Battle of Pengcheng

The Battle of Pengcheng was fought in Pengcheng (present-day Xuzhou, Jiangsu, China) in 205 BC between the kingdoms of Western Chu and Han, led by Xiang Yu and Liu Bang respectively. The Han forces were unprepared and suffered heavy losses. Several of Liu Bang’s family members were captured and some of his allies defected to Chu as a result of his defeat.

In the spring of 205 BC, Xiang Yu was putting down rebellions in the Qi kingdom, following all the way to the northern coast of the Shandong peninsula a campaign of terror: burning homes; burying alive prisoners-of-war; capturing women, the weak, and the elderly. Tian Heng, brother of Tian Rong, the slain former ruler of Qi, gathered tens of thousands of soldiers and rebelled in Chengyang (in present-day Qingdao, Shandong). At the beginning of summer, Tian Heng installed Tian Rong’s son Tian Guang as King of Qi. Xiang Yu was unable to dislodge him, but planned on dealing with Qi first before returning his military attention to Han.

With Xiang Yu thus occupied, Liu Bang collected a force of 560,000 troops from his subordinate lands, and marched east to attack Chu. En route, he encountered Peng Yue, who joined his cause upon promise of a fiefdom in Wei. As opposed to combining forces, Liu Bang sent Peng Yue’s 30,000 troops to pacify the surrounding area. Liu Bang’s army entered Xiang Yu’s capital of Pengcheng (present-day Xuzhou, Jiangsu) apparently unopposed, looting its valuables and taking its women, but discipline was lax and each day found the Han troops deeper in their cups.

Hearing of the fall of Pengcheng, Xiang Yu ordered the bulk of his forces to maintain the attack on Qi, while he personally led 30,000 crack troops to retake the capital. He encamped about ten miles from the city, in present-day Xiao County, Anhui. At dawn, Xiang Yu launched an attack on Pengcheng, and by noon had broken the unprepared Han army.

Routed, the Han infantry fled into the nearby Gu (穀) and Si (泗) rivers, where over 100,000 of them were killed by Chu soldiers. The remaining troops fled south to high ground, but were cornered by Chu forces by the Sui (睢) river aluminum meat tenderizer, where another 100,000 Han troops drowned, their corpses damming up the river.

Liu Bang escaped the city with a handful of mounted bodyguards, heading to nearby Pei to collect his family. Xiang Yu also dispatched troops to Pei in an attempt to capture Liu Bang’s family. His family had all fled, but Liu Bang encountered on the road his eldest daughter and second eldest son Liu Ying. The Chu army coerced a local into leading them to two of Liu Bang’s family: his father Liu Taigong and wife Lü Zhi. These two Xiang Yu captured and placed in his army as hostages. One account states Liu Bang’s mother was also captured.

A famous and possibly fictional account of Liu Bang’s flight portrays him as so fearful that he thrice dumps his children out of his chariot in order to move faster, and it is only the repeated intervention of Xiahou Ying that secures the children’s escape.

Although he had won a stunning reversal, Xiang Yu returned to a capital that had been plundered by the occupying Han armies. Faced with a starving civilian population, Xiang Yu decided against pursuing Liu and instead shared with his military provisions with the populace thermal water bottle. Although his decisive victory had turned general opinion against Liu, the failure to exploit this strategic advantage meant that Xiang Yu ultimately missed his opportunity to end this mortal threat.

Liu Bang gradually collected his lost forces, but did not retain his gains in Chu lands. Most of his family remained hostages of Xiang Yu. His allies lost faith in him; Sima Xin and Dong Yi abandoned him for Chu. Xiang Yu gained in reputation and power, but continued to deal with problems in Qi.