The Adventures of Salem’s Frederick Townsend Ward, from Salem Seaman to Soldier for China
In the vast collection of the Peabody Essex Museum is one small lead ball, innocent-looking, but actually quite deadly. On September 21, 1862, this musket ball was shot out of a gun wielded by a rebel soldier and pierced the chest of Frederick Townsend Ward, a man from Salem, Massachusetts who served as the leader of the “Ever Victorious Army” in China. This particular battle, with its multinational participants on both sides, reflects the complex global interactions of the people and governments in East Asia, Europe and North America during the mid-19th century. The life, death and legacy of F.T. Ward, a son of Salem, was shaped by – and demonstrates – the interconnected world of his time and ours.
This painting, currently displayed in Power and Perspective, is believed to be the last portrait painted of Ward.
This musket ball, currently on display in Power and Perspective, was the first object relating to Ward to enter PEM’s collection. Rear Admiral Archibald G. Bogle, who donated this object to the Essex Institute, had witnessed Ward’s dying words, which became the basis of Ward's family requesting repayment from the Chinese government.
Born in Salem, Massachusetts on November 29, 1831, Ward had been steeped in the maritime culture of his hometown since childhood. Under the influence of his father’s shipping business, Ward started his career as a seaman. From 1847 to 1852, he served onboard four ships, traveling around the U.S., China and Central and South America. In fall 1859, Ward arrived in Shanghai, a place that had changed from a small fishing village to a cosmopolitan city due to the rise of Western powers after the First Opium War (1840-1842) between China and Britain.
Europeans and Americans started to live and establish businesses in Shanghai, such as those depicted in this painting by the Chinese artist Chow-Kwa, who adopted the techniques and style of Western oil painting.
During Ward’s global adventure in the 1850s, a rebellion in China threatened the stability of the Qing empire and presented an opportunity for Ward. Hong Xiuquan (1814-1864) declared himself the younger brother of Jesus Christ and integrated Christian beliefs into the ideology of his regime. Aiming to overthrow the Qing dynasty and establish an egalitarian utopia, the Taiping Rebellion quickly attracted those dissatisfied with their economic and social life and swept across Southeast China. Shanghai’s wealth made it a target for rebel attack, which heightened the fears of upper-class Chinese and Western residents.
The Qing army’s military power was inadequate to suppress the rebellion, forcing the Shanghai elite — merchants, gentry, foreign administrators — to gather all resources for self-protection. Ward arrived in Shanghai almost penniless and started working as a mercenary to make a living. He persuaded Wu Xu, the magistrate of Shanghai, and Yang Fang, a Shanghai banker who also held the title of magistrate, to fund him to reclaim nearby towns by force. With this official support, Ward recruited and equipped a troop called the Foreign Arms Corps that included both foreign and Chinese soldiers. Some early failures in battle cost him Yang Fang’s trust, but a final victory in Qingpu in 1862 earned his army the name “Devil Soldiers” among the rebels. The Foreign Arms Corps was later renamed the “Ever Victorious Army.” Ward himself became a Chinese citizen and took a Chinese name based on the pronunciation of his family name, which he used on his banner flag — a tradition of Chinese military leaders.
The Chinese character at the center of this flag, “Hua,” was the Chinese family name adopted by Ward probably due to the similar pronunciations of this Chinese name and his “Ward.”
Along with his military role in China, Ward also forged new personal relationships. He married a Chinese woman, whose name only survives through English records as Chang-mei. His connections with Chinese officials also expanded beyond Shanghai. He warned Li Hongzhang (1823-1901), the commander of a key Chinese militia, about the rebels’ plan of purchasing gunboats from the U.S. With this information, Li was able to protest to the U.S. Envoy. Li later also tried to purchase American gunboats for the Chinese government through Ward’s brother Henry. Because of Ward’s pursuits in China, the extended Ward family in Salem also gradually increased their interactions with different players in China.
Rising in prominence during the war against the Taiping rebels, Li eventually became one of the top officials of the Qing dynasty and a major politician promoting China’s Self-Strengthening Movement, a series of reforms for military and industrial modernization.
After he had established a Chinese family and earned a Chinese political rank, Ward’s adventure was cut short. His life ended on September 22, 1862, when he was gravely wounded in a battle to reclaim Cixi, another town to the South of Shanghai. Chang-mei died soon after her husband, and since they had no children, their Chinese family members faded into history. Ward’s army took on new commanders, but the Chinese government eventually ordered it to disband in 1864, when the end of the rebellion appeared to be in sight. The Taiping Rebellion did not last long after Ward’s death, ending with the bloody fall of its “capital city” on July 19, 1864.
Ward was buried in Songjiang. With the approval of the Chinese emperor, a shrine was built near his grave in 1876-1877. Neither the grave nor the shrine remains today. In the U.S., Ward’s sister Elizabeth and some other family members donated his belongings to the Essex Institute and bequeathed money given to their family by the Chinese government. These donations became the foundation of today’s Ward Collection and the Frederick Townsend Ward Memorial Fund at PEM.
Today’s Chinese students read about Ward and his Ever Victorious Army in middle-school and high-school history textbooks. Having learned about Ward in school, I was surprised to see his personal belongings and archival materials in PEM’s collections and the special exhibition Power and Perspective: Early Photography in China, especially the very object that took his life. These objects and memories left behind across the globe are vivid illustrations of Ward’s life, as well as the turbulent and interconnected world in which he found himself.
Power and Perspective: Early Photography in China was on view at PEM until April 2, 2023. Follow along on social media using #PEMPerspective.
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