The Han dynasty was in trouble.
For four centuries the Han had ruled China. Founded by a peasant rebel named Liu Bang, they had ascended to rule in 206 B.C.E. By 196 C.E. they were in clear trouble, however. Civil War had forced Emperor Xian to move his capital to Xuchang. From there he had little practical control over China, but rather sat as a figure head while powerful warlords ruled their individual territories unchecked.
By 208, twelve years after the move of the capital, Cao Cao was one of the most powerful of these warlords. Xuchang was in the heart of the territory he held. When the Imperial court had moved, he had been a small timer. However, he took advantage of his stranglehold over the court’s line of communications to rise from a small time warlord to being the man who ruled the entire north of China in the name of Emperor Xian.
The southern half of China, however, had become very much aware of who was actually ruling Northern China, and they were refusing to play along any further. Combined, they wielded a strength in arms and political will that Cao Cao that was virtually insurmountable. Unfortunately for them, they were anything but combined. Several warlords ruled most of the south, and they did not get along.
In 208, one of those warlords, Sun Quan, defeated an army belonging to another warlord, Liu Biao. This allowed him to carve out a significant chunk out of Liu Biao’s territory. Sensing an opportunity, Cao Cao swept south to snap up most of what remained. Realizing that, rather than becoming more powerful, he had actually weakened his own army while giving Cao Cao an opening, Sun Quan desperately arranged an alliance with what little remained of Liu Biao’s holdings, led by Liu Biao’s successor, Liu Bei.
Even with this alliance, Sun Quan was in trouble. Cao Cao was bragging that he had an army nearly 800,000 strong. In truth he probably only had around 250,000 men, but this was still sufficient to outnumber Sun Quan by at least five to one. He needed an angle to even the odds, and he found it.
In order to control Sun Quan’s territory Cao Cao would need to control the Yangtze River. The key to this was the naval base located at Jiangling. From there he would be able to sail all the way down to the mouth of the river and control the entirety of China’s most important river and the entire trade and agricultural network built around it.
Recognizing this, Sun Quan determined to blockade the river. Under the command of Sun-Liu, Sun Quan’s entire force took to ships and sailed up the Yangtze, where they encountered the vanguard of Cao Cao’s army. Located in a swampy area, the fight that took place was small and relatively insignificant. Cao Cao pulled the vanguard back to meet up with the rest of his army somewhere near the town of Wulin and the Red Cliffs lining the river banks.
Cao Cao had successfully captured Jiangling, and so had plenty of ships at his disposal as well. He marched his army aboard and prepared to fight a 300,000 man strong ship to ship action that would become known as the largest naval battle in history.
It would prove to be a disaster. Cao Cao had not accounted for one simple little detail in his plan. While Sun Quan’s men were all able marines with experience aboard ship, Cao Cao’s army had little to know experience aboard ship. Already demoralized and sick from the forced marches necessary to take Jiangling, Cao Cao’s men became seasick. In order to attempt to stabilize the ships and ease the seasickness, Cao Cao ordered them to be lashed together.
This was the opportunity Sun Quan had needed, and he seized it with alacrity. A portion of his army led by Huang Gai was ordered to pretend to defect to Cao Cao’s side. Certain of his success, Cao Cao saw nothing deceptive in this. The supposed defectors were allowed to sail their ships up the Yangtze unmolested.
As they approached, Huang Gai’s men lit their ships on fire. Packed to the scuppers with oil and kindling, the ships quickly became floating fireballs, propelled upstream by a favorable wind. Huang Gai’s men took to small craft and escaped.
Lashed together, Cao Cao’s ships were helpless. They had no room to maneuver, and no ability to escape. Cao Cao’s army, already sick and exhausted, was thrown into chaos. Much of the army drowned attempting to escape the coming conflagration while many more died in the ensuing deathtrap of burning ships.
Devastated by the losses, Cao Cao was forced to escape through the swamplands surrounding the Red Cliffs. Sun Quan’s healthier and better organized forces pressed them hard, pursuing as much as they could. Cao Cao’s already decimated army was further whittled down during this attempt at escape.
By 209, Cao Cao had fallen back to his holdings in the north. Much of the territory he had taken from Liu Biao had slipped from his fingers as a result of his need to reconsolidate his weakened forces. Sun Quan had been further weakened as well during the battle, and thus had been unable to capitalize on his victory. He would remain in control of his own lands, but expand no further. Liu Bei, however, would suddenly find himself in a position to control large swaths of territory, including very important and strategic choke points on the Yangtze.
The three commanders, Cao Cao, Sun Quan, and Liu Bei would continue to fight off and on for another decade, but never with such lopsided odds or results. All three would eventually declare themselves to be king of their relative regions during this time.
Upon the death of Cao Cao in 220, Emperor Xian abdicated, formally handing his title over to Cao Cao’s son, Cao Pi. Eleven years after the fateful battle of the Red Cliffs, the Han dynasty was no more, and in its place the three commanders had become the rulers of Wei (Cao Pi), Shu (Liu Bei), and Wu (Sun Quan). The Three Kingdoms period had begun.
James Hinton is an armchair historian and former army veteran. When he isn’t busy writing on topics related to military history he spends his time attempting to train his daughters to row Roman galleys in the middle of the Idaho desert.