Nguyen Phuc Tan, Trinh Tac, and the Nghe An campaign

01

Dec
2021

Nguyen Phuc Tan, Trinh Tac, and the Nghe An campaign

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During the three decades of the 1650s, 1660s, and 1670s, Trinh Tac in the north  and Nguyen Phuc Tan in the south made decisions that moved the two Vietnam- ese countries beyond the military impasse that became increasingly apparent in  those years. They were both strong leaders who took a detailed interest in government and who had definite ideas about priorities. While Trinh Tac was occupied with internal tensions that had become embedded in his realm, Nguyen Phuc Tan considered how best to maintain the expansionary energy of his realm. Following the war of 1648, Trinh Tac became increasingly preoccupied with intrigues and conspiracies stimulated by Trinh Trang’s failing health. Although Trinh Tac was by now the chief decision-maker at Dong Kinh, his aging father continued to hold his own court with his own circle of powerful favorites, some of whom harbored extravagant ambitions. Trinh Tac also had enemies among  the princes of his own family who sought to undermine his authority by manipu- lating the people in Trinh Trang’s entourage. The premature death of the young  king, Le Duy Huu, in 1649 may have been related to a conspiracy against Trinh Tac, for Dutchmen arriving at Dong Kinh in that year reported that Trinh Tac had poisoned both an uncle and the young king. Eunuchs were particularly prominent among Trinh Trang’s confidants. They held high military and civil positions and were in control of the lucrative silk industry. In 1652, when Trinh Trang’s health temporarily worsened, a conspiracy was uncovered that was led by a eunuch and included court officials, Japanese merchants, and a sorcerer, all of whom were close to Trinh Trang. While Trinh Tac waited apprehensively through his father’s declining years, Nguyen Phuc Tan gloried in his victorious army and dreamed of new adventures. He quickly established a reputation for his knowledge of ancient history, for  paying close attention to matters of government, and for maintaining a disci- plined style of life. When a beautiful female singer arrived from the north and  gained entrance to his palace, he was reminded of an episode in antiquity where just such a woman from the land of an enemy had brought down a kingdom. He ordered that she be taken out of the palace and killed. In 1653, he organized a massive military exercise in the Hue region with nearly 400 war boats and 20,000 men. In military matters, he was listening to two generals. Nguyen Huu Tien, the son-in-law and protégé of Dao Duy Tu, was calm, methodical, and relied upon strict discipline and careful planning. Nguyen Huu Dat was a brilliant strategist who favored feints and ambushes and liked to sow confusion among northern leaders by sending letters to arouse their fear of treason. Nguyen Huu Dat was arguing for an invasion of the north, something that had been on his mind since 1623 when he had blurted it out at Nguyen Phuc Nguyen’s court on the occasion of Trinh Tung’s death. Nguyen Phuc Tan was inclined to agree but wanted the steadier hand of Nguyen Huu Tien in command. There was rivalry between the two generals. In early 1655, Nguyen Phuc Tan resolved the question of command by reporting a poem recited to him by a divine being in a dream that contained classical allusions indicating that Nguyen Huu Tien should have seniority over Nguyen Huu Dat. In 1655, the two generals embarked on an invasion of the north. They were partnered in a two-headed command, in which Nguyen Huu Dat’s ideas set the battlefield agenda and in which Nguyen Huu Tien had the final word. During the first four years, so long as the southerners enjoyed success, this partnership was harmonious. However, after the death of Trinh Trang and after Trinh Tac had taken a firm grip on authority at Dong Kinh and was able to organize the superior resources of the Red River plain, the southerners began to suffer loses and the two generals began to quarrel. During 1655, the southerners advanced steadily into Nghe An. The northern commanders suffered defeat after defeat and, by mid summer, were recalled to Dong Kinh, demoted, and replaced by new senior officers arriving with reinforcements. However, the southerners continued to advance, reaching the Lam River, the lowland portion of the Ca River, which flows through the 308 / A history of the Vietnamese  Downloaded from Cambridge modern city of Vinh. The situation became so critical for the northerners that in autumn Trinh Tac himself arrived with more reinforcements. He spent three months on the battlefield and managed to push the southerners back somewhat. When he returned north near the end of the year, he left his younger brother Trinh Toan (d. 1674) in command. In early 1656, the southerners returned to the offensive, sending their navy up the Lam River and consolidating their control of the southern bank of the river while threatening to cross to the northern bank. At mid year, Trinh Tac sent his