- James Houser
August 16, 1869 - War of the Triple Alliance (Paraguayan War) & Battle of Acosta Nu
Updated: Jun 12, 2021
August 16, 1869. The sad and bloody story of South America’s longest war is coming to a tragic conclusion at Acosta Nu – where Brazilian veterans face Paraguayan boys and old men. Paraguay is overrun, the Allied armies are an occupying force, and the Paraguayan War is over – well, it would be, if the dictator Francisco Solano Lopez would admit it. Instead, he will drag his country down with him.
About a week ago, I talked about the beginning of the Paraguayan War, and how the militarist and decadent dictator Francisco Solano Lopez got his very small country involved in a war against Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay – the war that would be also called the War of the Triple Alliance. Today I’m going to talk about the course of that war. It wasn’t the Allied cakewalk you might expect – but Paraguay’s resistance would only make everything worse.
Paraguay had started the war in late 1864 with a sudden and massive attack on the neighboring provinces of Brazil and – when the Argentinians refused to let them pass through – Argentina, trying to save their beleaguered allies in Uruguay. By May 1865, the Paraguayans had won quite a few victories against the surprised and unprepared Allies but had effectively run out of steam. On May 1, 1865, the Allies met and signed the Treaty of the Triple Alliance, binding all three countries in a solemn pact. This Treaty became a large point of controversy during and after the war due to its secrecy and its rigidity.
Among other things, the Treaty declared that the Allies would not make a separate peace until Solano Lopez’s government was *gone,* and this was a necessary condition for peace. This had a very obvious implication: that Lopez would view the war as a fight for his own self-preservation, and as long as he remained in control or even at large the war would continue. This became a major sticking point throughout the course of the war, as multiple opportunities for peace were scuppered both by the Allies’ insistence that Lopez be removed from power, and by Lopez’ refusal to…accept any peace that would remove him from power. Stubbornness on both sides would lead Paraguay to its doom.
That wasn’t necessarily obvious in mid-1865, though. The Paraguayan fleet dominated the Parana River with its 23 steamboats, and Paraguayan armies held positions almost 120 miles into Brazilian and Argentinian territory. As long as the Paraguayan navy was at large on the rivers, the Allies could not advance. It was lucky for them, then, that the Paraguayans launched a crazy and reckless plan to wipe out the advancing Brazilian fleet before they could pose a major threat.
The Paraguayans knew that the Brazilian ships advancing up the Parana River were far better-armed and better-trained than theirs, and also knew that the Brazilian crews would disembark and sleep on land at night. They figured their only chance to defeat the challengers was to launch a night attack that would board and capture the ships right out from under the noses of the Brazilians. They set out for this attack on the night of June 10, 1865.
The attack that became the Battle of Riachuelo (June 11, 1865) was a fiasco of the highest order, since the Paraguayan Admiral for some reason (literally, the history books say “for some reason”) decided to wait until daylight to attack, then instead of launching his boarding raids as planned, just rode down the river and fired ineffectually at the Brazilians. Then when the Brazilians counterattacked, one of the Paraguayan ships misinterpreted an order and turned around, followed by the whole fleet, causing confusion and scattering the formation in the river. The Brazilians tore them apart, with one heavy steamer ramming one Paraguayan ship after another at full speed. The victory at Riachuelo cut the legs out from under the Paraguayan fleet and ended any threat to Argentina.
By the end of 1865, the Paraguayans still holding positions in Allied territory were either dead, retreating, or had surrendered. The large Allied expedition began to approach the Paraguayan borders from the south. Southern Paraguay and the upper extent of the Paraguay River were dominated by the massive modern fortress of Humaita. You can consider this “Phase 2” of the war, “Phase 1” being the period of Paraguayan attack. “Phase 2” would see the largest battles fought in Latin American history as the Allies and Paraguayans spent rivers of blood and all their resources in a deadlocked campaign to take the critical fortress.
In April 1866, after months of preparation and waiting for the weather to clear up, the Allies were finally on the offensive. Their commander-in-chief was Argentine President Bartolome Mitre, and together the Allies had 42,000 men and 15,000 cavalry. It was easily the largest army that had ever been assembled in South America, but it operated at the end of a very long supply line and it took weeks, if not months, to plan almost any attack. They were also advancing against ferocious and near-suicidal Paraguayan resistance on the plains of southern Paraguay, and the largest fortress in the Western Hemisphere at Humaita.
