Frederick Townsend Ward
[An excerpt from “Old Shanghai’s ‘Others’: Sailor, Whores, Half-breeds and Other Interlopers” by Wm Patrick Cranley]
Some foreigners fell between the cracks and lived on the edge of the terra incognita that was mid-19th century Shanghai. One such man was Frederick Townsend Ward, an American born in1831 in Salem, Massachusetts, which at the time was an important seaport. Ward first went to sea at the age of 15. He pursued adventures in Texas, Mexico, California, Central America, and Russia, working as often as not as a mercenary. Soon after he arrived in Shanghai in 1859, he convinced a group of Chinese merchants to finance a private army under his command to defeat the Taiping rebels who had taken control of the area around their homes to the west of Shanghai. Ward recruited a ragtag army of deserters and misfits that he rounded up on the docks and in the bars of Shanghai, and took the walled town of Songjiang back from the Taipings in 1860. His army was routed later that year while trying to take the larger town of Qingpu.
He was subsequently reviled in the Shanghai press as a vagabond who had encouraged foreign sailors to desert and join his own forces. Eventually, Ward was imprisoned for having violated the neutrality of the Western nations in the Chinese civil war. In his defense he said that he had renounced his American citizenship and was now a subject of the Qing Empire – and therefore was free to fight the Taipings.
Ward escaped from prison and rejoined the remnants of his army in Songjiang town. He decided at this point to build a new army, not of foreigners, but of Chinese soldiers led by a handful of foreign officers, and drilled in the foreign manner. This was thought a joke by the Western community in Shanghai, as “everyone knew” that Chinese soldiers were inherently inferior to Western ones. But, after a quick series of victories in the latter half of 1861, both the Qing government and the foreigners who had previously maligned him were convinced of the potential quality of Chinese soldiers and began singing Ward’s praises. They also asked for his help in fighting the Taipings around Shanghai.
Ward then formally took Chinese citizenship and married the daughter of his main financial backer, a Chinese merchant from the area west of Shanghai. Not long after, Ward was awarded an official rank in the Chinese government and was named a brigadier general in the Qing army. He became an intimate advisor to the local governor, Li Hongzhang, who dubbed Ward’s troops “The Ever-Victorious Army.” But Ward’s luck ran out in September of 1862, when he died in battle at the tender age of 30. He was buried in Songjiang in the traditional Chinese manner, and later, the Western community erected a monument at his grave. It became a ritual to make the journey from Shanghai to Songjiang to lay flowers at his resting place during the grave-sweeping holiday each year.
The grave of Frederick Townsend Ward c. 1940
Ward’s supporter Li Hongzhang, of course, became one of the most powerful officials in late-Qing China. Li was the prime mover among reform-minded Chinese who believed that China could be made powerful once again by adopting Western science and technical know-how. This has been, with some ups and downs, the thrust of Chinese development over the past century and a quarter – and some thus attribute the inspiration for this epochal transformation directly to Frederick Townsend Ward, who showed the world that Chinese soldiers, trained with modern methods, could be the equal of soldiers from anywhere in the world.
Ward’s grave in Songjiang, by the way, did not survive the Cultural Revolution, and so cannot be visited today.