The War of Paraguay: Chapter VII, Character of the Paraguayan War. — López.

The Paraguayan War had such decisive importance in our destiny and in that of the whole Río de la Plata region that it can be considered a dividing line between two periods in our contemporary history. It signals the apogee of the Empire, but also within its origins are the principal causes of the decline and fall of that dynasty: The alluring force exerted by the Argentine Republic’s appearance and development, its military prestige, connected by the working-class spirit to exalted names, and united by the ties of camaraderie that war creates; Americanism; the very emancipation of slaves, an act that in many ways is tied to the war—thousands of Brazilians residing in foreign countries without slaves, constant insults from the enemies of the Brazilian alliance because of its practice of slavery, effective military inferiority for that reason, freedom conceded by the Count of Eu (1), husband of the heiress to the imperial throne, to the slaves of the defeated nation; and republican propaganda—partly of platine origin, a product of the influence of the institutions and the men of the Plata, during the campaign, over Quintino Bocayuba (2) and others, and political influence of the allied camp over our officials, principally those from Rio Grande.

This war’s history, whether military, diplomatic, or political, is yet to be written. It’s difficult to set out the military truth clearly because of the manifest bias of the war’s historians, each in favor of their respective countries. The diplomatic truth waivers not only under that same prejudice, but also under the secrecy of foreign offices, and the reservations of the characters controlling the conduct of the countries involved in the conflict. The political truth, that’s to say, the attitude, the motives, the culpability of the parties, in each one of the belligerent nations, is obscured by the sympathies felt by each writer. Writing a new version of this war does not enter into my purpose, nor would it be within my scope, nor could I even reconcile the three common versions: Brazil’s, Argentina’s, and Paraguay’s.

As far as the military angle, the criticism of any of these derivations comes down to affirming that it would have been better to do what was not done, that is, what was not tested on the touchstone of reality (3). Each time it will be more difficult to obtain the truth from such a critique, since, to arrive at truth, a kind of face-to-face confrontation, impossible today, would be necessary, between those that served as commanders of the opposite camps. It is certain that criticisms of this type lack force, because upon proving that this or that should have been done, instead of what was done, it would remain to be proven whether or not knowing what should have happened was only possible by virtue of knowing what did happen; and what’s more, it would remain to be proven that every military operation would have been more fortuitous if the campaign had been taken in a different direction. The Paraguayan War will always be an unsolvable problem, because its critics, fundamentally, will always make mistakes, the historian lacking the knowledge of the conditions and circumstances of the moment.

Above the criticism of all those military operations rises the truth contained in the words of the Duke of Caxias, in the Senate, more than once quoted: “Nothing easier, after events have occurred, after the enemy’s territory, forces, and tactics have been familiarized, than criticizing from afar—with total calm and sangfroid, with the official reports available—the management of the campaign, and indicating the most advantageous plans. But it doesn’t happen the same to the person who finds themselves in the theatre of war, walking in the shadows of an entirely unfamiliar country, bristling with natural obstacles. It’s essential that the senators recognize that the Paraguayan War was done blindly, by feeling our way through. There were not maps of the country to serve as a guide, nor reliable pilots. The only terrain that was known was what we stepped foot on. It was necessary to do reconnaissance and scouting missions in order to take a step.”

What is brought forward in these pages, about the international aspect of the war, will be with due reservation because of the insufficient number of documents and reports that can be considered genuine, and which can reveal the true intentions of the allied powers, between themselves and in their relations with Paraguay and López.

Portrait of Francisco Solano López by Aurelio García, 1866.

Francisco Solano López will always be one of the most singular figures in South America. The truth about his intentions and ambitions at the beginning of the war is still dubious. It seems certain that he was counting on Urquiza in Argentina, on the Blancos in Uruguay and on slavery in Brazil, and that he supposed himself capable of overthrowing the governments of these three countries, by causing a stir out of those issues. But what were his plans? The aspiration to proclaim himself emperor is attributed to him, and it does not seem impossible that, with monarchy revived in Mexico under the auspices of France and Maximilian’s coronation (4), Lopez, second of his dynasty, had an identical thought himself. But, even from that point of view, his breaking off from Brazil seems strange, being the only American monarchy, Mexico aside.