eldest son, Trinh Can, with a new army. There followed several months of  dismay and confusion among Trinh officers as Trinh Can established a head- quarters separate from Trinh Toan and received most of the supplies and men  being sent south. Trinh Toan was popular among the soldiers, but his elder  brother, Trinh Tac, did not trust him. Trinh Tac feared that Trinh Toan’s influ- ence in the army posed a threat to himself. Trinh Can was stable, cautious, and  level headed, while Trinh Toan was noted for an excitable temperament with flashes of inspiration. Many officers were devoted to him and found it hard to swallow the realization that he was being pushed aside. Meanwhile, the southern generals were receiving messages not only from the Mac in Cao Bang but also from prominent leaders in the Red River plain, promising to rise up and attack the Trinh when the southerners crossed the Lam River. Nevertheless, the soldiers accumulating under Trinh Can’s command halted the southern advance at the Lam River. In mid 1656, Nguyen Phuc Tan met with his generals and was told by Nguyen Huu Dat that new recruits arriving from the south lacked training and discipline and were alienating the population of Nghe An. Nguyen Huu Dat recommended that the southerners fortify their position on the southern bank of the Lam River, consolidate their gains, discipline their men, and await a new opportunity to advance. In early 1657, Trinh Trang finally died. Tac had the situation well in hand and there was no succession disturbance in Dong Kinh. However, when Trinh Toan was subsequently recalled and imprisoned at the capital, many northern officers  defected to the south. Southern efforts to establish a structure of regular govern- ment in Nghe An south of the Lam River began to bear fruit in 1658 as educated  men from that region were recruited to administer villages, capture criminals, dispense justice, and to collect rice and other taxes to supply the southern armies. When local people expressed uneasiness about the new regime, men were sent out to explain matters to them and to win them over to the southern cause. Unknown numbers of people were recruited, or possibly coerced, to go south, where they were resettled in the more southerly Nguyen Phuc territories. The southern advance reached its furthest extent in 1658 with heavy fighting around Vinh and even a southern foray through the mountains with the collaboration of an upland chieftain that briefly threatened Quynh Luu near the northern border of Nghe An. However, by the end of the year, Trinh Can had fended off the southern attacks and had gained an important victory at Huong Son district in the foothills that anchored his defense of the Lam River. From this time on, the southern position became increasingly difficult to maintain as Trinh Tac ruled with a confidence that had not been possible during the lifetime of his father.  At the beginning of 1658, Trinh Tac initiated a new era in northern govern- ment with the proclamation of the Vinh Tho reign period. He put Pham Cong  Tru and other literati officials from the Red River plain at the center of decision- making with the mandate to reform government according to their ideas. They  had been educated to regard the Hong Duc government of Le Tu Thanh as the model for good government. The examination scheduled for 1655 had been postponed because of the military emergency of that year, and when it was held in 1656 only six men were selected. However, examinations were held in 1658 and in 1659 with twenty-two men being selected in each of those years. The prospects of many literati families in the Red River plain that had suffered for their service to the Mac began to rise from this time. The legislation of the Vinh Tho era (1658–1662) covered nearly every aspect of government: population registers; taxation; conscription; legal tender; internal customs stations; roads  and dikes; education; examinations; administrative appointments; judicial pro- cedures; public sacrifices; and public morality. Some legislation specifically  addressed the recruitment of soldiers in Thanh Hoa and Nghe An, including their landholding rights and tax obligations. By 1659, Trinh Tac was in a position to push back at the southerners. He treated Nguyen Huu Dat to a taste of his own style of intrigue by sending him gifts and a letter inviting him to defect. Nguyen Huu Dat immediately informed Nguyen Phuc Tan, who trusted him completely, but rumors among southern officers in Nghe An about Nguyen Huu Dat being in secret communication with the enemy began to circulate. When a spy arrived at Nguyen Huu Dat’s headquarters and reported on conditions in the north, Nguyen Huu Dat sent him back across enemy lines without first having him report to Nguyen Huu Tien. This irritated Nguyen Huu Tien and increased suspicion of Nguyen Huu Dat among his colleagues. Nguyen Huu Dat reacted to these doubts about his loyalty by feigning “illness” and withdrawing into inaction. Amidst the discord in the southern camps, many northern officers and men who had previously