Siege of Saigon (March 1860–February 1861)

Capture of Saigon by Charles Rigault de Genouilly on 17 February 1859, painted by Antoine Morel-Fatio.

The 11-month siege of Saigon (today Ho Chi Minh City) in Vietnam during March 1860–February 1861 by Vietnamese against the French and Spanish occurred during the long French effort to secure control of Indochina.

The French established their first regular trading post in Vietnam in 1680. Christian missionaries were soon active there and Christianity spread. The Vietnamese emperors saw in this a direct threat to their rule, but their attempts to root out Christianity provided an excuse for French military intervention. After the French Revolution and Napoleon (1879–1815), France experienced a considerable religious resurgence and persecution of Vietnamese Catholics during the reign of Emperor Minh Mang (1820–1841) aroused a French popular outcry.

Of course, missionary fervor was not the only factor behind French intervention in Vietnam. The French sought to challenge the British for the vast China trade and hoped to be able to penetrate the Chinese interior by means of the Mekong River into Tibet and the Red River into Yunnan.

Alleged mistreatment of Catholic missionaries, however, was the excuse for French intervention. Already on April 15, 1847, an armed clash occurred between French warships and Vietnamese ships at Tourane (now Da Nang). Then, during Napoleon III’s Second Empire (1852–1870), Paris adopted a more militant policy toward furthering its interests in Asia with defense of the Catholic Church abroad one of the pillars of Napoleon III’s regime. In 1856 when the French protested the executions of Catholics in Vietnam and the Vietnamese court refused any explanations, a French warship bombarded Tourane.

In mid-July 1857, Napoleon III decided to undertake major military operations in Asia. Charles Admiral Rigault de Genouilly received command of French naval forces in Chinese waters, cooperating with the British against China in the Second Opium War (1856–1860). The success of operations in China in 1858 then freed the French squadron for employment in Indochina waters. Both Spain and France sought redress from Vietnam for the execution of missionaries, and Emperor Napoleon III hoped to secure a port there along the lines of Hong Kong.

It was no accident that the French chose to penetrate southern Vietnam first; it was the newest part of the country and its people were not as wedded to Vietnamese institutions. Indeed, the French conquest of Vietnam would prove more difficult the farther it moved north.

In January 1858, orders issued in Paris the previous November finally reached Rigault de Genouilly. Paris instructed him that while operations in Indochina were to be only an appendix and entirely subordinate to those in China, he was to halt religious persecution and assure toleration of Catholics there. Paris thought this could best be achieved by occupying Tourane, mistakenly considered the key to the entire kingdom. Future Indochina operations were to be entirely at Rigault de Genouilly’s discretion.

On August 31, 1858, Rigault de Genouilly’s squadron of 14 warships carrying 3,000 men (including 1,000 troops from the Spanish possession of the Philippines) anchored off Tourane. The admiral believed that decisive military action would bring fruitful negotiations with the Vietnamese, and on September 1 he landed his men. The invaders stormed Tourane’s forts after only perfunctory Vietnamese resistance, taking them and the port. This auction inaugurated the first phase of the French conquest of Indochina.

Within a few months, Vietnamese resistance, heat, disease, and a lack of supplies forced the French from Tourane. Leaving a small French garrison and several warships at Tourane, Rigault de Genouilly shifted his attention southward to the fishing village of Saigon. He selected it because of its proximity, its promise as a deepwater port, and the fact that it was next to Ta-ngon (today Cholon and part of Saigon), center of the southern rice trade, so vital to all Vietnam.

On February 2, Rigault de Genouilly proceeded southward with his ships. After stopping at Cam Ranh Bay to meet four supply ships, the French and Spanish arrived at Cape Saint-Jacques on February 10 and began bombarding the Vietnamese forts, soon silencing their return fire. A landing force of French and Spanish troops then went ashore and took possession of the forts.

The allied force then moved up the Saigon River, proceeding cautiously and reducing Vietnamese river forts as they proceeded. On February 15, they came upon two forts defending Saigon from the south that had been built earlier by French engineers in the service of Emperor Gia Long (r. 1804–1820). Early on February 16, the French ships opened fire on the forts, which returned fire. Infantry then went ashore, and within a few hours the forts had been taken. The next day, February 17, the French assaulted the Saigon Citadel and captured it, beating back a Vietnamese counterattack. With the fortress covering some 2.5 acres and too large to be held by the troops available, Rigault de Genouilly decided to blow it up, which was accomplished by 35 explosive charges on March 8.

Rigault de Genouilly then returned to Tourane after leaving behind a small force under naval commander Bernard Jauréguiberry. It included a company of French marine infantry, a company of Filipino infantry under Spanish command, and 400 sailors to man the artillery. Left behind as well were a corvette, two gunboats, and a transport. The defenders then repaired one of the southern forts taken earlier as their principal base.

In April 1859, Jauréguiberry led an attack on Vietnamese fortifications west of Saigon. Although successful, the allied cost of 14 dead and 31 wounded led Jauréguiberry to suspend further such efforts.

