Zeng Guoquan had a dream. He dreamed that he was climbing up a high mountain peak, all the way to the summit. When he got to the top, however, he couldn’t find any path to continue forward, so he turned around. But when he did, he saw that there was no longer any path behind him either. He told his secretary about this dream on a grim, rainy day at the end of March. “I fear it is not auspicious,” he said sadly. His army’s supplies were nearly exhausted—for, as it was turning out, the devastation of the countryside bode even worse for the Hunan Army siege forces than for their enemies. Even though their supply line along the Yangtze remained open and uncontested, by the spring of 1864 there was no longer much food that could come to them from it. The soldiers were surviving on rice gruel, nothing more. He worried that his battalion commanders, ashamed of being unable to provide better for their men, were no longer keeping discipline in the camps. “Our food is about to run out, and there’s nowhere around to gather more,” Zeng Guoquan confided to his secretary. “If we don’t break this city in a month, our whole army is going to crumble to pieces.”
Inside the city, it was a different world. By April, broad expanses of land at the northern end of Nanjing sprouted green as the seedlings of the garrison’s first crop of wheat broke through the surface of the newly cultivated soil. In contrast to the landscape for hundreds of miles all around them, theirs was an oasis of fertility and cultivation. The results of their labor were viewed with envy and bitterness by one of Zeng Guofan’s admirals peering through a glass from a distance. Even as the rebels inside the city looked forward to a bountiful harvest, his own men faced the prospect of starvation if they didn’t bring the siege to a conclusion soon.
Zeng Guoquan’s forces managed to hold on into the early summer, but pressure was beginning to mount from Beijing, where the government was running out of patience. It demanded that Nanjing be conquered without further delay. But Guoquan wanted full credit for recapturing the city, so he resisted suggestions that Li Hongzhang’s Anhui Army be brought up to Nanjing to supplement his Hunan forces. As commander in chief, Zeng Guofan was torn between the anticipation of victory, and concern that his brother’s army at Nanjing would collapse from lack of supplies while he continued to stubbornly refuse help. He berated his brother’s vanity. “Why must you have sole credit for conquering Nanjing?” he wrote to Guoquan on June 19. “Why should one person be the most famous under heaven?” Zeng Guofan knew Beijing court politics better than his younger brother, who had no such experience, so he finally invited Li Hongzhang to join in the assault on Nanjing—knowing that a failure to do so would invite charges that his family put their personal ambitions above the good of the empire. Li Hongzhang, out of respect for his teacher’s predicament, politely made an excuse not to come and allowed the Zeng family to continue as the sole force against Nanjing while blunting the criticisms from the court.
By this time, Zeng Guoquan’s siege works at Nanjing had expanded to a breadth of scale that was stunning by any standard. The Hunan Army had built a three-mile road for supplies through a bog, connecting the river to hard ground within two miles of Zeng Guoquan’s headquarters on Yuhuatai. Charles Gordon visited him there as a private citizen after the Ever-Victorious Army was disbanded, and from the lookout atop the hill, gazing over the silent rooftops of Nanjing, he could see that there would be little resistance if and when the wall was finally breached. “For miles the wall is deserted entirely,” he noted, “only here and there is a single man seen, miles from any support.” All was quiet, and “a deathlike stillness” hung over the vast city.
The lines of vallation encircled the rebel capital as far as the eye could see: mile after mile of continuous wooden breastworks punctuated by mud forts—more than a hundred of them—each with a few hundred men inside. In some places they ran dangerously close to the wall, just a hundred yards or so, but nobody was shooting at them from above. Indeed, a sense of quiet and repose (some would say boredom) permeated the muddy camps. Makeshift shops had sprung up, where enterprising locals sold goods to the soldiers. There were no visible sentinels. It wasn’t that the Hunan troops were lazy, just that there wasn’t anything they could do for the time being other than wait and pass the time. The real work was being done underground and out of sight.
