General Dong Yiyuan, unlike his colleague Ma Gui, had not previously faced the Japanese and consequently went into the battle with his confidence high, impatient for a win. He launched his assault on October 30, 1598. Cannons were first brought forward and a barrage directed at the walls. An unusual siege engine was also used, a “wooden lever,” one Japanese chronicler called it, equipped in some manner with “gunpowder jars.” Positioned against the fortress’s main gate, it was ignited, and blasted the thick timbers to pieces. With that the order to attack was given and the allied forces charged at the smoking hole. Shimazu, having held his men back up to this point, now ordered his musketeers to fire into the mass of bodies at the base of the wall. Chinese and Korean casualties quickly mounted, but still they continued to press forward.
Just then a tremendous explosion erupted in the very center of the attacking Ming troops. Fire had gotten into the “gunpowder jars” of the siege engine that had blown open the gate. The thunderous explosion sent bodies flying, and sent a wave of confusion through the ranks of the attackers. Then they turned and began to retreat.
Shimazu lost no time in taking advantage of the situation, ordering companies of men out from the eastern and western gates of the fortress to chase after the retreating Chinese and Koreans. The momentum of the battle now swung to the Japanese. Their charge sent the allied forces into retreat, the disciplined Japanese close on their heels, cutting down whole units as they went. By the end of the day a trail of dead bodies extended from the walls of Shimazu’s fortress all the way north to Chinju.
Shimazu Yoshihiro would later claim that his men slaughtered 38,700 enemy troops that day—typical hyperbole for the Japanese but nowhere near the truth. The Battle of Sachon was nevertheless a resounding victory for the daimyo commander’s outnumbered men. According to more reliable Korean sources, between seven and eight thousand mainly Chinese troops were killed, most of them slaughtered as they attempted to flee, and vast amounts of supplies were lost. Ming general Dong Yiyuan tried to downplay the disaster in his reports by painting it as a stalemate. Losses had been heavy on both sides, he claimed, and the setback only temporary. “After my army rests, we will attack again.” The Koreans did not believe him. Neither would Dong’s superiors in Beijing.
“Big Sword” Liu Ting in the meantime was moving south toward the western end of the Japanese fortress chain with the 13,600 Chinese troops of his Western Route Army, 10,000 Koreans under Commander in Chief Kwon Yul, and Minister of the Right Yi Dok-hyong to help arrange supplies. The fortress they were making for was under the command of Konishi Yukinaga. It was on the south coast of Cholla Province, a few kilometers past the town of Sunchon, and was known to the Koreans as waegyo, “Japanese bridge,” after the bridge spanning the seawater-filled moat that had been excavated on the fortress’s landward side. It was by all accounts a formidable affair, in effect a fortified island perched on the edge of Kwangyang Bay, surrounded by stone and earthen walls, all carefully constructed to afford the 15,000 defenders within a clear field of fire at any attacking force.
In Yi Dok-hyong’s opinion, Liu Ting was reluctant to attack Waegyo, for when they got into southern Cholla Province he seemed to purposefully slow his advance. The Ming general insisted on a lengthy stop in the town of Chonju to offer sacrifices and to hold oath-taking ceremonies for his men. A special ceremony was also held for the benefit of the Koreans accompanying Liu, including Kwon Yul and Yi Dok-hyong, in which they were required to sign an oath to obey without question all orders from Chinese commanders and to provide the Ming forces with all necessary food and supplies. The oath was then sealed with a drink of chicken blood mixed with wine.
When this large allied force finally neared Waegyo, Konishi sent a letter out to Liu asking to meet with him for peace negotiations. Liu was delighted. The pretext of a meeting, he explained to Yi Dok-hyong, would draw Konishi out of his fortress so that he could be captured. Liu accordingly dispatched a favorable reply into the Japanese camp.
