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The Swashbuckler of Shanghai : THE DEVIL SOLDIER; The Story of Frederick Townsend Ward, the Most Honored and Controversial American in Chinese History, By Caleb Carr (Random House: $25; 366 pp.)

February 02, 1992|Jonathan Kirsch | Kirsch is a regular reviewer for The Times

Imagine an American version of Lawrence of Arabia at large in 19th-Century China; add the devil-may-care exploits of Indiana Jones and the high moral purpose of Robin Hood, and you'll have a rough idea of what the adventurer Frederick Townsend Ward was really like.

His story, recounted by Caleb Carr in "The Devil Soldier" with authority and high spirits, is so marvelously improbable, so rich in exotic detail, that it often reads more like a historical thriller than the serious work of history that it is.

As we learn in "The Devil Soldier," Ward was an adventurer and freebooter who first went to sea when he was not yet 16, prospected for gold in California in 1849, served as a Texas Ranger and then as a mercenary in Mexico (under the self-made imperialist brigand, Gen. William Walker) and the Crimea, and sailed as an officer aboard an "extreme clipper" on the Pacific, all before he turned 30.

But Ward's true glory--and his place in history--awaited his arrival in Shanghai, where he led a band of "devil soldiers" in defense of the Manchu emperor against the rebel armies of the Taipings, followers of a false messiah who claimed to be the younger brother of Jesus Christ.

"When he arrived in Shanghai, Ward was 28 years old and penniless," Carr sums up. "When he died in battle three years later, he was the most honored American in Chinese history, a naturalized Chinese subject and a mandarin entitled to wear the prestigious peacock feather in his cap."

Swirling around the swashbuckling figure of Frederick Ward, and sometimes obscuring him, are the veils of intrigue that passed for politics and diplomacy in 19th-Century China.

Carr explores in exacting detail what he calls the "almost comically complex" contortions of the Great Powers in China in the last century. The British, for example, staged military operations against both the army of the Manchu emperor and the rebel Taipings, and imprisoned Ward on several occasions before allying themselves with his "Ever Victorious Army."

"My dear fellow," one British officer explained at the time, "we always pitch into the swells!"

Carr ably discharges his duty as a historian, but he forsakes no opportunity to evoke the lurid aspects of war and revolution in 19th-Century China. For example, he reminds us that rape and pillage were the contractual perks of the 19th-Century soldier, who carried off "bullocks, sheep, goats, boys and women--all considered as loot."

Carr depicts Ward himself as a kind of flesh-and-blood matinee idol: a man of "charm, humor and boyish deviousness," an intrepid commander who led his troops into battle carrying only a swagger stick, a "fire-eater" who was "wounded on seven points of his body" in a single daring charge on a fortified position, a visionary of "nonconventional warfare" who introduced advanced tactics and technology to the 19th-Century battlefield, and a compassionate and principled leader who insisted on providing medical care to his wounded men at his own expense.

Still, Carr cannot be accused of sensationalizing his story--it is sensational enough without embellishment--and he frequently pauses to give us a sophisticated reading of some telling incident or anecdote. For example, Carr notes that Ward adopted a large black-and-white dog as his mascot, and explains the subtle psychological impact of Ward's constant companion.

"Dogs were viewed as little more than a source of meat in China," he writes, "and taking pains to feed and care for a large animal in a country ravaged by starvation inevitably struck most Chinese as more than eccentric: It was unnerving."

Carr urges us to regard Ward as more than a romantic curiosity. He credits Ward with offering his patrons in the imperial government the glimpse of a happier fate than the one that ultimately befell China: "More than any other person or organization," Carr concludes, "Ward and his Ever Victorious Army had pointed the way toward a different kind of China . . . that . . . would have allowed the empire to avoid a violent collision with progress and emerge as a 20th-Century power."

Carr may overstate his case, but we come to understand why--"The Devil Soldier" shows Ward to be such a beguiling and charismatic figure that we, too, are tempted to see something loftier in his story than the mere slaughter of an obscure soldier-of-fortune on a forgotten battlefield.

BOOKMARK: For an excerpt from "The Devil Soldier" see the Opinion section, Page 3.

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