López’s works in Asunción indicate the imperial inclination of his ideas. He was called el Supremo, but he knew that that adoration was a sign of backwardness and Paraguayan slavery, and he desired to present himself before the world as the head of a civilized State, although without giving up the superhuman category he held due to everyone’s subservience. How could he have reconciled the grand status he desired in the Plata—a region that was civilized and open to the world—with the absolute submission to which he found himself accustomed? Only in a monarchy can both extremes be reconciled. The difficulty of consolidating his power after his victory, already dynastic and semidivine, without assuming a quasi-monarchic form, as well as the presence of a grandly ambitious foreigner at his side (5), whose position could in no way be legalized without a coronation, confirm the belief that founding a kind of South American empire entered into his plans—or perhaps assuming the authoritarian-plebiscitary character that Napoleon III had (6), renouncing absolute power in exchange for recognition of his imperial dignity by the rest of the world.

Neither is it possible to deduce from known facts the intention behind López’s extravagant armaments (i); what one can suppose is that he formed them with the purpose of making Paraguay into a power of the first order in the Plata. It seems, however, that he left the execution of his foreign policy to chance, a policy of which such a perfect military preparation could be an excellent instrument; so much that Sagastume and Carrerras (7) effortlessly bent it in favor of the Blanco government of Montevideo, directing it against Paraguay’s own interests, which clearly lay in a good level of understanding with the Argentine Republic or with Brazil, or at least neutrality with both. The simultaneous war with the two neighboring nations was an obfuscation that is only explained by the lack of any policy outlined in advance, and by the indecisiveness of an unattended military power that aspired to make its entry onto the South American stage, in such a way that one could talk of nothing else but it, taking on the appearance of a miracle and dazzling the world’s imagination.

Solano López did not delay more than two years in wrecking the political heritage of Doctor Francia (8) and Carlos Antonio López, a work entirely composed of despotism, terror, dispossession, espionage, and national sequestration. The Paraguayan of López’s time did not have any kind of rights: the fate of their house, family, and goods could hang on a note or a gesture from el Supremo. They had neither freedom of expression nor freedom of emotions. The governor felt himself to be owner of the country and of whatever there was in it, as completely as the master owns their slaves, and still more than that, because above the master there’s always the law of the State, while for the señor of Paraguay the only law was his own will, without fearing, like Ahab, the criticism of an Elijah (9) since in all the nation there was not a single independent conscience.

During the war, all his subjects recognize his right to exterminate them without the slightest whim of resistance. Army commanders at the front of the troops they disciplined, like Robles and Barrios, the latter López’s brother-in-law, surrender their swords at one of his gestures, to be shot in the back. His brothers surrender their swords also, as does his other brother-in-law Bedoya; and Minister Berges, and the bishop of Asunción, and however many there are, fall before him (10). He deserts before the enemy, hospitalizing his countrymen after having dispossessed them of their goods. If general suicide by starvation had been decreed, the decree would have been complied with religiously. It’s essential to hear the witnesses, unfortunately few, that have been able to speak out about the gigantic accumulation of crimes that form the trial of López in the annals of history. Whatever the cause attributed to those crimes, there is no way to allay the horror which they inspire. Even taking into consideration his grave circumstances, even supposing his distrust of everyone to be justified, assuming the conspiracies, the attempts on his life, even on the part of his mother and sisters, to be proven or considered probable, one cannot help but see in those atrocities the tendency toward a voluptuous enjoyment of tormenting others.

It can be said that López came to be irresponsible; that his country’s defense against three states at the same time, the vicissitudes and shocks of the campaign, the immanency of catastrophe, made him conceive such outrage against his foreign enemies that the use of terror (the only effective method, to his mind, of heading off treason) did not move him in the least; it seems probable that what good in him there was became twisted, his temper destabilizing at the shock of upsets that were too much for him.

But the causes of his madness don’t change the fact of its existence, and the truth is that before the war begins López’s moral disposition already signals him to be a life-long despot, a semi-civilized in whom the Indian instinct bursts forth with frequency (11). Stories of his youth and his mock election present him to us as a kind of Cesare Borgia, giving him the portentous prestige of making his rivals or enemies disappear. From the first day he governs, he uses the office to pursue conspiracies in which the relatives and friends of the suspected person all wind up enveloped in the same webs of secret accusations as the suspect, and all suffer the same martyrdom.

