On August 31, 1858, Vice Admiral Charles Rigault de Genouilly, commander of French forces in the Far East, sailed into the Bay of Tourane with 14 ships of France’s China Seas Naval Division. Tourane (known today as Da Nang) was the principal trading port on Vietnam’s central coast. The following day, de Genouilly’s ships shelled and neutralized the gun positions that guarded the city, and on September 2, a Franco-Spanish force of 2,500 troops landed.
What immediately prompted this French aggression against the empire of Vietnam was the execution of Monsignor José Sanjurjo Diaz, the bishop of Tonkin (northern Vietnam), on July 20, 1857. The bishop was Spanish, but France was eager for intervention and it wasn’t inclined to overlook a handy pretext. Prior to de Genouilly’s attack, the Vietnamese emperor had been presented with an ultimatum: Vietnam was to guarantee religious freedom for Christians and allow the establishment of French commercial and diplomatic representation at the Vietnamese capital, Hue. As expected, the Vietnamese rejected the French demands.
In 1858 the reigning Vietnamese emperor, Tu Duc, had been on the throne for a decade. The persecution of foreign missionaries and native Christians, on the rise since 1820, came to full flower under Tu Duc and led inevitably to clashes with the West. The emperor feared that Christians in Vietnam might act as a fifth column and deliver Vietnam to the British or the French. There was also the very real possibility that Vietnamese Christians would unite behind one of Tu Duc’s dynastic rivals. He had already been faced with one such rebellion in the north.
France had displayed an often fickle interest in Vietnam for more than two centuries, especially in the southern region of Cochinchina, which was made up of the six rich but sparsely inhabited provinces the Vietnamese had seized from the neighboring kingdom of Cambodia. The French traded with the Vietnamese (then known as Annamese), and in the last quarter of the 18th century were active in helping Tu Duc’s great-grandfather regain the throne from the rebels who had usurped it. French missionaries had also been active in Vietnam since the late 1700s.
Until the middle of the 19th century, however, France did little to advance its vague policy goals of unrestrained trade and unrestricted religious proselytization. France always seemed to have more important places in which to expend its resources.
Unfortunately for the Vietnamese, the timing of the execution of Bishop Sanjurjo in Tonkin could not have been worse.
In the late 1850s, under Napoleon III and the Second Empire, Paris was showing renewed interest in overseas expansion. France was driven both by a self-proclaimed ‘civilizing mission’ and by a nagging fear within Parisian diplomatic and commercial circles that Britain, which already had acquired Singapore and Hong Kong, would snatch up Vietnam if the French didn’t beat them to it. In this atmosphere, Napoleon III proved a receptive audience for French missionaries who insisted that Vietnam was ripe for the taking. He ordered France’s China Seas Naval Division to seize Tourane.
It was to prove a far more difficult operation than the French anticipated. After six months of inconclusive fighting, they found themselves short of food and suffering from cholera, malaria and dysentery. In February 1859, a frustrated Admiral de Genouilly decided to leave a garrison at Tourane and sail south to seize Saigon and Cochinchina’s much-needed stores of rice.
The Saigon that de Genouilly saw on the morning of February 15 was not the teeming city that later would become familiar to millions of American television viewers and hundreds of thousands of American diplomats, journalists, businessmen and soldiers.
In the 19th century, the six provinces that made up Cochinchina were Vietnam’s ‘Wild West.’ Vast tracts of the region remained unpopulated. Parts of the Mekong Delta were still controlled by pirates, and Vietnamese administrative authority was often weak. Yet Cochinchina managed to produce a large surplus of rice that was vital to the rest of Vietnam.
Geographically, Saigon was situated just to the north of the great delta of the Mekong River. It was defined by three bodies of water. On the north was Thi Nghe Creek and on the south was Ben Nghe Creek (usually called the Arroyo Chinois); both streams flowed into the Saigon River, which bounded the town on the east. Both Thi Nghe Creek and the Arroyo Chinois were navigable by small vessels, including French gunboats.
Saigon had a population of only about 2,000 and existed to provide goods and services to the garrison of the town and the river forts downstream. It had only two streets: One along the river was lined with a few shops and primitive houses; the other stretched along the Arroyo Chinois, where stood the more substantial warehouses and the tile-roofed residences of prosperous Chinese merchants. Inland were isolated farms and orchards.