In the absence of any guns that could penetrate the wall, the Hunan Army relied on a more ancient method of defeating a walled city: they dug under it. Zeng Guoquan’s miners sank a series of pits around the city wall. Where the moat was interrupted or ran widely enough from the wall that they could begin their digging inside its reach, they dug down fifteen feet or so before starting inward horizontally toward the city. But where the moat protected the wall, they had to angle downward as deep as ninety feet underground to skirt safely below it. To screen their efforts from the spotters who made occasional appearance on the wall, they threw up stockades in front of the digging—but as each tunnel lengthened, the rubble hauled out by the miners piled up higher and higher until it finally rose above its concealing stockade. There was also the problem that as the shallower mines lengthened, the grass on the surface above them turned brown, leaving a telltale path for which the spotters were specifically looking.
The tunnels were about four feet wide and seven high, propped up internally with frames of wood and tree branches. If there was no water above them, the miners punched vertical holes through the surface for ventilation—which prevented suffocation but again risked attracting the attention of the spotters. Meanwhile, from inside the city, the Taiping were slowly digging their own countermines outward, guided by those same spotters. And when they managed to puncture the wall of an incoming mine, they used bellows to blast it full of noxious smoke or flushed it with boiling water or sewage to drown the miners and render the tunnel useless. In the one instance where the Hunan Army’s mine did get close enough to the wall for them to detonate a charge, it didn’t generate enough explosive force and failed to make enough of a breach to allow the Hunan troops inside. In that case, the rebels simply built a new wall behind the existing one, to block off the point of damage.
By June, the Hunan Army had sunk mines at more than thirty sites around the city wall with nothing to show for their efforts except four thousand dead miners. But on July 3, they finally captured the Fortress of Earth at the base of the Dragon’s Shoulder on the eastern side of the city. Like the stone fort on Yuhuatai to the south, the Fortress of Earth looked right over into the city, but it did so from an even higher vantage point and from an even closer position that practically touched the side of the wall. With the fort in hand, Zeng Guoquan’s forces set up a battery of more than a hundred cannons on the slope of the Dragon’s Shoulder and began pounding a constant barrage over the wall, night and day, the guns bellowing over the ramparts and blasting the buildings and ground surface on the other side, sending the spotters and miners scurrying for safety. They began filling in the gap between the fort and the wall with rubble, earth, and bales of straw, hoping to level the surface to the point where they could simply walk over it into the city. And below the covering fire of their cannons, under the ground at the foot of the Dragon’s Shoulder, Zeng Guoquan’s most ambitious tunnel yet grew longer and longer.
The tunnel started about seventy yards out, its main artery carving straight for the wall, groping forward at a rate of fifteen feet a day through earth and stone. As it neared the base of the nearly fifty-foot-thick city wall, it divided into several branches, each worming its way separately underneath, sapping hollow chambers at intervals under the mammoth structure above. The defenders knew it was there, but the incessant ground-shaking cannon fire from the battery on the Dragon’s Shoulder made it impossible to counter-tunnel against it. On July 15, Li Xiucheng led a blistering midnight sortie out of the Taiping Gate with a few hundred cavalry, trying to storm the stockade at the tunnel’s opening, but the Hunan forces drove them back into the city. Three days later the tunnel was almost complete, and Zeng Guoquan gave the order to load the chambers under the wall with explosives. This time, desperate for a success after so many failures and fearing that the court had lost its patience, he erred on the side of abundance. His men packed six thousand cloth sacks under the wall, containing a total charge of twenty tons of gunpowder.
They sprang the mine at noon on July 19. A battalion of four hundred handpicked veterans crouched low to the ground just before the wall, swords tightly gripped, steeling themselves to launch through the breach into close-quarters combat. At a distance behind them on the slope of the Dragon’s Shoulder, a thousand more were ready to follow. The lit fuse simmered and worked its way slowly down into the pit, then disappeared into the dark mouth of the tunnel. As time stretched out anxiously above ground—first five minutes passed, then ten, then twenty, thirty—the fuse continued invisibly on its slow path below, sparking along the rough floor of the mine and finally splitting off like spider legs at the end to trace the last distance to its multiple targets. Then, with a terrific shuddering of the earth, the massive wall went up—and up—blasting outward and skyward in a thunderous convulsion of smoke and stone that first obliterated the sky and then rained back down with a hailstorm of granite rubble so deadly it crushed every man in the vanguard of four hundred who crouched below. But when the black smoke cleared over their mangled and broken bodies, it revealed a breach nearly two hundred feet wide, right through the wall.
