4 – Cao Cao – Battle of the Red Cliffs (208 AD)
This disaster was a little surprising because it appears as if Cao Cao was a capable leader. During his career, he had helped defeat the Yellow Turban rebellion, gained power in Wei and on at least one occasion, Cao Cao won a battle with inferior numbers. At the Battle of the Red Cliffs in the winter of 208 AD, he made an extraordinary blunder that led to a remarkable defeat.
The Han dynasty had ruled China for the vast majority of the previous four centuries but was beginning to crumble. While Emperor Xian was supposed to be the leader, he was emperor in name only as several powerful warlords controlled China. Cao Cao was one of the strongest, and by 207 AD, he had control over most of northern China. After defeating the Wuhuan, he was appointed Chancellor in 208 AD. This ensured he had control over the imperial government. In other words, he was arguably the most powerful man in China.
However, Cao Cao wanted it all, so he decided to gain land south of the Yangtze River. Sun Quan and Liu Bei were allies and the most powerful men in southern China. The two forces met near the river although the precise location is hotly debated. Cao Cao’s army consisted of at least 220,000 warriors while his opponents probably had no more than 50,000. It should have been an easy win for the all-conquering warlord, but he made some astonishing mistakes that sealed his fate.
While Cao Cao had a significant numerical advantage, his men were tired and plagued by disease after enduring a series of marches in their leader’s southern quest. They were unable to gain the upper hand during an initial skirmish and retreated to the northwest banks of the Yangtze. Cao Cao had chained his ships stem to stern to prevent sea-sickness. A general called Huang Gai spotted this and sent a fake letter of surrender to catch his opponent off guard.
He sent some ships filled with kindling over to Cao Cao’s fleet under the pretense that they were surrender vessels. These ‘fire ships’ were set alight by their small crew who fled on small rafts. This element of Cao Cao’s army panicked and was massacred upon its retreat. Cao Cao attempted to flee with the rest of his men, but torrential rains had transformed the Huarong Road into a deadly swamp, and the troops were drowned in the mud or trampled on by their horses. Cao Cao went home and became King of Wei in 216 AD; he also remained as imperial chancellor until his death in 220 AD. However, he failed in his mission to conquer China.