Battle of Byeokjegwan

碧蹄館の戦い

Li Rusong

Battle of Byeokjegwan

Kobayakawa Takakage

Date:  1/26 of Bunroku 2 (1593)

Location:  Goyang in Gyeonggi Province in the environs of Hanseong (Seoul)

Synopsis:  After capturing Pyongyang, the Chinese general named Li Rusong received a report that the Japanese forces had departed Hanseong (Seoul), whereupon Rusong led 20,000 vanguard forces south with the intention of capturing Hanseong.  Japanese vanguard forces led by Kobayakawa Takakage clashed with the Chinese and Korean forces in Byeokjegwan and emerged as victors.   

Commanders:  Li Rusong, Li Rubai (younger brother of Rusong), 秋水鏡, Go Eon-baek

Forces:  20,000 (vanguard division)

Losses:  Varies by account (6,000 killed; 500 to 600 killed/wounded; 1,500 killed/wounded)

Commanders:  Kobayakawa Takakage, Ukita Hideie

Forces:  20,000 vanguard division; 21,000 main division (most in this division did not participate)

Losses:  Varies by account (120 killed; 500 to 600 killed/wounded; 5,000 killed/wounded)

The Battle of Byeokjegwan occurred on 1/26 of Bunroku 2 (1593) in Goyang in the middle west portion of Gyeonggi Province in Korea.  This was one of the battles comprising the Bunroku Campaign from 1592 to 1593 on the Korean Peninsula.  This is known as the Japanese Disturbance of Imjin where 1592 is an imjin year in the sexagenary cycle.  After several years of negotiations, this was followed by the Keichō campaign from 1597 to 1598 also called the Second War of Jeong-yu.  Collectively, the invasions are referred to as the Imjin War.

After capturing Pyongyang, Li Rusong, a Chinese general commanding approximately 20,000 soldiers from the army of the Ming Dynasty, headed south toward Hanseong (Seoul).  These forces were intercepted and defeated by a contingent of approximately 20,000 Japanese soldiers led by Kobayakawa Takakage.

Prelude

The fall of Pyongyang to the Ming army triggered momentary chaos among the Japanese forces, including the flight of Ōtomo Yoshimune.  Commanders of forces located in the northern portion of the Korean Peninsula gathered in Hanseong to re-group and, with Ukita Hideie serving as the commander-in-chief, and Kobayakawa Takakage in charge of the vanguard, the forces were roughly divided into two divisions and then engaged in the Battle of Byeokjegwan.

On 1/23, at Kaesong, Li Rusong held a war council for the capture of Hanseong and a decision was made to send Zha Dashou to lead a scouting party.

On 1/24, the scouting party of Ming troops led by Zha Dashou prevailed against a scouting party comprised of Japanese troops led by Katō Mitsuyasu and Maeno Nagayasu.  The Japanese lost over sixty men and retreated.

Zha Dashou notified Li Rusong at Kaesong of the victory.  The Koreans reported that the elite troops of the Japanese army were destroyed in Pyongyang and only inferior troops remained in Hanseong so, on 1/25, Li Rusong departed from Kaesong with 20,000 troops with the objective of capturing Hanseong.