After a successful crossing of the Parana River and a couple of tough battles, the Allies established a forward camp at the site of Tuyuti. Lopez, at this point running out of options and trying his best to channel his inner Napoleon, believed he could turn the tide of the war back in his favor by launching a surprise attack on the fortified camp at Tuyuti. He attacked at dawn with 25,000 Paraguayan troops against the 35,000 Allied soldiers on May 24, 1866.
Despite initial surprise, scattering some Argentine regiments and Brazilian conscripts, Lopez’s troops in their bright red uniforms eventually ran up against heavy Brazilian earthworks and artillery. The combined force of rifle musketry shattered Paraguayan cavalry charges, and despite immense turmoil the attackers were soon shattered.
The First Battle of Tuyuti was the largest pitched battle ever fought on South American soil, and the bloodiest. The Allies lost 6,000 men, but Lopez lost a staggering 12,000 – almost half his attacking force. Lopez had lost a higher fraction of his force in a day than Robert E. Lee lost in three days at Gettysburg. Tuyuti has often been referred to as the “South American Waterloo,” mainly due to the image of the brassy and dashing Paraguayan cavalry launching charge after charge only to be shattered by Allied infantry squares and rifle fire. In reality, the course of the battle resembled Shiloh more – a bungled surprise attack that got caught up in its own confusion and despite initial success cost everyone a heavy toll in blood. Tuyuti could not change the course of the war; by now, it was probably impossible for Lopez to win the war by military means, and instead would have to end it diplomatically.
Further Paraguayan defeats in July and September led Lopez to – finally – arrange a meeting with the Alliance leaders. The conference at Yatayty Cora soon dissolved into a screaming match by both sides. Lopez realized that the war was lost and was ready to make peace, but the Treaty of the Triple Alliance’s terms – mandating his removal from power and the possible loss of Paraguayan territory – were too much for him to bear. There would be no peace in September 1866. In fact, it would be Paraguay’s very last chance for a non-disastrous peace. What happened later in September would cause Lopez to believe that despite everything, he could ultimately prevail – a delusion he managed to maintain until his death.
Lopez had set up a heavy defensive line several miles south of Humaita at a place called Curupayty. The Allies, impatient and believing their numbers would guarantee them victory, launched a frontal attack on the Paraguayan lines, only to be shattered and decisively defeated with immense carnage. The Battle of Curupayty cost the Allies 8,000 casualties against only 250 Paraguayan losses, but it was more than just a military defeat. The catastrophe at Curupayty broke Allied morale, cost mountains of supplies, and would ultimately delay the offensive for yet another agonizing year of war. Ultimately, though, the true loser at Curupayty was Paraguay. Lopez’s victory led him to believe that he could hold out virtually forever until the Allies offered better terms. It was this faith that would lead his country to ruin.
1866, then, had been a terribly disappointing year; after all that bloodshed and all that suffering, the two foes were in virtually the same spot as they started, but the Allied army at Tuyuti was now suffering from epidemic diseases, piss-poor morale, an almost total lack of training and outdated firearms. With the war at this impasse, Brazil began to take the leading role in the alliance away from Argentina. For starters, they sent their best soldier – Luis Alves de Lima e Silva, Marquis of Caxias – to take command. As a follow-on, Brazil offered freedom to any slaves that took up arms to beat the Paraguayans. Yes, Brazil was still a slave country, and the War of the Triple Alliance would go a long way towards ending that institution thanks to the great number of slaves who fought for their country. Soon Caxias was imposing discipline and hygiene on the Allied army, retraining and reforming the officer corps, and ensuring that supplies flowed smoothly into the hands of former slaves fighting not just for Brazil, but for their own freedom.
In 1867, Caxias officially took the supreme command over from Mitre and ended much of the Allied squabbling that had plagued the war effort under the political and scheming Argentinian. Caxias resisted political pressure for an immediate attack and chose to spend his time rehabilitating his army. Only by July 1867 was Caxias ready to move, and he set in motion his plan to encircle Humaita. The slow and careful campaign resisted multiple attempts by Lopez to break it up, and by November the Allies encircled the fortress from the land. Lopez launched another attack on the camp at Tuyuti that month but was driven off with serious casualties yet again. The winter of 1867 saw the Allies slowly tightening their grip from the landward side of the fortress, and by February Brazil deployed an ironclad fleet that fought its way upriver past the guns of Humaita. The greatest fortress in the Western Hemisphere was surrounded, and in July 1868 – two years after the Allies had begun their quest to capture it – Humaita surrendered.
