With defeat imminent, the Communists decided to break out of the encirclement at its weakest points, and the Long March began on October 16, 1934. Secrecy and other tactics confused the Nationalists, and it was several weeks before they realized that the main body of the Red army had fled. The retreating force initially consisted of more than 85,000 troops, by some estimates, and thousands of accompanying personnel. Weapons and supplies were borne on men’s backs or in horse-drawn carts, and the line of marchers stretched for miles. The Communists generally marched at night, and when the enemy was not near, a long column of torches could be seen snaking over valleys and hills into the distance.
Mao began to regain his influence, and in January, during a meeting of party leaders in the captured city of Zunyi, he re-emerged as a top military and political leader. He then changed strategy, breaking his force into several columns that would take varying paths to confuse the enemy. And the destination would now be Shaanxi province, in the northwestern region of the country, where the Communists hoped to fight the Japanese invaders and earn the respect of China’s masses.