Contact by this time had been established between Liu Ting and the naval forces under Korean commander Yi Sun-sin and Chinese admiral Chen Lin. The plan was to launch a concerted attack against Konishi’s fortress, Liu from the land and Chen and Yi from the sea. The assault began on October 19, the day when Liu and Konishi were appointed to meet. Liu disguised one of his officers as himself and sent him forward toward the Japanese fortress as the bulk of the allied army waited in the rear. The ruse seemed to be working. The gates of the fortress opened and a figure presumed to be Konishi emerged, evidently expecting to sit down for a parlay. Unfortunately for Liu, allied artillery units, either his own or from the ships advancing with the tide from seaward, opened fire on the fortress at that moment, sending Konishi and his men racing back through the gates before they could be seized.
For the next three days the allied navy continued to bombard the Japanese fortress with cannonballs, arrows, and spitting fire, advancing with the morning tide then withdrawing in the evening as the tide was going out. It was a dangerous game. Using naval forces to attack entrenched enemy positions on land often entailed more risk than it was worth, for it meant operating close to shore in perilously shallow water, exposed to whatever massed firepower the enemy might possess. Yi Sun-sin knew this from his experiences earlier in the war. The only sensible way to employ battleships against shore fortifications, he knew, was in coordination with a land attack by army units, so that the enemy was placed under pressure from two sides. This was indeed now the plan. Unfortunately for Chen and Yi, it did not work. Each time they drew near the Japanese fortress they found themselves exposed to the full force of Konishi’s firepower, for General Liu Ting was not applying pressure to the fortress on the opposite, landward side. He was busy building war machines for an attack he planned to launch at some unspecified future date. After October 21 the allied navy thus gave up its one-sided campaign and pulled back to wait for Liu to begin his attack.
For the next week construction work continued within “Big Sword” Liu’s camp on a variety of siege engines, stoutly built wheeled enclosures that could be used to move cannons and men up close to the fortress walls. Finally, on October 30, everything was ready. Chen Lin went ashore that day to arrange with Liu a coordinated attack, one he hoped Liu would participate in this time. It was set to begin at dawn the following day, October 31.
The allied navy advanced with the tide at six o’clock that morning, to within range of Konishi Yukinaga’s fortress to commence their attack. Confidence was high among the ranks of the Koreans and Chinese, for they had been joined two days before by an additional hundred Ming ships recently arrived from the north. They kept up their assault for the next six hours in the face of stiff musket fire, inflicting significant losses on the Japanese defenders, according to Yi Sun-sin, but at a cost of quite a few casualties of their own. Yi himself lost a relative in the engagement, a cousin of his wife’s who was serving under him as captain. The allied fleet was finally forced to pull back with the ebbing tide in the early afternoon.
On the other side of the fortress, Liu Ting’s forces were having all sorts of problems. The first units to charge at the walls had been unable to make it beyond the wooden fence that Konishi had erected around the front of his fort. They were stopped here by a screen of musket fire, then were driven back by a Japanese force that came charging out from one of the gates. A second wave of men was sent forward, but it too was driven back, as was a third led by Liu Ting himself. The musket fire issuing from within the Japanese fortress was simply too heavy for his troops to get through. The wheeled siege engines that Liu had spent so many days building were in the meantime proving useless. They were heavy and difficult to move, and when finally maneuvered into position served only as a magnet for concentrated Japanese fire—so much so that the Ming troops fighting from within could do nothing more than hunker down and try not to be hit. The first day of all-out fighting at Waegyo thus ended with the combined allied sea and land attack blunted and Konishi’s men secure.
On the following day Chen Lin and Yi Sun-sin, urged on by a message from Liu Ting to continue with their attacks, advanced yet again on the Japanese fortress, this time with the evening tide. In the enveloping darkness they were able to proceed very close to shore to bombard the enemy’s positions and presumably sink any ships that were anchored nearby. (The hundreds of ships Konishi needed to ferry his men back to Japan apparently were not anchored in the waters off Waegyo, an easy target for allied cannons. It is possible that these vessels were hidden up narrow inlets nearby, a precaution the Japanese commonly took after the Korean navy emerged as a serious threat in 1592.) Finally, at around midnight, Commander Yi observed that the tide was turning, and led his ships into deeper water before they ran aground. Admiral Chen made no move to follow. Yi dispatched a message to his flagship advising him to pull his forces back while there was still time. Chen either did not want to listen or failed to act in time. Soon thirty-nine of his ships were trapped in the shallows, unable to retreat. The Japanese, mistaking these accidental groundings for some sort of amphibious landing, stormed out the back of the fortress to attack the ships where they lay. Desperate hand-to-hand fighting ensued. Yi Sun-sin sent some of his own ships forward to drive off the attacking forces with their cannons, thereby saving 140 of the trapped Ming troops. All of the grounded vessels, however, were either burned or captured. Two were later sent back to Japan and moored alongside the Korai Bridge in Osaka, where they became a popular attraction.