By now, Paraguay was crumbling on the inside from the strain of wartime requisitions and the catastrophic casualties. The country had lost 60,000 men to battle or disease – the entire strength of its prewar army, and almost 15% of its prewar population – but Lopez resorted to extreme measures to continue the war against all odds. He conscripted another 60,000 from older men, slaves, or teenagers; women took over all support and economic functions. Soldiers went to battle in homespun clothes and were subject to brutal discipline; Lopez even executed his own brothers for defeatism.
Caxias and his Allied army fought battle after battle in their bloody drive to the capital Asuncion throughout 1868, building plank roads through swamps and conducting amphibious assaults to outflank every line that the Paraguayans set up. The final campaign of December 1868 saw the Allies slowly, bloodily, grind the staggering Paraguayan Army into powder. Allied numerical superiority wasn’t even funny at this point, but Lopez just would not. Stop. Fighting. On December 24, Caxias sent him a message almost begging him to surrender and spare his country, but despite the near destruction of his armies, Lopez fled into the hills, determined to fight to the bitter end. The Allies entered Asuncion on January 1, 1869, and Phase 2 of the war was over. Now began Phase 3 – the tragic, bitter “Campaign of the Hills” that would see Paraguay almost destroyed in guerrilla conflict.
Lopez refused to surrender. His army was destroyed, his capital occupied, his economy ruined, and almost all of his country’s men of military age were dead. Caxias suggested that the Allies just declare the war over, but that Treaty came back into play – the war was only over when Lopez was dead or surrendered. Preferably dead, at this point. The Allied generals literally became depressed at the victories they kept winning over these boys and grandfathers armed with hunting rifles or even spears. And we finally come to Acosta Nu.
On August 16, 1869, after six months of this brutal conflict, almost 20,000 Brazilian and Argentinian troops confronted the 3,600 “men” of the last Paraguayan “army.” The Paraguayans were almost all children, ages 9 to 15, stiffened by a hard core of wounded war amputees and old greybeards. The Brazilians ran them down, surrounding the whole force. It was barely a battle. Children begged for mercy, or tried to surrender, but were given no chance to flee. After five brutalizing years of the worst war in South America’s history, Brazil’s soldiers had no quarter left to give. The Paraguayan remnants were run down, bayoneted, or massacred, given no chance to escape. The very field was set on fire to prevent their survival, and the hospital tents were reduced to ashes. The Allies took 1500 prisoners; the rest died on the field. To this day, August 16 is remembered in Paraguay as the Day of the Children.
The man ultimately responsible for all this remained in the mountains northeast of Asuncion, increasingly resorting to draconian measures to keep discipline. He had anyone who talked of surrender executed, and exacted revenge raids on Paraguayans who cooperated with the invaders. Francisco Solano Lopez did his utmost to bring his country with him into the abyss, and almost succeeded. Spiraling into insanity, the war could not end without his death. On March 1, 1870, a Brazilian patrol finally broke up his last camp. The commander offered Solano Lopez a chance to surrender, but the dictator screamed “I die with my homeland!”, drew his sword, and charged the officer. A volley of pistol shots rang out, and the Paraguayan War was finally over.
The combined effects of battle casualties, disease, famine, and Lopez’s bitter-end scorched-earth resistance effectively ruined Paraguay as a country for almost a century – arguably to this day. From a population of about 420,000 before the war, Lopez put almost 150,000 men into the field for the war, and almost all perished. Paraguay is estimated to have lost in total about 69% of its population, its economy was ruined, its state structure was completely destroyed, and it suffered bitter and lasting psychological scars. Even though Solano Lopez had started the war, much of the world recoiled at the sacking and ravaging of Paraguay – the Allies had certainly done their fair share of pillaging, looting, and murder.
Due to the war’s bitterness, terrible cost, and the fate of Paraguay, the Allies never really celebrated the war as a great victory. Paradoxically, the biggest heroic myths of the War of the Triple Alliance come from…Paraguay. For whatever damn reason, statues of Solano Lopez and glorious monuments dot the landscape of the war. The man who dragged his country to destruction is remembered today in Paraguay as a national hero, with a virtual shrine around his body in Asuncion. Even the Communists got ahold of him, pitching him as a populist leader against the capitalists in Brazil and Argentina. Even the Argentinians, who Solano Lopez attacked for literally no reason, have named a military unit after him.
Of all the historical figures who have been “cancelled”, how the hell does THIS guy get a pass?