where in itself this isn't bad, but when his writing contains sub-context within sub-context of a context in one single sentence, before he tells us of an event happening, his writing is difficult to read (like this sentence).
Moreover, what is surprising is that the author, Caleb Carr, is not guilty of any of these stylistic errors in anything else of his that I have read. He has always gripped my attention.
But my criticisms aside, the author goes out of his way to be an independent observer and commentator about the events concerning Ward's battles, based on a plethora of well documented research and opinion. He is very careful to imply just this, as opposed to fact, as a responsible historian should. In so doing, he does a very credible job in showing Frederick Townsend Ward to be an honourable, honest, responsible, and loyal warrior of the Manchu imperialists who were just not at all deserving of the services of\a man of such integrity.
Also because of the author's research into the cultural attitudes of the Chinese, it becomes easier to understand how China's people fell into another form of personal domination, by the same calibre of government it has today.
on August 3, 2003
This is a bit of a stretch for the conventional Western military history, but an excellent one. Most readers will probably think of General Ward's biography in terms of traditional 19th century nation state narratives. Let me propose a different one, the context is 'opium wars'. The story goal is defeating the merchants of opium, the English. The outcome is bittersweet. This requires the reader to do more 'reading between the lines' than usual, but the rewards are there for those interested.
While the book's focus is Fredrick Ward, a true soldier of fortune, the 'Chinese drug wars' are really more central. The period covered begins with the British winning the 'Opium War'. To make sense of this, imagine Columbian drug lords defeating the US Army and demanding control of an airport in Miami. By treaty right, the Columbian drug lords would we granted the right to fly cocaine to any airport in America. If you can imagine this, substitute Queen Victoria for the Columbian drug lords and Shanghai for Miami.
As should be required, the book begins by discussing hypocrisy. England's Royal navy is primarily in China to help the East India Company sell opium. The 'Christian' leader of the Taiping rebellion preaches puritanical virtues, but surrounds himself with concubines. Our hero emerges from the New England merchant class, a class that simultaneously smuggles slaves to the American slave states and finances abolitionist politics. Unfortunately, the theme is not followed throughout. The final chapter dwells on legal battles over Ward's treasures rather than the continuing twists in the drug wars and associated hypocrisy.
The narrative spends most of its time on Ward's invention, the 'Ever Victorious Army' or 'Ward's Chinese Corps'. As evidence that necessity is the mother of invention, the 'Ever Victorious Army' came into existence through the whim of fortune. Western powers in Shanghai had no desire to see it emerge, since it represented a threat to the British control of the opium trade. The Imperial Chinese were to entrench in tradition to accept the innovation. It was only the existence of a 100,000 man rebel army 30 miles from Shanghai that provided Ward his 'opportunity' to build his vision.
Fredrick Ward remains something of a mystery in his biography. He died in action before we could really tell what he was building. Few of his letters escaped destruction, so we rarely hear his own voice. Instead, Carr is forced to infer from events and news paper accounts. Most readers will have to overcome their skepticism about Ward's career being ample material for a full-fledged biography. In this context, Ward seems the forgotten inventor. Charles 'Chinese' Gordon won the publicity war and his buddies wrote the history books. Gordon 'China' role is limited compared to Ward. Gordon took over Ward's cross-cultural invention, the 'Ever Victorious Army', and won the army's last battle. His job was simply to maintain it long enough to win one battle, and peacefully disband the thing. For this, he gets his own big budget Hollywood movie, Khartoum, staring Charleston Heston. In contrast, Ward invents a modern Chinese Army and provides a working model to interested Japanese observers. Guess who I think more interesting.
on April 27, 2014
Author Caleb Carr's portrait of "Fredrick Townsend Ward," who was an obscure American mercenary who rose to prominence during China's bloody Taiping rebellion- a war unlike any other in the annals of the history of warfare. I wanted to better understand Borginvine, Ward and his Filipino and European mercenaries that confronted China's Muslim and Religious Fanatics in the TAIPING REBELLION.
This book offers the introspective reader a fascinating look at a civil war that took place at the same time as the Battle between the States (War of Northern Aggression), however in a completely different part of the world.
This book is indeed a far cry from Carr's previous thrillers, and the military reader will certainly note that his historical work is still infused with the authors' powerful descriptive narrative.
Readers will find themselves immersed in the depths of Shanghai wharf, alive with the flow of gold coin to be had and the European and US interests in the International intrests along the China's greatest business port of the 1850's and 1860's as quickly and totally as Carr plunged them into turn of the century New York, awash in the quasi-Christian Taiping rebellion, a massive and bloody attempt to wrestle power and wealth from the ancient and decaying Imperial China.
You can see for yourself that this city on the Huang-Pu river is as much a seedier character in the story as any of the faces of the soldiers, rebels, merchants, peasants and Imperial Courtiers that lived in that turbulent time and place.
The Powers that Be that control the Banking Interests were willing to use modern military equipments, and unique officers, and men that were indeed mercenaries at heart, there to train and lead Chinese troops in the western style of warfare. Here we see Great Britain's attempt to quash the brashness of the mercenaries, and attempt to fully control trade throughout the region. We see very what is happening even today in China, a re-emergence of Muslim and Religious lower class of China's society in uprising, attempting to throw off the shackles of the powerful rulers of their day and time. WARD was trusted, his Filipino Lt was trusted, and Ward's Executive Officer Burgevine was not trusted. Burgevine is a deeper character, he actually lived much of his life in coastal New Bern, N.C.) and although a deeper and obscure character the readers can see very clearly that he has a black streak a mile long. Of course, we realize that at the end the British and the rise of the character of General C.G. Gordon comes into play after the death of Ward. Gordon character is obtuse, and religious (deeply so), yet even, Gordon realizes that this opportunity is something that can "make him or break him". Although a lowly Major of the Royal Engineers, Major Gordon, has that unique spark...that even Lt. T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia) yearned to accomplish and emulate.
on April 19, 2015
ok, this book was a delightful surprise from a master historian. i'd known about Townsend Ward from the treatment of an unmade film script that pitched him in what i quickly (after reading only 100 pages of the book) realised was a totally hollywood light that showed William Walker as somewhat more than he was and TW as his "able lieutenant." in reality, TW deserves much more recognition that WW has gotten - in fact, he is one of the most overlooked figures of the 19th century (an epoch overflowing with "overlooked figures"). enjoy adventure stories? military background stories? china stories? are you a history buff? get the book - you're likely to love it!