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  • James Houser

August 10, 1864 - Paraguayan War/War of the Triple Alliance Begins

Updated: Jun 12, 2021

August 10, 1864. South America is in political upheaval, drink. Uruguay is in the middle of a civil war, and on this day, Brazil announces that it will intervene militarily on behalf of its favorite side. Sounds mundane and minor, right? Unfortunately for everyone, no. Brazil is about to accidentally trigger the most destructive war in the history of the Western Hemisphere: The War of the Triple Alliance. Strap in ya’ll, this is my favorite forgotten war.

Our story starts with poor, crazy Paraguay, which is about to be royally stomped in a way in a way that is unsurpassed in modern history. Paraguay is a weird little country and always has been. Completely isolated from the sea and only accessible by river in this time period, Paraguay is half the miserable Chaco desert in the west that borders Bolivia, and the other half a tropical triangle stuck between Argentina and Brazil. Cut off from the outside world, cut off from most of its neighbors by terrain and distance, and cut off from sanity by its leaders, Paraguay turned out to be a wonderful little laboratory of insanity in the 19th Century.

For its first period of existence from 1814 to 1840, Paraguay was ruled by military strongman Jose Gaspar de Francia, but that’s not too suspicious since Latin America was virtually made up of military strongmen throughout the 19th Century. Compared to the others on the continent, though, Francia was just…weird. While some countries in the 19th Century banned interracial marriages, Francia made them *mandatory* in order to create a pure Paraguayan race that would be a perfect blend of all peoples. He also isolated Paraguay from every other nation in the world, making it something like a tropical North Korea. He accepted unlimited numbers of immigrants – who could never leave again. He hated the Catholic Church, and, um, marriage as an institution, which was officially discouraged.

Finally, after all that, he lived a modest and uncorrupt life, never taking a salary, providing well for the poor and supporting ethnic minorities, and leaving his whole unused salary to the state upon his death. Of course, Francia ran a brutal police state, but you did everyone else in South America, so you take what you can get.

His successor was Carlos Antonio Lopez, who was a much more traditional “military strongman” type. President of Paraguay from 1844 to 1862, Carlos Lopez opened the country up to trade and began large-scale mining and improvement projects. Most of all, though, Carlos Lopez. Loved. Napoleon. Again, this is not unusual in the 19th Century or later - I’m kind of in the Napoleon fan club myself. But Carlos Lopez wanted to BE him, and this led him to build up the military, buy a bunch of expensive weapons from Europe, and construct ultra-strong fortresses on his border. Carlos Lopez wasn’t all bad, he did abolish slavery and released most of Francia’s political prisoners, but…armies are for fighting, and who was Paraguay going to fight?

Carlos Lopez died in 1862, and the government fell to his son, Francisco Solano Lopez. And NOW we are moving.

Francisco Solano Lopez is one of the towering figures of Paraguayan history for all the worst reasons. Vain, ambitious, and totally out of his depth, he took his father’s Napoleon obsession and turned it up to 11. In opposition to his father’s caution, though, Solano Lopez was belligerent and aggressive to much larger countries like Brazil and Argentina that he really had no business trying to bully. Lopez dreamed of being a great conqueror like Napoleon and turning Paraguay into a viable “third force” in the long-time shell game between Brazil and Argentina over just who would dominate the La Plata basin, the center of South America’s eastern trade routes. This is like an 8th grader trying to intervene in a fight between high school seniors – but Lopez was determined to turn his landlocked, impoverished little country into a major player, economic, military and demographic limits be damned.

Lopez found an ally in the other “Guay” of South America – the even smaller, even weaker country of Uruguay. Uruguay was situated on the La Plata basin, the great bay that divides Uruguay from Argentina. Paraguay was very interested in the La Plata as well, since the major rivers that carried all its trade and resources flowed into this critical chokepoint. Since the La Plata was so important, both Brazil and Argentina had been fighting over who would control poor little Uruguay. The President of Uruguay, Bernardo Berro, was a conservative military man and had a close friendship with Lopez and Paraguay – but Berro was NOT friendly with Brazil. So you can see where this is going.

