Despite persistent efforts to subdue the Taiping Rebellion from its inception in 1851, the Qing army suffered a string of defeats. After the Taiping Army made Tianjing (天京) their capital, the Qing government immediately planned a counterattack. The generals Xiang Rong (向榮) and Qishan (琦善) were tasked with the establishment of the Jiangnan Camp (江南大營) and Jiangbei Camp (江北大營) to encircle the rebels. Both camps were annihilated by the Taiping Army in 1856 (the sixth year of Emperor Xianfeng’s﹝咸豐﹞reign). Though they were soon re-established, the Qing government realised that the Eight Banners (八旗) and Green Standard (綠營) troops constituting the backbone of the imperial military had become largely ineffective. The government had no choice but to rely on local militias raised by officials and gentry nationwide.
Zeng Guofan (曾國藩), a member of Hunan’s (湖南) scholar-gentry, raised the Xiang Army (湘軍) by appealing to fellow natives to defend their homeland and the Confucian tradition. The Xiang Army soon proved itself a strong rival for the Taiping Army. Along with the Huai Army (淮軍), another local army raised by Li Hongzhang (李鴻章), the two forces gradually became indispensable to the Qing government. Meanwhile, keen to safeguard their interests in China, the foreign powers joined forces with the Qing government to raise armies outfitted with Western weapons to deal with the Taiping Rebellion. They included the Foreign Gun Troop (洋槍隊, also called the Changsheng Army or Ever-Victorious Army, 常勝軍), the Chang’an Army (常安軍, Ever-Stable Army), and the Changjie Army (常捷軍, Ever-Triumphant Army).
Despite the fierce attack by the joint forces of the Qing government and the Western powers, the Taiping Army continued their dogged resistance, even achieving some victories by routing the Jiangbei and Jiangnan camps twice. Nevertheless, their passive position sealed their fate. After losing strategic locations such as Jiujiang (九江) and Anqing (安慶) in succession, it became a matter of how long they could hold out before collasping.
As the imperial army had become corrupt and inept, the Qing government was forced to rely on local militias raised by Han officials and gentry. In 1853, Zeng Guofan formed the Xiang Army by consolidating local militias all over Hunan (Xiang is the abbreviation for Hunan Province). It later became the most effective force against the Taiping Rebellion.
A Battle Scene in Tianjia Town and Qi Prefecture (《田家鎮及蘄州戰圖》), a painting by Qing artist Wu Youru (吳友如). In 1854, the Taiping Army and the Xiang Army clashed in a fierce battle in Tianjia Town and Qi Prefecture. The Xiang Army won. The Taiping Army then retaliated in the following two years, and managed to capture various key locations in the provinces of Hubei (湖北) and Jiangxi (江西). Militarily, the Taiping Army was in a flavourable situation. If Tianjing had not been rocked by infighting in 1856, the course of history would have been different.
From 1857 to 1858, the Xiang Army waged a fierce battle both on land and at river against the Taiping Army in Jiujiang, a strategic point in Jiangxi, with the former emerging as the victor. The loss of Jiujiang jeopardised Anqing (安慶) in Anhui (安徽), a Taiping strongholds safeguarding Tianjing downstream. The main tactic of the Xiang Army was to move eastward down the Yangtze River to capture strategic locations such as Jiujian and Anqing along the way, and gradually approach Tianjing.
In 1859, the Xiang Army began to besiege Anqing and was met by the Taiping Army’s strong resistance. In 1861, Anqing fell, leaving Tianjing vulnerable. The tide quickly turned against the rebels. Pictured is A Scene of the Anqing City Battle (《安慶省城戰圖》) disseminated by the Qing government.
In 1860, the Taiping Army attacked Shanghai. The picture shows the Taiping Army fighting while advancing towards Shanghai. The Western powers, keen to protect their own interests, formed the Foreign Gun Troop to help the Qing government defend Shanghai against the Taiping invasion.
The Foreign Gun Troop (later called the Ever-Victorious Army) was first formed in 1860 and led by an American, Frederick Townsend Ward. After Ward was shot dead by the Taiping Army in 1862, leadership of the Ever-Victorious Army fell to Charles George Gordon, a British. With its formidable firepower, the Ever-Victorious Army achieved numerous victories against the Taiping Army.
Chinese soldiers and foreign commanders in the Ever-Victorious Army. To safeguard its regime, the Qing government had to swallow its pride and dispense favours to seek an alliance with the foreign powers who sought to invade China. Having convinced the foreigners that their vested interests in China would be protected, the Qing government obtained their support in quelling the Taiping Rebellion.
In 1862, an expeditionary force formed by the Ever-Victorious Army and the British army attacked the cities occupied by the Taiping Army. The picture shows the joint forces bombarding Fenghua (奉化) city gate in Zhejiang (浙江) with cannons from the outside.
In 1862, Li Hongzhang established the Huai Army. Equipped with imported and locally made imitations of Western firearms, the Huai Army was the finest Chinese army at that time and proved to be a new force in the battle against the Taiping Rebellion.
An illustration of a battle scene commissioned by the Qing government. It shows Qing army bombarding the besieged Taiping Army camp. The Qing and the Taiping armies clashed in many fierce battles, with both sides managing to capture locations only to lose them again. The Qing government was unable to put down the rebels in a single stroke, the effective utilisation of local and foreign militias gradually allowed it to go on the offensive, and the rebels’ situation grew more desperate by the day.
Source of most photos used in this feature piece: Fotoe