The region’s principal commercial center was located some five kilometers up the Arroyo Chinois. Then known as Ta-ngon, or Ti-ngan (and today called Cholon — the Great Market), this trading entrepot had been founded by refugees from China’s deposed Ming Dynasty. For more than half a century, Cholon, linked to the Cochinchina hinterland by an extensive network of canals and natural waterways, had attracted the surplus rice and other produce of the region. It was the most important commercial center in the south.
On February 16, de Genouilly’s ships took station opposite the Gia Dinh Citadel. This large earth-and-masonry fort, the most important in Cochinchina, was located about 800 meters from the Saigon River (just to the southwest of what is now the National Zoo) and on the south side of Thi Nghe Creek. It occupied an area of about 2.5 acres and contained barracks, warehouses, government buildings and the homes of a number of government officials, including Gia Dinh’s senior mandarin, Vu Duy Ninh.
What transpired was brief and decisive. There was an exchange of fire between de Genouilly’s ships and the cannon at the citadel. When Vietnamese fire began to slacken, French and Spanish troops went ashore. Under the cover of continued shelling from naval guns and of small-arms fire from riflemen stationed in the ships’ topmasts, two companies of marine infantry and naval landing parties, all under the command of General Charles-Gabriel-Felicité Martin des Pallires, formed up in column and attacked the citadel’s northeast wall. Des Pallires was supported by a group of engineers and a troop of Spanish light cavalry from the Philippines. By 1000 hours, they had scaled the walls of the citadel and put the Vietnamese defenders to flight. Mandarin Vu committed suicide.
Before de Genouilly could take advantage of his victory, he received word that his forces in Tourane were in desperate straits. The admiral left a garrison of about 1,000 men at Saigon and sailed north again. What he found was discouraging. The French and Spanish troops were dying from disease at a rate of about 100 per month. Any hope of reinforcements was dashed when word reached the French fleet that Napoleon III had declared war on Austria in May 1859. Disgusted by the lack of support, de Genouilly asked to be relieved of command in October. In March 1860, the French finally abandoned Tourane and sailed north to join the British, who had resumed the West’s war with China.
The thousand-man French garrison left at Saigon was strong enough to defend what the French had thus far gained, including the Chinese commercial center of Cholon. Without reinforcements, however, they were unable to capitalize on their position and expand into the hinterland of Cochinchina. Vietnamese forces to the west of the town steadily pushed trench works toward the French lines and conducted increasingly costly raids. In one celebrated engagement at Khai Tuong Pagoda on December 7, 1860, the Vietnamese inflicted heavy casualties on the French and killed the co-commander of the French troops at Saigon.
When the Treaty of Peking ended the war in China in January 1861, Vice Admiral Léonard Charner, the new commander of the China Seas Naval Division, was ordered to relieve the French garrison at Saigon and complete the conquest of Cochinchina. In mid-February 1861, Charner sailed south from Shanghai with the 3rd Marine Infantry Regiment and six detached companies from the 4th Regiment (a total of 1,200 men under the command of a Lt. Col. Favre and Lt. Col. Jules Marcelin Albert Testard); the 2nd Light Infantry Battalion (600 men under a Major Comte); 200 artillerymen (commanded by Lt. Col. Pierre Franois Crouzat) manning 10 30mm and 80mm field howitzers, as well as 12-pounder and 4-pounder cannons; a detachment of engineers; and 800 sailors organized as naval infantry and another 100 formed into boarding parties (both elements commanded by naval Captain Franois Théodore de Lapelin). These forces rendezvoused at Saigon with a Spanish force (under Colonel Carlos Palanca y Guttierez) consisting of 200 infantry and 70 mixed cavalry (Filipino, African chasseurs and Cochinchina spahis) commanded by Captain Charles-douard Hocquard. Including the men available from the Saigon garrison, Charner’s small army now numbered about 3,500 men.
The Vietnamese had had a year to prepare for the expected return of the French, and they had used the time wisely. In July 1860, the Imperial Court at Hue had named a veteran military mandarin, Nguyen Tri Phuong, as Governor of the Military District of Gia Dinh, which included Saigon and the surrounding region. He had assumed command of a force of 20,000 to 30,000 men. His orders were to prevent a French breakout from Saigon.