Fighting on the other side of the fortress had by this time long since ceased. Liu Ting had received word earlier in the day of the disastrous defeat of his colleague Dong Yiyuan’s army at Sachon to the east, and was now anxious to avoid a similar debacle. The Korean commanders and officials on the scene became aware of the change in Liu when a Korean who had been captured and hauled inside the Japanese fortress earlier in the battle began shouting over the wall, “All the Japanese are fighting at the other side of the fortress! There are no soldiers defending this side! Attack the walls here and you’ll be able to break in!” Yi Dok-hyong, Kwon Yul, and others went to “Big Sword” Liu and urged him to launch an attack at the point the captive had indicated. Liu refused. He would make no more attacks against Konishi’s fortress. He had already made up his mind to retreat.
The Battle of Sunchon ended the next day, November 2, with one final assault by the Korean navy led by Yi Sun-sin. Admiral Chen Lin, badly shaken by the losses he had suffered the previous day, took little or no part in the attack. Neither did Liu Ting. After several hours of fighting, Yi withdrew his ships. Two days later he received word that Liu Ting’s army was breaking camp and falling back north to the town of Sunchon. The Ming general withdrew from Waegyo without burning his supplies, leaving them behind for the Japanese to claim. This was particularly aggravating to Yi Dok-hyong, for the Korean government minister had accompanied Liu south at the general’s behest specifically to ensure a sufficiency of supplies. With Liu unwilling to launch a coordinated assault on Konishi’s fortress from the land, it was pointless for the allied navy to continue putting its own forces at risk in one-sided attacks from the sea. Yi Sun-sin and Chen Lin accordingly pulled their ships back in disgust.
At the opposite end of the Japanese fortress chain, Commander in Chief Ma Gui had already broken off his siege of Kato Kiyomasa’s Tosan stronghold. He did so on November 2, upon receiving word of the defeat suffered by the Central Route Army in the Battle of Sachon. Fearing the possibility of counterattack from the direction of his now-exposed flank, Ma gathered up the forces he had arrayed around Tosan and led them forty kilometers north to Kyongju. After garrisoning his cavalry units in this ancient capital of the Silla kingdom, the Ming commander proceeded a short distance to the west and established his headquarters at a place called Sinwon. He would remain here for the next six weeks, keeping a close eye on Kato’s garrison at Tosan, watching for any sign that they were preparing to leave.
The Ming forces sent to Korea to deal with the second Japanese invasion were huge by any standard. The resources of the Middle Kingdom had been strained to the limit to send them, and the imperial treasury, already in bad shape, had been seriously depleted. China, in short, had done nearly all it could do. News of the defeats at Sachon and Sunchon thus caused a great deal of consternation in Beijing. Upon receiving word of these events, the Wanli emperor issued an edict castigating Dong Yiyuan, Liu Ting, Ma Gui, and all their subcommanders in the very harshest terms, some for being “self-conceited” and for having “disregarded the fighting strength and skill of the enemy,” others for “being cowardly and effeminate.” “[T]he military divisions of our army,” the emperor continued, “were not distributed or handled in accordance with military laws and regulations. Military commands and orders were neither enforced nor obeyed. Consequently, when a division of our army was forced to retreat, all the other divisions hastily followed, thus bringing great military disaster to our entire army. Our military men have thus disgraced and dishonored our nation and have lowered our military prestige and standing.” The brunt of the punishments that were subsequently meted out fell upon Dong Yiyuan’s Central Route Army, which had suffered by far the greatest losses in the Battle of Sachon. Two of Dong’s subcommanders were ordered beheaded. A third received a temporarily suspended death sentence, to be lifted should he redeem himself with future distinguished service. Dong himself was demoted one rank.