defected to the south went back to rejoin the northern forces, and soldiers recruited by the southerners in Nghe An also began to defect. Trinh agents circulated among the villagers in the territory occupied by the southerners spreading discontent. The southern armies had remained mostly inactive during 1659 and early 1660, immobilized by dissention and declining morale. In mid 1660, Nguyen Huu Tien launched an offensive without informing Nguyen Huu Dat. Nguyen Huu Dat, hearing of it after it had begun, quickly brought his armies into the battle, and the southerners gained a foothold on the northern bank of the Lam River. At that point, Nguyen Phuc Tan met with his generals to evaluate the situation. There were voices urging a continuation of the offensive, but Nguyen Phuc Tan had had enough. He told his generals that their men were weary and homesick and that supplying an advance beyond the Lam River would be very difficult. He ordered them to return to the southern bank of the river and fortify their positions. Shortly after this, Trinh Can took the offensive, striking across the river and gaining victories. As Trinh Can advanced, the men who had been recruited from Nghe An into the southern armies began a stampede of desertion to join the northerners.  A debate among the southern generals over what to do about this broke what- ever cooperative spirit yet existed between Nguyen Huu Tien, who favored  capital punishment for these deserters, and Nguyen Huu Dat, who argued for clemency. Under constant pressure from Trinh Can’s attacks, Nguyen Huu Tien decided to retreat and did so without informing Nguyen Huu Dat, leaving him in an exposed position. Nguyen Huu Dat was nevertheless quick to realize what was happening and joined the southern withdrawal. The northern armies followed and arrived at the Gianh River by the end of 1660. In early 1661, Trinh Can traveled to Dong Kinh for a hero’s welcome. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that by 1659 Nguyen Phuc Tan was no longer interested in conquering the north. He may have been able to dispel the dissention among his generals, rally the morale of his soldiers, and solve the supply problems of an advancing army. Many of his officers clearly felt that this was possible. However, he chose to see it differently. He allowed his armies to remain inactive for a year and a half at a critical point in the war. When his generals crossed the Lam River, he brought them back. When they retreated to the Gianh River, there is no indication that he was unhappy with them. He did not punish his defeated generals, which was standard practice in the north. He immediately set Nguyen Huu Dat to work building a new wall ten kilometers north of the existing system of walls. He was content to keep the northerners out. He apparently did not want to govern the north with its deep-seated regional rivalries and its relative poverty. And, perhaps most important of all, he preferred not to have the headache of playing nursemaid to a monarchy that could neither be abandoned nor be allowed to grow up. In the south, he was free to be the lord of his own kingdom. If he wanted adventure, the far south could provide plenty of that. The two Vietnamese realms no longer shared a common context of political ambition. The Nghe An war had taught Nguyen Phuc Tan that con- quering the north would not be worth the trouble.  After successfully concluding a difficult war to expel an invader that had lasted for six years, Trinh Tac could not resist enthusiasm for another effort to break through the southern walls. In late 1661, Trinh Can led his men across the Gianh River and, after heavy fighting, took Nguyen Huu Dat’s new wall. However, he could not break through the Dong Hoi Wall at the mouth of the Nhat Le River.  A southern counterattack in early 1662 sent him retreating back north. There- after, the border was quiet for ten years.  Nguyen Phuc Tan did not let down his guard toward the north. After with- drawal of the northern army in 1661, he sent Nguyen Huu Tien and Nguyen  Huu Dat to build a new wall a short distance north of the Dong Hoi Wall, called the Tran Ninh Wall, which blocked the coastal plain and was a northern extension of the existing system of walls. It was designed to prevent northern land and sea forces from joining to concentrate at the mouth of the Nhat Le River. In subsequent years, he gave detailed attention to the recruitment of  soldiers and to organizing countrywide military mobilizations for training pur- poses. He instituted a regime of daily shooting practice for his gunners and  musketeers. In 1669, he extended his regulations on recruitment and training to the new territories seized from Champa during the previous decade, the modern province of Khanh Hoa and beyond to the Phan Rang River. Also at this time, he realized that much new land had been opened up for cultivation but was producing no tax revenue. He established an Agricultural Office to survey fields, establish ownership, and levy taxes.

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