With the death of President López at Cerro Corá on 1 March 1870, the Paraguayan campaign was finished. We have followed this painful, five-year fight in all its phases. The last of these phases offers the following peculiarity: the Conservative Party, opposed to the doctrine of war to the death, is tasked with outlining and executing the Campaign of the Hills, which became, after Piribebuy and the Battle of Campo Grande (1)—two victories owed to the Count of Eu—a military hunt, the pursuit of a man by an army, as it was evident, given the circumstances, that the hunted would not fall into hunters’ hands alive. The general’s reputation and pride demanded that he not allow the enemy to escape; but once he was caught up with, no one could answer for López’s life. In this way, everything conspired to make of that death, now that it was not the real goal, a kind of fatal denouement to that final campaign. Various kinds of precautions, sacrifices of other political demands, were necessary to approach López and make him prisoner; but the commander-in-chief probably thought, in view of the atrocities committed and López’s cruel treatment of some Brazilians, that he should not sacrifice lives and suspend military action to prevent López from dying in battle.
While the Conservatives persisted in their aim of waging a war of extermination, perhaps against Caxias’s opinion (Caxias, leaving the army, declared the war finished with the taking of Asunción), the Liberals, through hostility to Caxias and to the government, positioned themselves alongside the Count of Eu and Osório, who supported them in this issue.
In the War of the Triple Alliance, the epic, the national myth, is Paraguay’s. The allied cause is that of justice, of liberty, of civilization. López is the incarnation of sequestration, the oppression of a people by an injured and disillusioned tyrant. Despite all of this, the heroic, pathetic, infinitely human role is Paraguay’s. The story of the allied powers’ virile force does not dominate the portrait, nor does their definitive victory; it is dominated by the legend of resistance, of self-sacrifice, of the suicide of the Paraguayan nation. This is the note that rises amid the monotonous solitude of the Quadrilateral as in the clear sky of the Cordillera, in the reedbeds of the Estero Bellaco as in the jungles of Aquidabán, in the vestiges of those “colossal trenches that extend through leagues and leagues of space” (i), “formidable lines that always recall the gigantic works of Roman encampments” (ii), as in the vast slaughterhouse of Tuyutí, over which, here and there, like a white flag symbolizing peace, remnants of ñanduti float. (iii)
Without a doubt, the allies did much; but taking account of their resources, the resolve, tenacity, and spirit of sacrifice that they demonstrated was nothing in comparison with what the Paraguayan nation demonstrated. The greatest weight, almost all the weight of the alliance’s national sacrifice, fell on Brazil; but Brazil, in more than one sense, grew, strengthened itself, and won the war. It is beyond doubt that this contributed to the prosperity of Montevideo and Buenos Aires.
Here is the reason that only Paraguay’s force could be categorized as magnificent and sublime. The entire Paraguayan race, almost without exception, put the war, for as long as it lasted, before any other interest, preoccupation, or duty. For the allied countries, the war was an episode, a remote, foreign incident. For Paraguay it was the deliberate sacrifice of all its being, of all that each citizen placed any value in—life, wealth, wellbeing, affections, family. Such a sentiment, so absolute and imperious, seems superhuman and stands out against the utilitarian manner of modern peoples. And political slavery is not enough to explain it; it is necessary to look to the religious character of the race, to its obedient, loving, and spirited temperament.
The valor of each party was the same; the sacrifice was not.
Those that went to Paraguay, those that died there and those that returned were not any less heroic than those they fought with; they were perhaps more heroic for their intelligence and culture, and even, if devotion is measured by intelligence and liberty, their self-sacrifice. What cannot be possibly equaled is the intensity of national devotion.