If such power had not ended just a few years after its birth, his cruelty and tyranny would have devastated Paraguay as completely as did the war. According to all probability, the Caligula of San Fernando would have revealed himself in fortune just as he revealed himself in adversity. Because of this, those who attribute Paraguay’s isolation to the alliance are unfair to it, thinking that the country’s condition would have been more prosperous if López had continued governing it, from which governance came the war and blood and fire that the allies had to carry out. It is fit to leave it well established that the number of lives that, all told, the war cost Paraguay, was perhaps less than the number of those lost by the allies (12), who had to fight against the enemy and the climate, without being able to demand liability from them because of the system of war that López employed against them. Not wanting to make peace with him, being resistant to having the pirate of the Marqués de Olinda, the Gualeguay, and the 25 de Mayo, the freebooter and devastator of Mato Grosso, Corrientes, and Rio Grande do Sul, as a neighbor on faraway and sparsely populated borders—this would have been justification enough to liberate South America from a tyranny that, after causing hundreds of victims and staining itself with the country’s best blood, could only continue governing through the same system of selection, that is to say, sending citizens to the stocks, the whipping post, and the firing squad.


i. López’s army in 1864 should’ve numbered around 60,000 men, the distribution of which Thompson reports as the following: 30,000 in Cerro León, 17,000 in Encarnación (Itapúa), 10,000 in Humaitá, 4,000 in Asunción, and 3,000 in Concepción. This number, considerable for the country’s population (1,000,000) had been gathered at the same time that the likelihood of war was increasing. It is calculated that in 1865 López already had 80,000 men at arms. (See the Baron of Rio Branco’s notes on Schneider’s work.) Resquin says that during the whole of the campaign, López armed 150,000 men, or perhaps more. Gould calculates the Paraguayan army to be 100,000 men at the beginning of the war. On the organization of these troops, see Schneider, who eulogizes them greatly. López did not wish for a national guard nor militias, but rather for the most rigorous, permanent obligatory service. Already in 1864, before Sadowa, he intuited the superiority that a military system similar to that of Prussia would give Paraguay over its neighbors (Schneider, Chapter III, 3.)

Translator’s Notes

1. Gastón de Orleans, a French count married to Princess Isabel (the daughter of Dom Pedro II), and a commander in the Paraguayan War.
2. A Brazilian writer and politician.
3. This is an expression which essentially means “put to the test.” A touchstone is a special stone tablet used to test the purity of precious metal alloys, by scratching them on the surface of the tablet.
4. Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico ruled the Empire of Mexico, a puppet state of the Second French Empire, from 1863-1867.
5. That “grandly ambitious foreigner” was López’s unofficial wife, Eliza Lynch, an Irish courtesan that López met while he was doing diplomatic work in Europe. When López returned to Paraguay, Lynch returned with him, and became the de facto first lady of Paraguay (she and López never actually married.) Many contemporaries and historians characterized her as a Lady MacBeth figure who poisoned López’s mind with imperial ambitions. It’s clear that she was very loyal to López, and a very public figure, though modern historians give little weight to the belief that she was some sort of great manipulator.
6. The term “plebiscitary” refers to a government where the leader is democratically elected, but once elected holds enough power to remain in office for life. Napoleon III ascended to power by way of a coup, after which he held a plebiscite (of questionable legitimacy), which he won by an enormous margin.
7. Uruguayan diplomats, serving in Paraguay just before and during the Uruguayan War.
8. Dr. José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia y Velasco, first dictator of Paraguay following its independence from Spain.
9. This refers to a biblical episode, in which a prophet (Elijah) denounces the king of Israel (Ahab) for murdering the owner of a vineyard in order to take his land.
10. Nabuco is describing, in part, the massacre at San Fernando. In reaction to a supposed conspiracy against him, López rounded up the conspirators (including the bishop of Asunción and Berges) and took them to San Fernando, where they were tortured and eventually executed at gunpoint. Later, Bedoya and Barrios were accused of conspiring to assassinate Lopez, along with his mother and sisters. His mother and sisters were imprisoned, and Bedoya and Barrios were shot. Robles was executed early in the war, as López believed he had secretly arranged to sell his army to the allies.
11. Nabuco is perpetuating a common rumor, which appears to be completely baseless, of the time—that the López family had at some point mixed with natives. Another variant purported that López had some African ancestry, as James Schofield Saegar explains in Francisco Solano López and the Ruination of Paraguay. Either way, these rumors were used to explain his erratic, hot-tempered actions, and generally discredit him.
12. Although the casualties of the Paraguayan War are subject to much debate, there’s a consensus that Paraguay suffered the heaviest costs by far—worse than the casualties of all three allies combined. Nabuco seems to be deluded by contemporary sources, prone to exaggeration.

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