As the rumbling of the explosion echoed off into the distance, the Hunan Army forces arrayed on the Dragon’s Shoulder gave up a shout and started running down the hill, storming the breach with swords aloft, clambering over the rubble and the bodies of their dead comrades to meet the Taiping defenders head-on. The first troops to force their way through the ranks of defenders made a beeline through the wide streets of the city, maps in hand, straight for the palace of the Heavenly King. But Li Xiucheng had beaten them there and spirited away Hong Xiucheng’s son the Young Monarch before they could catch him. When the first Hunan troops arrived at the palace, they found it eerily empty and quiet—for the Heavenly King was already dead. He had perished more than six weeks before they broke through the wall, most likely of disease, and was already securely buried in his robes of state when they got there (Zeng Guofan would later have his body exhumed to make sure it really was he). Confused, they reported to Zeng Guoquan that the Young Monarch had committed suicide. Other units raced around the inside shell of the wall to attack the gates from behind, driving out the rebel defenders and opening the massive doors or raising ladders as the other Hunan forces poured into the city from all directions.
In the chaos of occupation that evening, Li Xiucheng bid a tearful good-bye to his family and led the Young Monarch with a small party on horseback through the streets of Nanjing disguised as Hunan soldiers. With the luminous glow of a setting sun directly behind them, they charged the breach in the wall, broke through the line of surprised sentries, and vanished into the gloaming.
When the Hunan troops couldn’t find Li Xiucheng, Zeng Guoquan panicked. He wrongly believed that the Young Monarch was dead like his father, but if Li Xiucheng had gone free, he knew he could re-form his army elsewhere and continue his resistance. The long-fought conquest of Nanjing would be for naught. The war would never end. But in the end they did catch him. After charging the breach in the wall and evading the cavalry who chased them into the night, Li Xiucheng gave the Young Monarch his best horse to help him escape and was left with a broken nag that soon wore itself out and refused to run any farther. He sent the child king ahead with the others, keeping only a couple of horsemen in his own party, and took refuge in an abandoned temple on a hillside twelve miles to the south of Nanjing.
The small rebel band had no supplies and no plan. A group of local peasants eventually discovered them there, and when they realized who Li Xiucheng was, they wept and knelt on the ground before him. They begged him to shave his head so he wouldn’t be caught and tried to find a place to hide him. But there were others in their community who figured out who this strange visitor was and saw riches to be had for turning him in. Two of them (“scoundrels,” he called them) captured him and turned him over to Zeng Guoquan’s forces on July 22, just three days after his escape.
The whereabouts of the Young Monarch were unknown, but Zeng Guoquan finally had the Loyal King in hand. He was the most coveted prisoner of all, the last great military commander of the rebels. Without his leadership, bands of Taiping soldiers might continue to fight and survive and even carve out small kingdoms for themselves in remote corners of the empire, but they could never conjure the momentum they had enjoyed under his leadership. With his capture, the war was effectively finished.
The vaunted discipline of the Hunan Army broke down completely when Nanjing fell. The militia soldiers were unpaid and barely fed, and with this total victory in their final objective—after years of bitter campaign away from their families and their homes—they broke ranks and laid waste to the rebel capital in an orgy of uncontrolled looting. Zeng Guoquan issued proclamations forbidding his troops to murder civilians or kidnap women, but the commanders paid no attention (and in some cases even helped) as their soldiers ran amok. The rebels who stood against them were butchered in the streets, while younger women were dragged off and the remaining able-bodied men were forced into service as porters to carry away huge loads of loot from the city—gold, silver, silks, furs, jade. Even some of Zeng Guoquan’s own aides who entered the city to investigate the looting were robbed and beaten by roving gangs of Hunan soldiers. First the soldiers set fire to the palaces; then they burned the homes. And then it was as if the whole city had gone up in flames. A purplish red pall hung over the broken capital for days, until a heavy rainstorm came pouring down on the afternoon of July 25 and finally washed the city clean.
