Before the onslaught which was to decide our destiny, Captain Myers made a remarkable harangue.
Continuing The Boxer Uprising,
our selection from The Siege in Peking by William A.P. Martin published in 1900. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages. The selection is presented in seven easy 5 minute installments.
Previously in The Boxer Uprising.
Early in this part of the siege a struggle occurred which more than any other was the pivot of our destiny. This was on the wall. It had been held by Chinese soldiers, but, as it dominated all the legations, had heavy artillery been there planted, defense would have been impossible. The Chinese were driven back from a portion of it by a combined force of Americans and Germans; but, returning in greater numbers, they gradually forced our troops to abandon their position. The situation appeared desperate. The Germans being insufficient in number to defend their own legation, a combined force of Americans, British, and Russians, amounting to about sixty men, was organized under the lead of Captain Myers, of the United States marines.
Before the onslaught which was to decide our destiny, Captain Myers made a remarkable harangue. Pointing to the British legation, “My men,” he said, “yonder are four hundred women and children whose lives are dependent upon our success. If we fail, they perish, and we perish also. When I say go, then go.” The Americans and English must have been moved be yond expression by this appeal. The Russians, too, though they knew not a word of his speech, fully comprehended the meaning of his gesture. They, as well as the others, were willing to offer their life’s blood for the success of this forlorn hope.
The Chinese, taken by surprise, were driven from their barricades, and a large space fronting the legations remained in the possession of our foreign guards. But the victory cost us dear, for, besides several others killed or wounded, the gallant leader, who deserves to be regarded as one of the heroes of the siege, fell wounded to the ground. Thenceforward he was unable to take that share in our defense for which his soul thirsted.
Within the legation all was bustle and activity. The marines, reinforced by a volunteer corps of a hundred or more, were occupying commanding points on the legation walls, or making sorties from the legation gates — sometimes to capture a gun which threatened to breach our defenses, sometimes to disperse a force that was gathering for an assault. Night and day this went on, week after week, but not without loss. Several of the leaders of these sorties fell in not futile attempts, and many of their soldiers were wounded. Our fortifications were strengthened partly by sand-bags that were made by many thousand by the ladies, who incessantly plied the sewing-machine — an instrument which on that occasion proved to be no less effective than our machine-guns.
Much work was also done in the way of digging trenches to countermine the operations of the enemy. Most of this was superintended with great skill by missionaries, whose merit has been frankly acknowledged by diplomatists and generals. It was carried out by the bone and muscle of native Christians. With regard to these unhappy refugees, who were destitute of home and livelihood, it has also been acknowledged that without their aid the defense would have been impossible.
For eight long weeks we were sickened by hope deferred. The forces of our defenders were weakened by daily losses. Our store of provisions was running low. Had the rescue been delayed another fortnight we must have suffered the fate of Cawnpore, rather than the fortune of Lucknow. We had eaten up all our horses and mules, to the number of eighty! Only three or four remained, affording meat for not more than two days. Our meal-barrels had also reached the bottom, and unhappily the widow’s cruse of oil was not within our reach. Our clothing even (many of us had no change of raiment) was worn to shreds, and it became unfashionable to appear with a clean shirt.
This reminded me of a few lines from a well-known poet, referring to another city, which I had written in my note-book on my first visit to Peking, forty-one years ago. (They are a photograph of the city as it then was. And now its condition is tenfold worse.)
Whoso entereth within this town
Which sheening far celestial seems to be,
Disconsolate will wander up and down
‘Mid many things unsightly to strange e’e.
For hut and palace show like filthily ;
The dingy denizens are reared in dirt ;
Nor personage of high or low degree
Doth care for cleanness of surtout or shirt.” — Byron.
If asked how we spent our time, I answer, there was no time for amusement and no unseemly frivolity. Fear and anxiety dwelt in every bosom, but we took care that they should not show themselves upon our faces. Especially did our brave women strive to look cheerful in order to strengthen the arms of their defenders. In the midst of the fiercest attacks, when rifle-shots were accompanied by bursting bombs, only one gave way to hysteric shrieks (she was not American) ; and it may be added, by way of offset, that one man, a Norwegian, went stark mad.
The place was overcrowded, and such was the want of room that forty or fifty from the Roman Catholic missions were domiciled in an open pavilion, where some of them were wounded by stray shots. Of Protestant missionaries, forty-three were lodged in the legation chapel. The chapel was employed, I need hardly say, more like a hotel than a meeting-house. There was no time for praying or singing. Sunday was as busily devoted to fighting as week-days, nor did I once hear of a prayer-meeting. Yet never was more heartfelt praying done than during this period.
Within the British Legation I was transferred from the table of Mrs. Squiers to that of Mrs. Conger, both families occupying only a part of the small house of the legation doctor. Had I been her brother I could not have been treated with more affectionate kindness than I received at her hand and those of the Minister. Calm, resolute, hopeful, and a devout Christian, Mrs. Conger is one of the most admirable women it has been my privilege to know. I wished many a time that, like her, I could look on all those events as nothing more than a horrid nightmare, conjured up by a distempered imagination. The round shot with which our walls were pierced was too tangible to be re solved into fanciful ideas. The United States has had in Peking no worthier representative than Major Conger. He had been a soldier through all the War of Secession, and he met this out break with a fortitude and good sense preeminently conspicuous.
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