Extending west from French-held positions at Saigon was a broad expanse of relatively flat, open ground known as the Ky Hoa Plain. Broken in places by shallow ravines and gullies, sparsely wooded, and dotted near the principal Vietnamese fort with burial mounds, the plain would have to be crossed before the French could engage the main Vietnamese works.
Nguyen had immediately set about strengthening Vietnamese defenses at Ky Hoa. Trenches were extended, walls heightened and thickened, redoubts and outposts built, and physical obstacles constructed. The Vietnamese lines were anchored on a massive complex of interconnected earthen fortifications on the northwestern edge of Ky Hoa Plain, about 6 1/2 kilometers west of the Saigon River. Consisting of five conjoined, walled enclosures, the Ky Hoa complex sat astride the main land route to Cambodia. It was nearly a kilometer wide, with wooden watchtowers placed at intervals outside the walls. The complex stretched 2 1/2 kilometers along a northwest-southeast axis, about a kilometer south of the main runway of today’s Tan Son Nhut airport.
Extending south and west from the main defenses was what Admiral Charner had called ‘an extraordinary network’ of trenches and obstacles more than 12 kilometers long and linking the main fortifications with outposts and redoubts.
Best estimates suggest that the Ky Hoa defenses were garrisoned by about 21,000 troops, although that number probably included forces manning outlying fortifications and trench lines who were not directly involved in the impending battle.
The mandarin’s superiority in numbers, his strong geographical position and his elaborate defensive works were counterbalanced by the fact that his troops were poorly trained compared with the French, and armed with antiquated, flintlock muzzleloaders, lances, pikes and halberds. Much of their artillery, although well-handled, was old, and many of the guns were made of iron.
On the right, French gunboats controlled about 5 kilometers of the winding Thi Nghe Creek above its confluence with the Saigon River. Beyond that point, Vietnamese control made a French attack problematic. To reach the Ky Hoa forts along this short northern approach, the French and their Spanish allies would have to expose their right flank to the Vietnamese.
An advance directly across the Ky Hoa Plain was scarcely a better solution. The plain itself was mostly open ground, offering little cover. The numerous Vietnamese trenches, obstacles and outposts would have meant exposing the advancing allies to murderous fire for a prolonged period. Casualties would have been heavy, probably unsustainable.
Admiral Charner reasonably decided to advance along the southern edge of the Ky Hoa Plain. The plan that emerged was simple. Since 1859 the French had consolidated their control of Cholon by seizing and fortifying four Buddhist pagodas along a line extending west from Saigon and more or less parallel to the Arroyo Chinois. The pagodas were the key to keeping the Vietnamese at bay. Beyond the westernmost of them, Cay Mai Pagoda, a dirt road headed northwest toward the most southerly Vietnamese positions two kilometers away. The French dubbed the Vietnamese fort situated there ‘the Redoubt.’
Charner proposed to breach the Vietnamese lines by taking the Redoubt. He would then advance north-northwest along the road in order to take the main Ky Hoa defenses under attack from the rear. In this way, he would be in position to prevent reinforcements and supplies from reaching the Vietnamese. He would also avoid the worst of the formidable obstacles and trenches the Vietnamese had constructed between the fort and Saigon.
On February 23, 1861, Charner moved his assault force to the vicinity of Cay Mai Pagoda. Gunboats were dispatched to support the French attack. Ships’ cannons, dismounted from French vessels and installed at the Clocheton, Des Mares and Cay Mai pagodas, would provide additional artillery support.
It was the dry season in Vietnam, and the air was relatively cool as the French and Spanish troops set out from Cay Mai before dawn on February 24, under the operational command of Brig. Gen. Elie Jean marquis de Vassoigne. Admiral Charner and his staff were on horseback at the front of the column, accompanied by the commander of the Spanish forces. Ironically, their objective that morning, the Redoubt, had been built 70 years earlier under the direction of a French military engineer.
De Vassoigne’s artillery — 4- and 12-pounder cannons, mountain howitzers and rockets — opened fire on the Redoubt and its outposts from a range of about 1,100 meters. Supported by heavier guns in the pagoda-forts, the mountain guns advanced by battery until they were within 500 meters of the enemy. Vietnamese counterfire from both artillery and small arms was heavy and discomfortingly accurate. In its face, de Vassoigne unleashed three assault columns. On the left were two naval infantry companies preceded by a naval boarding party with scaling ladders. In the center, two companies of light infantry were accompanied in the attack by an engineer platoon to destroy the Redoubt’s main gate. Two hundred Spanish infantry units, along with French engineer, light infantry and marine infantry units, made up the right-hand assault column.
