The War of Paraguay: Chapter XXVI, The Zacharias Cabinet’s Part in the Paraguayan War. — Minister of the Navy. — Appointment of Caxias

It can be said that the period of time when the Zacharias ministry governed (3 August 1866 to 16 July 1868) was the most difficult and disagreeable of the Paraguayan War.

Not long after their formation, the allied armies suffered the great reverse of Curupayty (22 September 1866), and only days after the cabinet’s dissolution did the Humaitá fortifications, the final trench lines of the formidable Quadrilateral, fall under our power. No truly decisive military action from this period, except the passing of Humaitá (19 February 1868), lifted the public spirit, which was so awakened, so enlivened in the initial moments of the war, from the apathy it had fallen into.

Duke_of_caxias_1877
Photograph of the Duke of Caxias ca. 1877.

The campaign appeared endless. Caxias seemingly wanted to defeat the enemy by means of patience. Only after the fall of the Zacharias ministry could that general launch rapid assaults on López, ushering the greater part of the Brazilian army along the road constructed through the Chaco, fighting alongside them personally in Itororó like Bonaparte at Arcole (a 65-year-old Bonaparte), annihilating the military power of Paraguay’s army in Avay and Lomas Valentinas (December 1868) and drawing the remains of López’s army into the Azcurra Cordillera, with López repelled, expelled, and starving.

Caxias had certainly not allowed politics to influence his military plans; the waste of time that follows the defeat at Curupayty, and continues until the siege of Humaitá, ending when the remains of the troops that garrisoned it surrender (5 August 1868), was imposed by the difficulty of organizing the army, which was mainly composed of conscripts, decimated by cholera, poisoned by the waters and miasmas of the swamp on whose shores it camped, under the rays of the scorching sun.

The fact is this: first, the period of inaction between Tuyutí and Curuzú (September 1866 to July 1867) fell to the August 3rd cabinet; later came the apparently sterile part of operations around the Quadrilateral, operations that continued in a flanking march from Tuyutí to Tuyú Cué, begun in July 1867, which, although decisive for the allied cause, was at the time not understood, nor could it have even been justified by the final outcome, only reached a year later when the ministry had resigned. The passing of Curupayty (15 August 1867), a series of partial victories, and, more than anything, the enormous feat of passing Humaitá, were rays of light in this long night of anxieties; but the attack and burning of part of the allied camp at Tuyutí (3 November 1867), the boarding of the ironclads (March 2nd and July 9th of 1868), and Osório’s defeat before the trenches of Humaitá (16 July 1868) were many more signals that López still had defensive measures worthy of consideration and fear, and that his obstinacy could indefinitely prolong the war until Brazil ended up running out of resources, as was already beginning to happen to Argentina. This naturally irritated the cabinet, which, aside from desiring to decorate its administration with decisive acts that would lead to the end of the campaign, was continually blamed in the Chambers for Caxias’s “slowness”, and which could not respond to those critiques with a victory, which later on had to be the calculated result of that assured slowness.

However, the ministry had the most arduous and meritorious part in the campaign.

To sacrifice the Minister of War in order to transfer command to Caxias was no small show of devotion, if the official declaration of that incompatibility can indeed be considered an error (see later.)

At the same time that the war was being prolonged, the fatigue that it produced was at its greatest and made it more difficult to gather men and resources. Politicians of every party began to see in the war the consequences of imperial whim, and began to think that it was now time that diplomacy intervene, since it supposed that López’s dreams had evaporated, that his forces found themselves corralled, with all his foreign relations and resources cut off. To obtain soldiers in such conditions was far and away more difficult than it was earlier, when it was enough for Furtado to announce the imprisonment of Federico Carneiro de Campos and the capture of the Marqués de Olinda to raise an army of volunteers. But the harsher it was, the more honorable it was for the government; and it is certain that the government did not stop sending soldiers to occupy the posts of those decimated at Tuyutí (more from the cholera, the sicknesses, and the changing weather than from the war.)

