From Dien Khanh to Binh Dinh



From Dien Khanh to Binh Dinh

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After breaking the nine-month siege of Dien Khanh, Nguyen Phuc Anh spent 1796 reorganizing his armies, making new appointments, inspecting agriculture, holding a literary examination, building ships, buying weapons, training horses, conscripting soldiers, and admonishing his generals, who were wasting their spare time on gambling and cockfights. When the south winds arrived in 1797, he seized the port of Qui Nhon and then advanced to Quang Nam. While some of his generals attacked up the Thu Bon River to Hoi An and Dien Ban, he disembarked in Da Nang Bay and attacked up toward Hai Van Pass. Troops raised in Quang Ngai joined his armies and fighting raged from Phu Yen to Quang Nam for three months until the winds changed and Nguyen Phuc Anh returned to Saigon. Nguyen Phuc Anh spent the last months of the year 1797 dealing with Chams who had been serving with the Tay Son armies and had returned to Binh Thuan, provoking uprisings and unrest. Siamese troops assisted in calming this problem, perhaps in return for Vietnamese troops helping to suppress an uprising of minority peoples in Cambodia a short time before. At this time, discussions were initiated to coordinate Siamese and Lao troops with Nguyen Phuc Anh’s future campaigns by having them march over the mountains and down the Ca River valley into Nghe An to threaten the Tay Son from behind. A diplomatic initiative was also taken to cultivate good will with the Qing Empire. Qing pirates captured from the Tay Son fleets were sent into the custody of Qing authorities in Guangdong. In 1798, Nguyen Phuc Anh bought weapons, built ships, reorganized supply lines, mobilized and trained soldiers, reinforced his front-line units at Dien Khanh and Ca Pass, and dealt with the problem of deserting soldiers by imprisoning their families. In early 1799 he was laying plans for another south wind campaign. He published thirty-six articles on military discipline, which give an indication of the serious expectations he had for upcoming operations, for they had much to say about behavior in time of battlefield victories, behavior toward prisoners, and behavior toward the civilian population of newly occupied areas. Nguyen Phuc Anh had several talented generals, but by this time none of them had been with him longer than Le Van Duyet (1764–1832). Le Van Duyet was originally from Quang Ngai, where Nguyen Cu Trinh had served in the early 1750s, a place known for poverty and lawlessness. He was reportedly born without genitals and began his career as a eunuch at Phu Xuan. He first appears in Nguyen Phuc Anh’s entourage in the late 1770s, during the years of fighting and fleeing from the Tay Son armies in Gia Dinh. He was known to be austere  and humorless, often prickly with colleagues and always strict toward subordin- ates. Yet, through the years, he assembled a large “family” of talented men  whom he adopted as sons, and he was utterly devoted to Nguyen Phuc Anh. Although Le Van Duyet had served prominently in previous campaigns, in 1799 he emerged as a versatile and reliable commander whom Nguyen Phuc Anh would increasingly rely upon in the final years of war. In late spring of 1799, Nguyen Phuc Anh sailed with his war fleet, followed by his supply fleet, to Nha Trang. After consulting with Prince Canh, who was in command at Dien Khanh, he ordered his land forces to march north through Phu Yen toward Cha Ban. Nguyen Phuc Anh sailed ahead and seized the port of Qui Nhon, assisted by dissention among the Tay Son generals there. He then sent Le Van Duyet to northern Binh Dinh Province to block Tay Son armies marching south. Le Van Duyet rallied Ede chieftains in the mountains to assist in barring the passes leading from Quang Ngai into Binh Dinh. The Tay Son armies came through the passes in two columns. One of the columns dissolved in panic when a forward scout shouted “nai! ” upon seeing a herd of deer. Nai is the word for “deer,” but it was also northern slang for soldiers from Gia Dinh, deriving from the Dong Nai (“deer field”) River where Vietnamese first began to settle in the Mekong region. Soldiers following the scout picked up the cry of “Nai! Nai! ” This filled the column with fear of an ambush and provoked a stampede to the  rear. The Tay Son soldiers were no longer as fearsome as they had been twenty- five years before.  