In 1863, a great uprising started in Uruguay against the Berro regime. These were the liberal Colorado Party, supported by Brazil, and soon Brazil was shipping both political and military support to the insurgents. Brazil and Paraguay were unfriendly, since Paraguay had long-standing territorial claims on Brazilian territory that Lopez had recently started loudly ranting about. The Berro regime in Uruguay started to ask Paraguay for military assistance against the Brazilian-backed rebels. Lopez decided to send a letter to the Brazilian government informing them that any occupation of Uruguay by Brazil would be considered an attack on Paraguay.

This is a good time to note that Lopez was intelligent and energetic, even if he was about to make some of the worst foreign policy decisions in the history of humanity. He had completely reformed Paraguay in the two years he had been in power, introducing new law codes, installing the first telegraph in South America, building new railroads, and buying a very pricey steam navy. He also reformed the military along Prussian lines, but everything else was Napoleon. He gave them Napoleonic uniforms and bought an exact replica of Napoleon’s crown. By 1864, Paraguay had, compared to its size, a MASSIVE military. Out of a population of 500,000, Paraguay BEGAN the war with 60,000 men in the army, which is a *crazy* proportion of 12%. It goes from “you have a big army” to “dude, you might have too many people in your army” to “your army is so big it’s actually ruining your economy,” and Paraguay was well past the last one.

So when Brazil got the letter from Lopez threatening military action if they intervened in Uruguay, they laughed, and on August 10, 1864, the Brazilian government of Emperor Pedro II (yes, Brazil was an Empire, no, I don’t have time for that) decided to send troops to support their favorite faction in Uruguay.

Keep in mind this was not an unusual event. Argentina and Brazil had already fought TWO wars in the last 40 years over whose favorite people would govern poor Uruguay. Argentina and Brazil were not friends when it came to Uruguay. So what the hell is going on in Argentina right about now?

Argentina was under the rule of a *sigh* military strongman: President Bartolome Mitre. Argentina had been consumed by incessant civil war since it came into existence (political upheaval in South America, drink) and Mitre’s Centralist faction had just beaten the Federalist faction for control of the country. Mitre is SORT of the founding father of modern Argentina (no I don’t have time for that) but he adopted a “live and let live” policy regarding Uruguay. Brazil wants to intervene? You know what, I have bigger problems to deal with, do your thing.

So all this time, President Lopez of Paraguay had been counting on the divisions between Brazil and Argentina to give him the opening he needed to make his country a great power. So obviously, he would choose the one time in recent history when Brazil and Argentina *weren’t* at each other’s throats to make his bid for power. Let’s be very clear: it is 1864, Lopez is planning to start a war of conquest against a country 20 times his size, and he doesn’t have a decent ally waiting in the wings. Outstanding move.

BUT. Stranger things have happened before. Lopez DID have the best-trained, strongest army in the region, and even if his country was much smaller and poorer than Brazil, he had the advantage of local superiority – that is, Brazil has an army, but it’s scattered all over the country, while Paraguay’s whole army is *right here.* Despite Brazil being a much, much bigger country, its army was only a third the size of Paraguay’s. If Lopez could win a quick, decisive victory, he could be well on his way to his dreams of military glory. If he didn’t…well, we’ll worry about that when we get there.

Brazil invaded Uruguay in defiance of Lopez’s letter on October 12, 1864. Again, this would have been an isolated incident that history would never mention if Francisco Solano Lopez hadn’t blown his top and decided to pick a fight with Brazil. In response to the Brazilian movement into Uruguay, Lopez seized a Brazilian merchant ship in the harbor of his capital Asuncion. In December 1864, Lopez declared war on Brazil and sent his army marching into the borderlands. He sent a large force to seize the province of Mato Grosso. This army sacked the capital of Corumba, seized the diamond mines in the region, and confiscated a huge quantity of weapons and equipment that could fully rearm the Paraguayan Army. Thus began the War of the Triple Alliance.

Triple Alliance, you say? But right now it’s only Brazil vs. Paraguay? How do we get to a Triple Alliance? The answer is through stupidity, that’s how.

Lopez was determined to not just invade Brazil, but also to help his beleaguered ally in Uruguay. There was one major problem. Paraguay and Uruguay do NOT share a border. All the rivers he would need to use to send his army south into Uruguay passed through the province of Corrientes, held by his southern (neutral) neighbor Argentina. Lopez requested permission from President Mitre to pass his forces through Argentina in order to fight the Brazilians and Uruguayans. Mitre was concerned that letting Paraguay just march through his land to fight the Brazilians would earn him a war when he least needed one, and so his response was basically “WTF no.” (Plus, Paraguay and Argentina weren’t friendly since Lopez had been ranting about territorial disputes…yeah.)