Course of events

Tachibana Muneshige and Takahashi Naotsugu (later known as Tachibana Naotsugu), who were siblings, led the vanguard of the Japanese forces to intercept the Ming army.  Around 2:00 AM, Morishita 釣雲 and Totoki 惟由 led thirty soldiers to scout the enemy situation, surmising that the enemy forces would depart before daybreak.  Around 6:00 AM, the forces set-up two positions on the northern side of 礪石嶺 in the south of Byeokjegwan.  Totoki Tsurahisa and Uchida Munetsugu led 500 soldiers in the vanguard, and by planting a few battle flags in front, they lured an advance by a contingent of 2,000 Ming forces led by Zha Dashou.  This led to a frontal assault against the forces led by Tsurahisa in the south of 越川峠.  The main division of 2,000 troops led by Muneshige and Naotsugu changed positions with the vanguard forces led by Tsurahisa and the middle formation of 700 troops led by Ono Shigeyuki and Netabi Shigehisa.  With Naotsugu and Bekki Shigetoki (the second son of Bekki Akikata) positioned at the head of the formation, the Japanese forces launched a surprise attack from the left flank against several thousand Korean forces led by general Go Eon-baek and succeeded in repelling them.  Muneshige led 800 cavalry soldiers in a violent pursuit of the Ming and Korean armies, making additional gains.  Next, the Japanese army confronted 7,000 enemy forces.  Although the Tachibana army fought valiantly, the enemy forces brought forth successive waves of troops.  At the height of the conflict, Totoki Tsurahisa, Uchida Munetsugu, and Yasuda Kunitsugu (known at the time as Amano Genemon Sadanari) charged ahead to attack, wielding spears to fell several tens of cavalry soldiers, penetrating into the nucleus of the Chinese and Korean forces.  At the same time, Bekki Munenao from the center formation shot over twenty other enemy soldiers with arrows.  Tsurahisa, however, was struck by a poisoned arrow shot by Li Jobai and died soon after returning to the formation.  Following the loss of Tsurahisa, Ikebe Nagamasa (a bushō in charge of the war banners) took temporary command of the vanguard forces and succeeded in changing positions with the center formation, but was later killed under pursuit by the enemy.  The small divisions led by Tachibana and Takahashi fought valiantly to repel them and then had soldiers rest to the right side of the north of 越川峠。Later, after the arrival of vanguard forces including Kobayakawa Takakage, the exhausted troops in the Tachibana division retreated to the back and moved west to the Komaruyama formation.

At the outbreak of these hostilities, the main division of the Japanese army was in Hanseong.

Around 10:00 AM, the Ming army pressed forward with a three-pronged assault in the fields of Goyang.  All of the vanguard forces of the Japanese army took cover in 望客硯 in the south of Byeokjegwan while others proceeded with an encirclement strategy from three directions.  Tachibana Muneshige, Takahashi Naotsugu and Kikkawa Hiroie advanced from the left flank while Mōri Hidekane, Mōri Motoyasu, Tsukushi Hirokado, and Ukita Hideie proceeded from the right flank.  Around 11:00 AM, among two forward battalions led by Kobayakawa Takakage marching from the center, the division led by Awaya Kagekatsu in the firing line of the Ming army could not suppress the stream of reinforcements joining the enemy.  As the Japanese forces began to retreat, the Ming army immediately pursued them.  Having waited for an opportunity, forces led by Inoue Kagesada outflanked the Ming army and attacked, whereupon the Ming forces fell into disarray.  The Tachibana and Takahashi divisions joined the attack from the left side while forces led by Hirokane, Motoyasu, and Hirokado attacked from the right side.  The main division under Takakage and Kikkawa Hiroie, along with retainers of the Ukita family including Togawa Michiyasu and Hanabusa Motohide, advanced from the center.  After destroying the vanguard of the Ming, the Japanese pressed toward the main division under Li Rusong to the north at Byeokjegwan, leading to violent clashes in the afternoon.  At this time, Andō Tsunehisa, a commander in the Tachibana division, engaged in a one-on-one duel against Li Rusong, who fell from his horse.  Tsunehisa was then struck and killed by an arrow shot by Li Jobai.  A unit led by Inoue Kagesada in the Kobayakawa division approached Li Rusong who was shielded by Li Yousheng and rescued by Li Jobai and Li Rubai (Rusong’s younger brother).  Over 80 members of Li Rusong’s vanguard including Li Yousheng were killed in battle.  Yang Yuan, a vice general in the Ming army, rushed forward with a battalion of reinforcements with firearms to assist and waged a defense, but these forces were surrounded on three sides in a narrow valley with limited mobility so, from around 1:00 PM, began to break-up and flee.