Meanwhile, Nguyen Phuc Anh defeated a Tay Son fleet as his land forces advanced and took Nguyen Nhac’s old capital, Cha Ban, near the modern city of An Nhon. In this campaign, a Vietnamese general leading a force of Khmers with Siamese officers rallied upland peoples to assist along the mountain flanks. It was at this time that the province received its modern name, as Nguyen Phuc Anh called it Binh Dinh, meaning “pacified” or “put in order” or “set right.” Nguyen Phuc Anh spent over three months in Binh Dinh, collecting rice, organizing supplies, recruiting soldiers, appointing administrators, fixing taxes, selecting students, seeking out those who had remained loyal, honoring the dead, building storehouses, organizing post stations, and positioning his soldiers, including a force of ten thousand Siamese. Over one thousand men from Binh Dinh were selected for their “strength and quickness” and trained to handle artillery. Pierre Pigneau, who accompanied Prince Canh on this campaign, died of dysentery in Binh Dinh during this time. Nguyen Phuc Anh brought his body back to Saigon and gave him a burial with honor. The Tay Son generals continued their feuds. Two of them, the erstwhile enemies Vo Van Dung and Tran Quang Dieu, were now yoked together on the southern border of Quang Ngai, making plans to march south when the winds  changed. At Saigon, Nguyen Phuc Anh was occupied with building ships, mobil- izing metalworkers to produce weapons, tracking down bandits, and raising  more soldiers, including an army of five thousand Khmers. Meanwhile, the Tay Son armies advanced, enveloped, and besieged Cha Ban in early 1800. Vo Tanh, Nguyen Phuc Anh’s commander at Cha Ban, had been left with orders to resist until the south wind brought reinforcements. Once again, as in 1795 at Dien Khanh, Vo Tanh found himself in command of the pivot in Nguyen Phuc Anh’s strategic position and under siege. After suppressing a Cham uprising in the Phan Rang area and mobilizing Khmers to pacify marauding uplanders north of Saigon, Nguyen Phuc Anh started his land forces marching north and prepared to sail as soon as the winds changed. Ships bearing rice sent by his ally, Chakri of Siam, joined his supply fleet. At the beginning of summer, Nguyen Phuc Anh arrived at Nha Trang and met with his land forces at Dien Khanh before sending them forward into Phu Yen, which for months had been disturbed by Tay Son forays and one of his generals who had turned traitor. When he received word that the King of Cambodia had sent an army of five thousand men and ten elephants, Nguyen Phuc Anh instructed Prince Canh at Saigon to send the Khmers north. Phu Yen was in a state of seemingly irremediable disorder with detachments of Tay Son troops, bands of traitors, large numbers of deserters, camps of the sick and wounded, and demoralized soldiers resisting discipline. Most of Nguyen Phuc Anh’s generals wanted to withdraw, citing enemy strength and sinking morale. Time was passing. If something were not done soon, the winds would change, and they would be blown back to Saigon leaving Vo Tanh behind and a trail of confusion. Nguyen Phuc Anh refused to accept this impasse. News arrived that his Lao allies were attacking into Nghe An assisted by the uplanders of that province. He turned to Le Van Duyet and ordered him to advance. Le Van Duyet pushed forward into Binh Dinh and reached the Tay Son siege walls, but could go no further. Nevertheless, Nguyen Phuc Anh’s ships seized a Tay Son supply fleet on the northern coast of Binh Dinh and, shortly after, captured a fleet of Qing pirates in Tay Son service. At this point, Nguyen Phuc Anh made a fateful decision. This year, he would not return south with the north wind. The greatest problem this posed was how to maintain the rice supply to his armies during the winter. He sent an urgent message to Saigon to build more ships to carry that year’s harvest north before the winds shifted. Then he ordered that a system of transporting rice north by land be established. He finally solved the problem by mobilizing great numbers of small fishing boats to carry rice north, hugging the coast amidst contrary winds. He then ordered up more soldiers from Saigon. In late 1800, Le Van Duyet, guided by allies among upland peoples, shifted behind the backs of Vo Tanh’s besiegers and broke into the lowlands of Binh Dinh. A few weeks later, in early 1801, Le Van Duyet used fireships to seize the port of Qui Nhon. These victories dramatically changed the battlefield situation in Nguyen Phuc Anh’s favor, significantly strengthening his position in Binh Dinh. Just at that moment, news arrived that Prince Canh had died of smallpox. How Nguyen Phuc Anh was affected by this news is not known, but he then made another fateful decision. It was as if the death of his son in Saigon somehow turned him away from that place, which had been his temporary home for many years, and sent him back toward his ancestral home where he had spent his youth. He decided to leave behind the turmoil in Phu Yen and the ensnarled armies in Binh Dinh and instead to proceed north to take Phu Xuan.

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