As Lopez tried to figure out what to do about this stumbling block in his path, Brazil had subdued most of Uruguay and was besieging Lopez’s friend Berro in his capital of Montevideo.

We finally come to March 1865. At this time, way off in the United States, Lee and Grant are days away from Appomattox. (Just to get you in the era.) Paraguay is at war with a VERY surprised and unprepared Brazil and just rolling over all their border regions. The only sticking point are those much-needed invasion routes through Argentinian territory. Lopez had been counting on Argentina being, if not helpful, at least hostile to Brazil. He now figured (optimistically) that Mitre was still facing internal conflicts and wouldn’t react if he just, you know, marched over his territory. Just to make it clear, though, Lopez decided that he had to be decisive. On March 29, 1865, Paraguay declared war on Argentina and began invading the province of Corrientes.

Just in time for Brazil to conquer Uruguay, install its favorite political party, and finally prepare to deal with this pesky problem of Paraguay. On May 1, 1865, Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay – who had all been fighting for decades – signed the Treaty of the Triple Alliance, naming Bartolome Mitre as Supreme Commander of the Allied forces. The Treaty stated that Paraguay was to blame for the war, would pay the debt for the war, and that Paraguay would be left with no fortress or army when the war was over.

These were, to be fair, extreme terms, sounding more like the Allies of World War II than the nations of South America. But in their defense, Paraguay had decided to invade not one, but two much larger countries, and it soon dawned on the Triple Alliance that thanks to Lopez’s frontloading of his military he had a bigger military than all of them combined. Somehow, against all odds, Paraguay had turned itself into a mortal danger to three different countries, and they would settle for nothing less than declawing this feral cat.

Thus finally began the War of the Triple Alliance, the largest and most important military conflict in South America since its independence from Spain and Portugal. It was unique for its large scale, large number of troops, and terrible cost in lives, and notable for how these three countries got together and just RUINED Paraguay basically forever. Seriously.

See, Francisco Solano Lopez had made a massive gamble. He gambled that he could rescue Uruguay before Brazil conquered it and turned it into a puppet. He could not. He gambled that Brazil would be unable to respond to his attacks and cave to his demands. They did not. He gambled that Argentina, being hostile to Brazil, wouldn’t mind him passing through their territory. They very much did mind. And finally, he gambled that he could imitate Napoleon and win out against enormous odds. So how did that play out?

In April 1865, as Lee was surrendering to Grant, a Paraguayan squadron sailed down the Parana River to seize the key points in the province of Corrientes. Paraguay launched a blitz attack against both Brazil and Argentina, hoping to secure victory before they could bring their much larger countries down on his head. Paraguayan forces seized the major town of Uruguaiana in Brazil, the main stop on the road from Paraguay to Uruguay. Lopez’s forces were well on their way to marching south, liberating his fellow “Guay” country, and driving a wedge between its enemies Brazil and Argentina.

They WERE well on their way, until actual battles happened. On June 11, 1865, the Brazilian Navy trolled up the Parana River and won a massive victory over the Paraguayans, destroying their fleet outright and ending the Paraguayan river offensive. Then, a force of Brazilian-backed Uruguayans trashed Lopez’s army at Yatay on August 17. Finally, a force of Brazilian, Argentine and Uruguay troops forced the surrender of Uruguaiana, taking 5,000 prisoners including some of Lopez’s best troops.

Less than a year after the war had begun, Francisco Solano Lopez had lost all his conquests and three countries – two of which were vastly larger than his – were preparing to invade his territory and end the war. Having started a war with every single country in striking distance, increasingly outnumbered, and cut off from the rest of planet Earth, you’d think he’d throw in the towel and give up. Instead, Lopez was prepared to fight to the death, and he was about to drag his country along with him.

In five more years of the War of the Triple Alliance, Paraguay would have a bad, bad, bad time. Come back in a week – August 16 – to see how this sad, crazy story reaches its sad, crazy end. The War of the Triple Alliance hasn’t even gotten bad yet.

Just so we're clear, it is my opinion that Lopez made the single most destructive and incompetent set of foreign policy mistakes in the history of humankind. Yes, worse than Hitler.

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