The lack of unity in the command continued to be felt; but no small amount had been achieved, the Brazilian naval and land forces having a single direction, instead of the various instructions they had before Caxias was appointed. The government attempted, with the greatest loyalty, to avoid total dissent between the allies. Inhaúma, chief of the fleet, Tamandaré’s successor, feared, like him, the Argentine threat more than the Paraguayan one. Mitre, commander in chief, although without the authority to exercise command of our forces with total discretion, insisted that the passing of Humaitá be forced. “The destruction of the Brazilian fleet,” Admiral Inhaúma wrote to the Minister of the Navy, referring to said insistence from Mitre, “perhaps can be tied to the planned fortification of Martín García Island” (2 August 1867). This attitude of the Admiral was also determined by the fear of an Argentine uprising against Mitre and the alliance. And regarding this idea he asked the government: “Given the present circumstances of the Plata republics, currently in rebellion or on the road to it, and the revolutionaries’ feelings regarding the Empire of Brazil being known, is it prudent to bring the most important part of our navy to a certain and inevitable disaster, without the conviction that this disaster avoids another greater one, or delivers triumph to the forces of the empire?” (11 September 1867)


In the Zacharias ministry, the Minister of the Navy, Alfonso Celso, Viscount of Ouro Preto, stands out, principally in relation to the war. He ordered the construction of the small monitors Para, Rio Grande, Alagôas, Piauhy, Ceará, and Santa-Catharina. His activity, decisiveness, and youth corresponded to the sentiments, generous impulses, and thirst for glory of our young officers. He had the temperament that befit a Minister of the Navy in those circumstances, the fleet being then entrusted to the prudence of Joaquim José Inácio (then already Baron, later Viscount of Inhaúma). To satisfy the Navy, inspire it, and at the same time restrain it in its impatiences against the enemy, and in its competitiveness before the allies, a minister as audacious as it was essential.

The letters from Celso to Inhaúma are many more powerful instigations (to the legal extent) to attempt as soon as possible, in spite of everything, the endeavor of passing Humaitá. “Would it not be possible to effect this, sacrificing some of the ironclads that are considered useless? The peril would be great; but the moral significance, if not the material result, would compensate it with excess. Could those fortifications really be so formidable as they seem from afar? Can they be declared unassailable before having attempted to take them?” (21 September 1867) On October 5th, he added: “I trust that in the present war Y.E. must perform some feat similar to, perhaps greater than, those of Farragut (1), whose battleships were not lacking, for another thing, in defects, supplied by the genius and audacity of the general, qualities that are fortunately not absent in Y.E.” He supposes that at “this time” it will already have happened. He says also: “To my mind the moment to force the pass has arrived … It is essential for us, not so much for glory, as for the necessity of a conclusion; this most of all. It’s certain that we have attempted nothing especially daring against the Paraguayan fortifications, however, to the person who passed Curupayty, it cannot be impossible to pass Humaitá … I believe, Senhor Admiral, that Y.E. is going to undertake, if you have not already undertaken, the solution to this grand and glorious problem.”


In the Council of State, Nabuco had to frequently make determinations over questions relating to the war (2). On 10 October 1866 this series of political notices appears in the Diário Oficial: “The Marquis of Caxias will command the Brazilian army in operations against Paraguay. — Senhor counselor Angelo Moniz da Silva Ferraz has, at his request, been relieved from the post of Minister of War. — Senhor counselor João Lustosa da Cunha Paranagúa, Minister of Justice, is left in charge of the department of war on an interim basis. — Senhor Angelo Moniz da Silva Ferraz has been conferred the title of Baron of Uruguaiana, and named ordinary Counselor of State.”

Monumento_ao_Duque_de_Caxias,_de_Victor_Brecheret_01
Monument to the Duke of Caxias, by Victor Brecheret. Photo courtesy of Dornicke.

From that moment on it became clear that the figure of a man stood over the ministry, a man considered indispensable for the victory of the national cause in Paraguay, on whose expediency the ministry itself depended. Upon sacrificing its Minister of War, for the urgent need that the Marquis of Caxias go to Paraguay, Zacharias prematurely assented to his own dismissal, if he came to be incompatible with the new commander in chief. Just as the Minister of War had been disposed of, so could the President of the Council. The dominant fact of the political situation was this: the cabinet was at the mercy of its general, and with him the political currents. Later we will see this political problem of Caxias’s appointment, at the cost of Ferraz’s resignation, sketched out. Some of the inquiries made to the Council of state refer to this problem.

Translator’s Notes

1. That is David Farragut, rear admiral of the Union during the American Civil War, immortalized for the attack he led on Mobile Bay, and his supposed exclamation “Damn the torpedoes. Full speed ahead!”
2. Nabuco joined the Council of State in 1866.

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