No portrait could be more suggestive of military duty than that of our small cannoneers, isolated in the darkness of night, guards lost in the waters of the Paraguay and Paraná, some of them on the edge of the water, exposed to any sudden assault, approaching a patch of water lilies full of gunpowder and men. The passing of Humaitá, whose terror was mysterious, whose greatest challenge was the superstitious belief that it was impossible, was, just by itself, the theatre of one of those notable episodes of war that prove that Brazilians’ valor, temper, and resolve were up to the task of the greatest endeavors. The march through the Chaco alone would prove that Brazil’s role in this war was superior.
But there was not, in this role, the sacrifice of an entire nation, the abandonment, the renunciation of everything, the acceptance of death, misery, hunger, dishonor, the perils, in the name of love for one’s country; just as the Paraguayans understood, and as is reflected in portraits like the following:
“Cerro León and Humaitá were true cemeteries … In a year López armed 80,000 men. The siege of the Quadrilateral, which in time past caused its defenders deprivations, now did not permit so many people to sustain themselves together in that place. Diarrhea and starvation caused a great number of victims, and few cattle could reach the Chaco. Of the 17,000 heads of cattle that made up its reserve, 15,000 died of sickness.” (Resquín) (2)
“Forced emigration to the interior began in December of 1868, and of those masses, thrown into the wilderness without shelter or provisions, the better part succumbed to hunger and fatigue … the number of dead in the Paraguayan army did not reach a tenth of that produced by hunger and sickness in that hapless people.” (Garmendia). (3)
And these fugitive notes, taken randomly, in the flight through Azcurra, Caraguatay, San Estanislao, and Cerro Corá:
“Great was the hunger at Panadero; they began to eat the oxen pulling the carts, because the coco trees were quite far … On the march to Cerro Corá the army crossed the rivers Iguatemí, Amambaí, and Corrientes. The army’s march, from Panadero to Cerro Corá, counting the twists and turns of the path, was much more than 60 leagues, perhaps more than 80. Like all of the unpopulated region, it was the most painful march. Many people died of hunger, and soldiers and officers fled in groups of eight or ten. Those who were caught were lanced with no greater procedure than that. The path became strewn with corpses; some dead from hunger, others speared. Of the 5,000 or so men that left Panadero, barely 300 arrived at Cerro Corá, counting the chiefs and officers. The civilian population that accompanied the army perished almost to a man.
“Delvalle stayed behind with scant forces and two cannons, guarding the carts in the rear. General Roa still conserved ten cannons. General Caballero went with 23 officers from Panadero to Dorados, with the goal of gathering cattle … the wilderness, the forced marches, the starvation, the miseries of every kind, had devoured 5,000 men, the final remnant of the 150,000 who, at a conservative estimate, López gathered … They had been in Cerro Corá eight days, when they were surprised by General Câmara (4), on March 1st.” (Resquín)
The Paraguayan War was one of the great crimes of South America. But the victor did not commit this crime; López committed it. López, whose demands amounted to the suicide of his people. That suicide is, in its tragic thoughtlessness, the highest exemplar that the patriotic sentiment of modern times has left in history. It is doubtful that it has been equaled, and the name of Paraguay is circled by the aureole of martyrdom.
i. Zeballos. La batalla de los Muertos; leyendas del teatro de la guerra del Paraguay, 1889.
ii. Garmendia. Recuerdos.
iii. Zeballos, ibid. “In the heaps of burnt bones, now torn down but still visible, the crosses are covered with white shrouds, whose flakes of ñanduti float in the hot midday wind.” Ñanduti is the famous lace, “spider web,” of Paraguay.
1. Also known as the Battle of Acosta Ñu.
2. Francisco Isidoro Resquín, Paraguayan general and author of Datos históricos de la Guerra del Paraguay contra la Triple Alianza.
3. José Ignacio Garmendia, Argentine military officer and author of Recuerdos de la Guerra del Paraguay.
4. General José Antônio Correia da Câmara was a Brazilian politician and military figure. Not long after the Battle of Acosta Ñu, the Count of Eu returned from the campaign to Asunción, leaving General Câmara in charge of the final leg of the Campaign of the Hills.