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In April of 1860 alarm among Westerners living in Shanghai soars as Chinese rebels
cut a swath through armies of imperial Bannermen and descend along the Grand Canal
toward the Foreign Settlements. Mandarins and rich Chinese traders in the native city
begin to panic when nearby Hangchow is overrun by the rebels and tens of thousands
slaughtered. British and French naval forces and marines will soon depart for the north
to war against the Manchu emperor, leaving Shanghai defenseless. And the fickle gods
of China are about to place the fate of many into the hands of a lone American adventurer
aboard a ship approaching Shanghai.

It is a desperate time everywhere in China. Taiping rebels have captured Nanking and
threaten Shanghai and the rice-producing farmland in the surrounding countryside of the
Yangtze delta. The armies of the Chinese general Tseng, west of Nanking, seem to have
little hope of quelling the rebellion. At the same time, British and French fleets in Hong
Kong prepare another campaign against the Chinese, the third in three years, to force
the emperor to ratify the treaty agreed upon in 1858. In 1859, the British and French
attempted to force passage at the Taku forts, at the entrance to the river leading to
Peking, and were soundly bested by the Chinese – now the foreigners return with more
than 20,000 men and hundreds of ships to wreak their vengeance.

On the morning of April 19, the American merchant clipper
Essex departs the port of
Ningpo, unaware her pilot will guide her into the waiting clutches of China Sea pirates
led by the renegade Englishman Fokie Tom. When
Essex is run aground at the Volcano
Islands, a bold passenger, Fletcher Thorson Wood, rallies the crew and helps fight off
the pirates while
Essex struggles free.

Essex later makes her way toward Shanghai, the ship owner’s daughter, Elizabeth
Fitch, is dismayed to learn that Fletcher, the “hero of
Essex,” returns now to China to
snatch for himself some portion of the Chinese empire. Upon landing at Shanghai,
however, the American consul has Fletcher taken into custody by the U. S. marshal as
a filibuster – a fomenter of foreign insurrection – because of Fletcher’s experience years
before in Mexico with the notorious William Walker. Championed by the owner of
Essex, Augustus Fitch, Fletcher deftly manipulates the American marshal and consul
who hold him prisoner, with the result that he is ordered aboard the river steamer
Confucius and is appointed mate by the gruff old captain R. S. Ghent on a run up the
Yangtze to bring down to Shanghai a valuable cargo of tea. From the tea agent aboard
the steamer, Chester Hicks, Fletcher learns much about the rebellion and the warring
parties, the Taiping rebels and the armies of the Manchu emperor, and is witness to a
violent battle for control of the walled city of Nanking, the capital of the Taiping empire.

Fletcher decides to throw in with the "imps," the imperial forces, because of what he has
seen of the rebels and, as a firm supporter of the Union, he would not be a rebel himself.
He devises a plan for fielding an army of derelict sailors and British deserters to defend
Shanghai against the rebels and, through the introduction of Hicks, presents the plan to
Yang Fang, whom the foreigners know as Takee, a mandarin with the wealth needed to
pay for Fletcher’s army. Yang Fang is impressed by the brash foreigner, but wonders
what are Fletcher’s true motives, and how he can be controlled. Yang Fang must confer
with his superior, the
taotai Wu Hsü.

The fall of the city of Soochow to the rebels heightens the panic among the Chinese of
Shanghai – the governor finally approves the plan to hire an army of foreign rifles.
Fletcher searches out Hannibal Benedict for his second- in-command, and together they
scour the bars and brothels and seaman’s homes of Shanghai to collect their army. Their
first recruits are British drill sergeants, Nigel Falconer and Darby Garden, men who can
train other men, who conclude they can go off with the Foreign Rifles for a brief lark,
while their ship waits in harbor to go north to fight the Chinese emperor, and be back
before they’re missed. The
taotai Wu Hsü watches Fletcher’s men closely where they
muster in the Shanghai temple of the Fire God, and sends them to Kuangfulin, four
hours southwest of Shanghai, to make a camp and train.

The Foreign Rifles set up camp at Kuangfulin, expecting to have months to get ready,
but the mandarins are anxious to see results for the money they spend and call the
foreigners to battle only weeks later. Fletcher’s men join the soldiers of the Chinese
commander Li Heng-sung and go with the governor’s troops to the city of Kating, where
they support the attack with rifle fire, and then to Taitsang. There they again cover with
rifle fire the attack of Chinese troops against the city gate. Afterward, the Foreign Rifles
assume they will have more time to train, but after only days they receive another call to
war. Rebels have taken the nearby town of Sungkiang, and the Foreign Rifles are
ordered to retake the town. As Fletcher’s army sets forth to recover Sungkiang, he  and
Hannibal wonder how they can be expected to take a walled city without artillery.