Saigon was now on its own. Confronted by the major manpower demands of the war involving France and the Kingdom of Sardinia (Piedmont-Sardinia) against Austria (April–July 1859), Paris would not be sending out reinforcements. French government officials also criticized Rigault de Genouilly for his actions at Saigon, and he then asked to be relieved of his command; Admiral Théogène François Page replaced him in November 1859. Paris instructed Page not to seek territorial concessions but to sign a treaty that would guarantee religious liberties and French consuls in the major Vietnamese ports.

Before Page could carry out his instructions, he was ordered to China with his squadron as fighting had again broken out there. The French force ashore in southern Vietnam was too small to accomplish anything save to try to hold on to what it had already taken. The Vietnamese court hoped that European events would cause the French to depart. Meanwhile, both Da Nang and Saigon both came under siege. Although the small French force at Da Nang soon evacuated it by ship that at Saigon remained in place.

Some 12,000 Vietnamese now besieged at Saigon a small allied garrison under French Navy commander Ariès of some 800 men (600 marine infantry and 200 Spanish troops). In addition to Saigon, Ariès had also to defend Cholon.

By March 1860, the allied garrison was completely cut off from outside contact. They did have three corvettes, and they armed a number of smaller craft for river patrols. They also managed to recruit some Annamese and Chinese as auxiliaries, raising their total strength to some 1,000 men.

At Saigon, the allied force came under increasing pressure from the Vietnamese to the west of Saigon and Cholon, who steadily dug trenches closer to the defenders and mounted occasional costly attacks. Disease also took a toll on the defenders. The French, however, consolidated their control of Cholon by taking and fortifying four pagodas there. These roughly paralleled the Vietnamese lines to the west and formed the heart of the French defense.

With the French and British victorious in China in September 1860, the French were again free to concentrate their Asian resources in Indochina. In early 1861, Admiral Léonard-Victor-Joseph Charner received orders to relieve the Saigon garrison and complete the conquest of Cochinchina. In mid-February, Charner departed Chinese waters with a powerful fleet of some 70 ships, including two steam frigates, lifting 3,000 troops under General Élie de Vassoigne. These were joined off Saigon by a small Spanish force of some 270 men.

The Vietnamese had had a year to prepare for the French relief effort and Nguyen Tri Phuong, governor of Gia Dinh Military District that included Saigon, now had at his disposal some 20,000–30,000 men. Extending westward from Saigon and Cholon was the Ky Hoa plain of shallow ravines and gullies, which the French would have to cross to take the principal Vietnamese works in the village of Ky Hoa. The Vietnamese defenses were some seven miles in length, and extending outward from these was a maze of redoubts and outposts. What the Vietnamese lacked was modern weaponry. Their flintlock muskets, iron cannon, and a few war elephants were no match for modern French rifles and artillery.

The French attacked in force on February 25, 1861. Charner’s plan was risky as he knew nothing about his enemy’s defenses, but early that day he moved in force against what was known as the Redoubt at the southern end of the Vietnamese line, with the plan to proceed northward to prevent the Vietnamese from reinforcing and take their principal fortifications from the rear. Fighting was fierce, especially for the Mandarin Fort, but the allies were victorious. In the Battle of Ky Hoa, the French and Spaniards sustained 225 casualties, 12 of them dead; the Vietnamese suffered at least 300 dead as well as many prisoners. The siege was at an end, and France would remain in Vietnam.

Emperor Tu Duc (r. 1847–1883), deprived of rice from the French-controlled South and facing a rebellion in the North under the leadership of a remote Le dynasty descendant, was obliged in 1862 to sign a treaty with France that provided for a 20 million-franc indemnity, three treaty ports in Annam and Tonkin (central and northern Vietnam, respectively), and French possession of the eastern provinces of Cochinchina, including Saigon. Despite ongoing guerrilla opposition, France continued to expand its holdings in Indochina by fits and starts, often with little or no initiative on the part of Paris. By 1867 the French had conquered all of Cochinchina, but they had also learned that the Mekong was not navigable to the interior of China.

The Franco-German War of 1870–1871 put a temporary halt to French imperialism in Asia, but soon the process began anew, propelled by the French desire to recoup overseas the power and prestige they had lost in Europe. In the 1870s, the French turned their attention to northern Vietnam, where Tu Duc’s hold was weak, and by 1884 they had created French Indochina, comprising Cochinchina, Annam, and Tonkin, along with Laos and Cambodia. Cochinchina was the only outright colony, with Annam and Tonkin protectorates, along with the kingdoms of Laos and Cambodia. In reality, all Indochina was subject to French rule, however.

1861 French Conquest of Saigon: Battle of the Ky Hoa Forts

Further Reading

Chapuis, Oscar. The Last Emperors of Vietnam: From Tu Duc to Bao Dai. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2000.

Osborne, Milton E. The French Presence in Cochinchina and Cambodia: Rule and Response (1859–1905). Bangkok: White Lotus, 1997.

Thomazi, Auguste. Histoire militaire de l’Indochine française des débuts à nos jours (Juillet 1930). 2nd ed. Hanoi: Imprimerie de l’Extreme Oriente, 1931.

Thomazi, Auguste. La Conquête de l’Indochine. Paris: Payot, 1934.

Tucker, Spencer C. Vietnam. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1999.