News of Hideyoshi’s death, initially suppressed by the inner circle of senior daimyo now wielding power in Kyoto, had by this time reached his commanders in Korea, together with the taiko’s dying wish that the war be ended and his armies brought home. Commissioners Asano Nagamasa and Ishida Mitsunari were on their way to invasion headquarters at Nagoya on the island of Kyushu to oversee the withdrawal. Tokunaga Toshimasa and Miyagi Toyomori, the two representatives sent across to Korea to help arrange a peace settlement, were on the scene at Pusan. The instructions they brought with them were essentially this: withdraw all Japanese forces from Korea quickly and completely, and with as much dignity as it was possible to maintain. Konishi Yukinaga had already taken steps in this direction. Now, with clear orders from home in hand, some of his fellow commanders began to follow suit, opening communications with their Ming counterparts so that an armistice could be arranged and their troops evacuated without a fight. Others, notably Kato Kiyomasa and Nabeshima Naoshige, would continue to resist; they had no desire to give up their toehold in Korea after having so recently blunted the allied offensive. Such hawkish sentiment, however, would quickly be overcome by the course of events. When it became clear that many of their colleagues were preparing to withdraw, and with them the bulk of the army in Korea, Kato and like-minded commanders would be left with no choice but to pull out as well.
The overtures of peace that the Japanese now made came as no surprise to the generals commanding the three Ming armies in the south. Ma Gui, Liu Ting, and Dong Yiyuan had suspected for some time that the Japanese were planning to leave. The first signs of this had appeared earlier that year in June, when the enemy retreat to the coast had been followed by the evacuation of fully half of Hideyoshi’s second invasion force. Then there were the messages that Konishi Yukinaga had sent to “Big Sword” Liu prior to the latter’s attack on Sunchon, requesting to meet so that a negotiated settlement could be reached. The allies were also now receiving reliable intelligence that Hideyoshi, the war’s architect, had indeed died earlier in the year, on September 18 to be exact, and that the political situation in Japan was quite tense. Clearly the Japanese wanted to evacuate Korea. It was just a question of when and how. Judging from their fierce resistance in the battles at Sachon and Sunchon, however, it was also clear that they would not be forced into a headlong retreat. The wisest course of action as the Ming generals saw it was to cease all attacks, take up defensive positions, and wait for the Japanese to pack up and leave.
A month and a half of tenuous truce ensued, smoothed by a series of messages passed between the Ming and Japanese camps. Communication not surprisingly was lightest at the eastern end of the Japanese perimeter, Kato Kiyomasa’s fortress at Tosan, for Kato was under the least amount of pressure. The Ming forces opposing him, the East Route Army under General Ma Gui, were encamped well to the north in the vicinity of Kyongju, and were giving no indications of a desire to attack. The allied navy, meanwhile, was based more than two hundred kilometers to the west, leaving the sea route open for the passage of his ships. Throughout the month of November and into December Kato was thus able to send horses and excess supplies back to Japan, together with some of his men, all without fear of enemy interference. The situation was very different for Kato’s colleagues at the opposite end of the fortress chain. At his Waegyo fortress, Konishi Yukinaga was hemmed in from landward by Liu Ting’s West Route Army, encamped at the town of Sunchon a few kilometers north, and from seaward by the allied navy under Yi Sun-sin and Chen Lin. It was thus imperative for Konishi to reach some sort of understanding with the enemy before making any attempt to board his ships and leave. This was easily done with Liu Ting. Liu, anxious to avoid further bloodshed now that the war in his opinion was won, proved receptive to the messages and gifts that Konishi dispatched to his camp. He would make no move against Waegyo until after the Japanese had completed their withdrawal.
The Koreans of course were not happy about this. They wanted more than to see the Japanese quietly leave their country and the war brought to an end. They were after revenge—revenge for the unprovoked aggression that had devastated their nation after nearly seven years of war. Their army, however, was not powerful enough for the task; without the aid of General Liu’s ground troops there was little they could do.