Siege of Saigon, 1859

Contemporary painting of the capture of Siagon. Original by Antoine Léon Morel-Fatio in the collection of the Musée national de la Marine, Paris.

Location Saigon, Vietnam

In early 1859, the French and Spanish were in the midst of a joint punitive expedition against Vietnam, for the persecution and murder of Catholic mercenaries. Saigon being a major production center of food, the decision was made to take the city in January, 1859. Admiral Charles Rigault de Genouilly departed for Saigon on 2 February, with a small flotilla. Three companies of French Marines, and two of Spanish Infantry, were carried aboard two corvettes, three gunboats, a dispatch vessel, and three transports. Four supply ships joined on 9 February, and the force destroyed the forts at Vũng Tàu (Cape Saint-Jacques) before proceeding upriver the next day. The transports were left at Vũng Tàu, and the remaining ships moved slowly towards Saigon. Speed was limited, due to the Europeans not knowing the rivers well, and the move to Saigon took five days. Progress was further slowed by six forts, which the allied force took the time to silence and destroy. The gunboats Avalanche and Dragonne were hit seven and three times, respectively, during the fighting. On the night of the 15th, commandos destroyed a barrage of small boats blocking the way to the city. The next morning, the ships anchored off the forts defending Saigon and opened fire. The forts were taken by the Spanish by 8 a.m. The next day, 17 February, the joint Franco-Spanish force assaulted the citadel of Saigon, and, despite a strong Vietnamese counterattack, secured it by 10 a.m. The citadel was destroyed, and a small garrison was left at one of the repaired forts, setting the stage for a Vietnamese counter siege that would last for two years.