Zeng Guoquan’s secretary entered the city on July 26 and was overwhelmed by what he found inside. All of the rebel males who were still alive appeared to be carrying loads for the Hunan Army soldiers or helping them dig up stashes of buried treasure. It looked to him as though they were being set free afterward or at least escaping the city. But not the others. The elderly had been slaughtered with abandon. So had the sick and the infirm, who couldn’t serve as forced labor. Most of the dead bodies he saw lying along the streets were those of old people, but there were countless children as well. “Children and toddlers,” he wrote in his diary, “some not even two years old, had been hacked up or run through just for sport.” As far as he could tell, there wasn’t a single woman left in the city under forty years old. The living prostrated themselves on the ground. They showed signs of mutilation by soldiers who had tortured them to reveal the locations of hidden loot. “Sometimes they had ten or twelve cuts on them,” he wrote, “sometimes several times that. The sound of their weeping and moaning carried into the distance all around.”
There was no question in his mind that all of this was the work of his own army. He listed in his diary the names of several of Zeng Guoquan’s commanders he knew had taken part in the massacre and looting, writing in fury, “How can they face their general? How can they face the emperor? How can they face Heaven and Earth? How can they face themselves?” An unbreathable stench filled the air from the bodies that rotted in the streets, and Zeng Guoquan issued feeble orders that the battalions should at least drag corpses to the side of the road and cover them with rubble, so there would still be an open path for travel through the city.
Little is known of what happened to the thousands of young women who were taken from Nanjing, but one, at least, managed to leave a record of what happened to her after the city fell. Her name was Huang Shuhua, and she was sixteen years old. The soldiers came, she said, and “They killed my two older brothers in the courtyard, then they went searching through the rooms of the house. One of the strong ones captured me and carried me out. My little brother tugged on his clothing, my mother threw herself down before him, weeping. He shouted angrily, ‘All rebel followers will be killed, no pardons—those are the general’s orders!’ Then he murdered my mother and my little brother. My eldest brother’s wife came out, and he killed her too. Then he dragged me away, so I don’t know what became of my other elder brother’s wife. I was grief-stricken, sobbing and cursing at him, begging him to kill me quickly. But he only laughed at me. ‘You, I love,’ he said. ‘You, I will not kill.’ ”
The soldier tied her up and put her on a boat to take her back home with him to Hunan. He was from Zeng Guofan’s home county of Xiangxiang, the very place where Zeng’s army—indeed, his whole campaign to bring order back to the empire—had originated. And now, after all those years, the forces Zeng Guofan had conjured were finally coming home with their legacy. At the soldier’s village, the young woman would face the horror of spending the rest of her life as the wife of the man who had murdered her entire family. She wrote down her story on two slips of paper one evening while they were still traveling, as they stopped at an inn for the night. One slip of paper she hid on her body; the other she pasted to the wall of the inn. Then she somehow found the wherewithal to kill him, before she hanged herself.
Zeng Guofan finally took possession of Nanjing when he arrived from Anqing on July 28, nine days after his brother’s forces breached the wall. Despite the loss of control over their troops, for the upper echelons of his army it was still a time for celebrations and the savoring of victory. Officers under his brother took him around the perimeter of the wall in a sedan chair, telling him tales of battles fought and won and showing him scenes of destruction that still leached their smoldering vapors into the air. The evenings were reserved for poetry and plays, for wine and song, for the sublime intermarriage of remembrance and forgetting. Operas were performed before grand banquets of more than a hundred tables, crammed with officers, secretaries, and advisers. And soon the honors would pour forth from the dynastic government, once the news of Zeng Guofan’s victory reached them in Beijing, and the imperial capital went silent, and the empress dowager wept.
