The War of Paraguay: Chapter XXVIII, Emancipation of Slaves Sent to the Army

One of the issues relating to the war which the Council of State had to rule on was that of releasing slaves to serve in the army. Nabuco gave the following opinion:

“Senhor: The state of the campaign is deplorable. According to correspondences from the theatre of war, our army lacks the force necessary to undertake operations against the enemy’s advantageous position.

“Meanwhile, the conflict’s prolongation dishonors us abroad, because it seems that we have no resources, or that we have no patriotism.

“And our people lose heart because their character is one of eager excitation, not perseverance.

“But Y.M., who finds yourself at the head of the nation, should persevere in the glorious endeavor of saving its dignity, despite the general inertia and indifference; Y.M. should plan against any peace that will be shameful for the present generation and be cause for indignation for future generations.

“It is essential to reinforce the army, and reinforce it immediately, so that it can get out of the difficult situation it finds itself in, and divide itself if it is necessary to undertake various operations in various places.

“But does the government expect to gather these forces in a sufficient number solely with national guardsmen, recruits, and volunteers?

“The inquiry presented to the Council of State indicates no.

“Neither do I harbor that hope.

“We can gather numerous forces, but it will be too late.

“Meanwhile, events can arise that alter the current state of things, such as the breakup of the alliance, intervention by Europe or North America, intervention by Bolivia, civil war in either the Argentine or the Eastern Republic, and we should, then, prepare ourselves for such contingencies.

“A complex of factors has produced the challenge we see before us, of forming an army in short time.

“These factors are, among others, the lack of a census; the defective aspect of our national guard, which is our auxiliary force; the vast extension of our territory; our scattered population; the lack of all regular forces to pursue and apprehend deserters; the political intrigues that convert a national cause into a persecution.

“This state of affairs warns us of the necessity of organizing auxiliary forces; but this remedy can only be applied going forward, not today.

“It is no surprise the impossibility we face in mobilizing our population, when France yet studies the application of the Prussian system.

“In any case, the war would be still more disastrous for us and would annihilate us if, levying drafts en masse or by means of other violent methods, perhaps producing strong reactions, we withdrew the men employed in industry and agriculture from those positions.

“Given these circumstances, we should do what other nations do when they encounter difficulties in mobilizing their forces.

“The enlistment of foreigners or the freeing of slaves.

“The enlistment of foreigners is, besides slow, very unpopular, dangerous due to lack of discipline or loyalty, and prone besides to diplomatic complications from breaking neutrality.

“This leaves the resource of slaves, mainly slaves from the capitals, where their work can be easily taken on by free men, and where their accumulation is a danger to public order.

“This measure would be odious if the slaves returned to being slaves after having been soldiers, like the 8,000 slaves that Rome bought and armed after the Battle of Cannae.

“But this is not so; the slaves bought are freed, and as such are citizens, before being soldiers: they are citizen soldiers.

da volta do paraguay
Illustration by Angelo Agostini published in the 11 June 1870 issue of A Vida Fluminense. Titled “Return from Paraguay” [A volta do Paraguai], its caption describes a freedman returning from war to find his mother still in captivity.
“The Constitution of the Empire is what makes a freedman a citizen; and if there is no dishonor in a slave concurring with his vow to the formation of the public powers, why must it be considered dishonorable that a slave be a soldier, and contribute to the defense of the nation which gave him liberty, which he belongs to?

“In this way this becomes, at the same time and by the same act, a great service to emancipation, which is the cause of civilization, and a great service to the war, which is the cause of the nation; in this way soldiers are formed who are full of enthusiasm, seeing their liberty recognized, disciplined by the already acquired custom of obedience.

“We employed slaves in the defense of independence: why must we not employ them in this war?

“The decree of 23 October 1823 and 10 September 1824 proves that in Bahía the senhores saw themselves obliged to liberate slaves, with compensation, to make the soldiers of independence.

“The revolution of 21 January 1828 proves that by order of H.M. Dom Pedro I edicts were published for the purchase of slaves destined for military service, and that they were indeed bought.

“In the United States, President Lincoln, in his proclamations on 22 September 1862 and 1 January 1864, declared that slaves with sufficient aptitude could be admitted into the army and the navy.

“Thousands of them entered in the ranks and served well …”

To those that insinuated that with such a measure the nation would reveal its weakness, he responded:

“Those who object that by buying slaves for the war Brazil would reveal its weakness to the eyes of the world, and who prefer the enlistment of foreigners, fall into a contradiction.

“Greater weakness is revealed in rushing to foreigners than in utilizing slaves, which constitute a resource of our own, a national component.

“But in neither case does the nation confess itself weak, because as I have now had the honor of saying, many times nations have resorted to foreigners, just as they may resort to those slaves they possess, due to the difficulty of mobilizing national forces, or due to an unwillingness to remove men employed in industry and agriculture from their jobs.

“It is doubtless that civilized nations must applaud this act which, if it is important to the war, is important also to emancipation …”

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