Like the main Ky Hoa fort, the Redoubt was protected by an extensive array of ditches and obstacles, including bamboo palisades, lines of interlocking stakes, trenches filled with sharpened bamboo stakes, and circular pits containing tangled branches and tree trunks (known as wolf holes) — all designed to slow an attacking enemy and break up his formations. Artillery covered the allied assault, but was unable to stop intense Vietnamese return fire. The allied troops advanced slowly at first. Then, with the French crying ‘Vive l’Empereur!’ they surged forward. Using scaling ladders, the French and Spanish troops quickly mounted the berm surrounding the Redoubt. Vietnamese resistance abruptly ceased. By the time the allied troops scaled the parapets of the Redoubt itself, the Vietnamese were retreating, in good order, toward the main Ky Hoa defenses.
The assault on the Redoubt had taken two hours. The allied force suffered six killed and about 20 wounded, including General de Vassoigne, whose arm was pierced by a musket ball, and the Spanish colonel, who was shot in the leg. Both men were evacuated to the rear, and Charner assumed direct command.
By 1500 hours, as the heat of the day began to ebb, the French were again on the move. At this distance from Saigon and the river, the open Ky Hoa Plain gave way to occasional woods. French guns at Cay Mai provided covering fire. At about 1600, a body of Vietnamese troops and war elephants sortied onto the plain from fixed positions on the French right. They were driven back without French or Spanish losses, and no further attempt was made to impede the allied advance.
Dusk found Charner encamped in a deserted and partially destroyed village only 1,500 meters from the northwestern corner of Ky Hoa Fort. The admiral established himself in an abandoned house. There was a brief infantry skirmish with a force of unknown size in the trees to the west and north, as well as some shelling from Ky Hoa Fort. A Vietnamese cannonball struck Charner’s headquarters without inflicting casualties. Spanish troops and French naval infantry cleared the woods, while two 4-pounders responded to the Vietnamese guns.
Darkness brought the engagement to an end. By 1000 on February 25, Charner’s force had completed its long circling movement and was in position to attack the rear of the Ky Hoa defenses. The allied troops were once more deployed in three columns. The artillery was in the center and the Spanish were on the right with the naval infantry; the left column consisted of the 1,200 men of the 3rd and 4th Marine Infantry regiments. The 70-man cavalry squadron screened the left flank. The 600 men of the 2nd Light Infantry Battalion were held in reserve behind the artillery.
Vietnamese guns began a sporadic fire on the allied columns as soon as they emerged from the trees onto the plain. As the infantry moved forward, the French guns responded from a distance of 1,000 meters and the exchange grew more heated. One participant in the battle described the Vietnamese fire as ‘lively and disciplined.’ French artillery crews began to sustain casualties. To minimize the disadvantage of having the morning sun in their eyes, Colonel Crouzat advanced his batteries at the trot, moving first to within 500 meters of the fort, then to within 200 meters of the walls, taking more casualties as they did.
As smoke and the smell of gunpowder drifted across the plain, the allied infantry downed their packs and picked up the pace of the advance. Between them and the north wall of the enemy fort lay a 100-meter expanse of man-made obstacles. Once these were overcome, the French and Spanish troops would be faced with steep earthen walls topped by chevaux de frise and planted with thorn bushes. The distance from the bottom of the last trench to the top of the ramparts was almost five meters.
On the right, naval infantry and Spanish troops charged forward. Some of the troops tried to use scaling ladders as bridges over the first trench, but the bamboo ladders quickly collapsed. By the time the Franco-Spanish force reached the final trench at the base of the north wall, only three ladders remained serviceable. Vietnamese resistance was fierce. They poured fire into the trench as the allied troops used the remaining ladders or stood on one another’s shoulders to reach the top of the wall. The scaling ladders were repeatedly shoved away by Vietnamese soldiers wielding halberds. Some men tried hauling themselves up using the chevaux de frise and were badly cut by the thickly planted thorn bushes. Of the first three men to reach the top of the wall, one was killed and the others badly wounded. But these were veterans. Driving the enemy back with grenades and using grappling hooks, the Franco-Spanish troops finally managed to clamber over the wall in sufficient force to convince the Vietnamese defenders to withdraw.