But the empress dowager was far away; within Nanjing, it was the end of his war, not the dynasty’s. Zeng Guofan seeded his reports on the fall of Nanjing with fabrications, claiming that a hundred thousand rebel soldiers had been killed in the fighting, inflating the glory of his family and his army, masking their looting and atrocities against civilians. He kept careful control over what the court would know. To that end, from the day he arrived in Nanjing he took over the interrogation of Li Xiucheng for himself. The Hunan Army commanders had already secured a long confession from Li Xiucheng in the week since he had been captured—pages upon pages detailing his origins and the history of the war and explaining the tactical decisions he had made, many of which they still did not understand. The honor of beginning the questioning had fallen to Guoquan, who had taken to the job with undisguised relish; his primary tools were an awl and a knife, and he managed to cut a piece out of Li Xiucheng’s arm before the others made him slow down.
When Zeng Guofan took over the interrogations on July 28, at last the two hoary, weather-beaten commanders in chief of the civil war faced each other in person for the first time: square-shouldered Zeng Guofan on the one side, the weary-eyed scholar, his long beard turning gray; wiry, bespectacled Li Xiucheng on the other, the charcoal maker who had risen to command the armies of a nation. It would be no Appomattox moment, however. There was no wistful air of regret and respect between equals. For the defeated, it was no prelude to reconciliation, to twilight years on a rolling plantation. This war ended not in surrender but in annihilation. Zeng Guofan would spend long hours of the following evenings editing his counterpart’s fifty-thousand-word confession, striking out passages that didn’t paint his own army in a good light and having it copied and bound with thread for submission to the imperial government, before casually ordering Li Xiucheng’s execution—in spite of orders he knew were coming from Beijing, that the rebel general be sent to the Qing capital alive.
The last any foreigner saw of Hong Rengan was in Huzhou just before the fall of Nanjing. A mercenary named Patrick Nellis was there, a crew member from Sherard Osborn’s fleet who had been crimped into the rebel service and was helping to defend the city. It was early in July, and the kingdom was collapsing all around, though the walls of Huzhou still held for the moment. Hong Rengan and another king spoke from a platform to an assembly in one of the courtyards. The lectures seemed to go on for hours. Nellis didn’t speak any Chinese, so he couldn’t understand much, just the names of a few places he recognized: Suzhou. Hangzhou. They were losing. Jiangxi. They were going to escape. After the speeches were over, Hong Rengan descended from the platform and came over to him.
He spoke to Nellis in English, but his diction was slow and halting from lack of use. The old fluency was gone. It had, after all, been a long time since any of the missionaries had come to visit him at his palace. And it had been a long time since he had entertained his foreign friends with dinners of steak and wine, serenading them with hymns sung in English. It had been a long time since he had reminisced with them about glad days past in the emerald beauty of Hong Kong, or enchanted them with his brilliant hopes for the future of the kingdom. That world was gone now. His hopes had all withered on the vine.
He asked Nellis what his nationality was.
“An Englishman,” Nellis replied.
“I have never met a good foreigner,” said Hong Rengan.
They finally caught up with him in early October. After Li Xiucheng’s capture in July, Hong Rengan left Huzhou to take over the protection of the Young Monarch. Along with a ragtag escort of soldiers and horsemen, they survived for nearly three months, making it all the way down to the southern part of Jiangxi province, more than four hundred miles southwest of Nanjing and only a hundred and fifty miles from the Meiling Pass, over which he had first come from the south. In their search for a place of safety they were, by the time the imperials scouted out their trail, closer to Canton and Hong Kong than to the fallen capital they had left behind. Their flight ended in a remote, mountainous country fifteen miles northeast of a town known as Stone Wall. Hong Rengan was bringing up the rear of the ragged procession. The horses and men were exhausted, so they stopped to make camp for the night. Instinct told him to continue on through the darkness along the narrow rural paths, but they had no local guide who could show them the way. The attack came near midnight, without warning. A sentry must have fallen asleep at his post. The imperial soldiers were upon them before they could put on their armor or mount up their horses. Hong Rengan fled on foot into the night, alone, wildly running through the trees and into the dark mountains. But he came in the end to a place where the hills pressed together from both sides, and there was no passage to go forward. There was no longer a path behind him either.