Consequently, without waiting for the main division of the Japanese army to join the battle, around noon, the tide of the battle had been determined.  From 2:00 to 4:00 PM, the Japanese forces including Takakage pursued the retreating Ming forces to 峠・恵陰嶺 to the north of Byeokjegwan but stopped before venturing too deeply into the enemy territory.  Forces led by Muneshige and Hideie continued the pursuit farther north to 虎尾里 and, by 5:00 PM, returned to Hanseong.  Those killed in action included Ono Nariyuki (the commander of the vanguard forces in the Tachibana division identified as a gold-armored samurai), Ogushi Narishige, Ono Kyūhachirō, and Bekki Shigetoki of the yoriki, or security forces, and troops from the Takahashi family including Imamura Kihei, Inoue Heiji, Hoashi Sahei, and Yanase Shinsuke.  In the course of this violent battle, even the cavalry soldiers were covered in blood, while Muneshige slung two heads of fallen enemy soldiers from his saddle.  His bent sword could not be re-inserted into its sheath.  Among others killed were Yokoyama Kageyoshi (a chief retainer of Mōri Hidekane) and lower-ranking bushi including Katsura Gozaemon, Utsumi Oni-no-jō, Karama Yahei, Tejima Ōkami-no-suke, Yuasa Shinemon, Yoshida Tazaemon, and Harama Gōzaemon.

Losses by the Ming Army

In this battle, the Ming army which retained foot soldiers and firearms was comprised primarily of cavalry forces.  Byeokjegwan, however, was a narrow valley that did permit the army to leverage the mobility of the cavalry.  Rain from the prior evening turned the land to mud, making the battlefield even less suited to mounted cavalry.  The Ming army incurred major losses in the conflict including over 6,000 men killed in action.  In the Veritable Records of the Joseon Dynasty, the Japanese army lost 120 soldiers while the Ming army incurred 1,500 casualties.  According to other accounts, each side incurred 500 to 600 casualties.  Other accounts attribute losses by the Ming to their short swords, the reliance upon cavalry, the absence of firearms, muddy roads, the inability to maneuver, the long swords wielded by Japanese forces, attacks from the flanks, and the superior spears of the Japanese.  In an account in the Veritable Records of the Joseon Dynasty, among the elite guards under the command of Li Rusong, over 80 soldiers including Li Yousheng were killed.  A magistrate named Li Wen Sheng was also killed in action.

Ryu Seong-ryong was the chancellor of Korea managing the provisioning of the army led by Li Rusong of the Ming dynasty.  In his memoirs of the Imjin War, he noted that all of those led by the captain-general, Li Rusong, were cavalry soldiers from the north carrying ordinary short swords without firearms.  Meanwhile, the enemy Japanese foot soldiers all carried superior long swords of 3 to 4 shaku (approximately 90 to 120 cm) in length.  Consequently, in a direct clash, the Ming soldiers would be cut down by the long swords so the men and their horses did not all head into battle at once.  Li Rusong called upon reinforcements but, prior to their arrival, the advance forces had already been defeated with many losses.  At dusk, Li Rusong returned to Paju (in Gyeonggi Province).  Although he sought to downplay the defeat, his troops suffered a loss of morale and, that evening, he was despaired to learn of the death in battle of his trusted magistrate.

Consequences

Owing to this defeat, Li Rusong himself lost his zeal to continue the fight, resulting in a loss of momentum of the Ming forces.  He gave-up attempting to repel the Japanese army by force and instead turned to peace negotiations.  Meanwhile, in the third month, a storage site for military provisions of the Japanese army at 龍山 in the environs of Hanseong was burned down by Ming forces, causing a significant loss just when the army was most in need of food supplies.  This made the prospect of an extended war impossible so Ishida Mitsunari and Konishi Yukinaga entered into peace negotiations with the Ming army.