It had taken less than half an hour to ascend the outer wall, but if the French and Spanish troops thought the battle was over, they were mistaken. The unreconnoitered interior defenses were more formidable than expected. A second, bastioned wall ran perpendicular to the north wall and about 100 meters from the west wall. Behind it was another fortification. The allied troops watched as the retreating Vietnamese passed through a gate into what the French later dubbed the Mandarin Fort. With their troops safely inside, the Vietnamese resumed firing on the French and Spaniards with renewed vigor. The French sailors and Spanish infantry now found themselves with walls on four sides, with Vietnamese troops pouring murderous fire into them from the walls of the Mandarin Fort on their left. They were trapped in a killing zone.
More scaling ladders were brought forward, but the Vietnamese managed to keep them off the walls. A French engineer detachment began digging a hasty sap to undermine the wall of the Mandarin Fort. A witness to the fighting called it ‘a furious hurricane.’ Using firesteps and loopholes, the Vietnamese kept up an intense fire. A French chaplain raced from wounded man to wounded man. Smoke filled the confined space. There were cries of pain amid the constant rattle of small-arms fire.
Waiting on horseback from behind the first line of Vietnamese obstacles, but unable to see anything of the bitter battle raging inside the walls of Ky Hoa, an anxious Charner ordered two companies of the 2nd Light Infantry Battalion to aid the Franco-Spanish force and another company to reinforce the left column, which was still struggling to overcome what would turn out to be the Mandarin Fort’s north wall. The admiral’s only reserve was now the single light infantry company guarding the artillery.
The attack on the Mandarin Fort began to falter, and the Vietnamese redoubled their resistance. Charner was in danger of being forced to order a retreat when, finally, the marine infantry, engineers, light infantry and a company of native (Vietnamese) troops of the left column managed to scale the wall and poured into the back of the Mandarin Fort. At almost the same time, French engineers with the right column reached the main gate of the fort and breached it with hatchets and axes. Caught now between two forces, Vietnamese resistance quickly collapsed. The bitterness of the fighting provoked an unspoken agreement among the French and Spanish troops to give no quarter. Those Vietnamese unable to flee the fort were given no chance to surrender before they were slaughtered.
By late morning the Battle of the Ky Hoa Forts was over. It had taken Admiral Charner little more than a day to break Emperor Tu Duc’s power in Cochinchina. The younger brother of military mandarin Nguyen was killed during the battle. The Vietnamese commander himself was wounded but escaped across Thi Nghe Creek to the town of Binh Hoa.
In his official report to the minister of the navy, Charner expressed admiration for his Vietnamese foes. ‘Enemy resistance was stiff,’ he wrote, ‘and he gave ground only before the fervor and persistent courage of our troops.’
The combined French and Spanish force suffered 225 casualties, most of them in the enclosed space in front of the Mandarin Fort. Twelve men were killed, including Colonel Testard of the marine infantry. The Vietnamese, according to Charner, left behind ‘many bodies.’ At least 300 of the defenders were dead. Nguyen Tri Phuong survived his wound but, despite the French evaluation of Vietnamese resistance, he had lost and was demoted. Eventually he regained his status and was to fight the French again.
Charner was criticized in some circles for being rash, if not reckless. Indeed, the admiral had taken a great risk. He had ordered a vastly inferior force across open ground to attack a fortified position about whose actual layout he knew next to nothing. But he did the most important thing a military commander can do to mute criticism: He won. Eventually, a major boulevard in the growing French colonial city of Saigon would bear his name, and in 1944 the government of the colony of Cochinchina would issue a series of stamps to honor him.
Within months of the Battle of the Ky Hoa Forts, the French extended their control to include most of the six provinces of Cochinchina. There was resistance in the form of uprisings and more battles, but with the French in complete control of Saigon the outcome was a foregone conclusion. The Vietnamese empire survived for a while, but the emperor and his mandarins were weakened in the eyes of their own people. They would lose ground in military campaigns for the next 25 years, and in the end, the last vestiges of Vietnamese independence would be lost for almost a century.
This article was written by James M. Haley and originally published in the June 2006 issue of Vietnam Magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Vietnam Magazine today!