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In late 1864 the bitterly fought American Civil War was grinding to its dramatic and inevitable end. Immediately south of the border Mexico was embroiled in a life-and-death struggle of its own against France and a puppet government led by Emperor Maximilian I, a man whose reign would end before a Mexican firing squad. In South America, meanwhile, war had just broken out between the small but industrious republic of Paraguay and the sprawling empire of Brazil. The Spanish-speaking republics of Argentina and Uruguay soon joined the Portuguese-speaking Brazilians, and what had begun as a political and frontier dispute morphed into a war of annihilation and genocide that remains to this day the bloodiest conflict ever fought in South America.

And the biggest loser was its smallest participant—Paraguay.

‘¡Vencer o Morir!’ (‘Win or Die!’) had become the official battle cry of President Francisco Solano López and, by extension, his nation

In 1864 the republic of Paraguay had a large and highly motivated standing army that owed its existence largely to Francisco Solano López. After succeeding his late father, Carlos Antonio López, as president-dictator in September 1862, he had immediately embarked on a massive military mobilization in preparation for what he saw as an inevitable conflict with the Brazilian empire. The spark of the war was Brazil’s August 1864 invasion of Uruguay, an incursion aided by members of Uruguay’s Colorado Party, who sought to overthrow the nation’s ruling Blanco (or National) Party. Rebuffing all diplomacy and protests from López (who backed the Blancos), Brazil opened hostilities in a naval encounter on the Uruguay River on August 24. A land invasion followed on October 12. With the fall of all Blanco bastions, the Brazilian-Colorado alliance took the Uruguayan capital Montevideo on Feb. 20, 1865. Under Brazilian auspices, Colorado General Venancio Flores became the provisional president.

The Brazilian occupation of Uruguay constituted an existential threat to landlocked Paraguay, whose access to the outside world via the Paraná River and the Río de la Plata could be denied at will by Brazil and its de facto ally Argentina, which had supported the move into Uruguay. Though numerically superior to the forces of the Triple Alliance, López’s army lacked sophisticated weaponry, leaving it at the mercy of its more populous and better-armed foes. Regardless, on Aug. 30, 1864, López sent an ultimatum to the Brazilians, stating that Paraguay would not accept a threat to the balance of power in the Río de la Plata (or Platine) region. Dismissed in word and action, on November 12 López ordered the seizure of the Brazilian side-wheel paddle steamship Marquês de Olinda on the Paraguay River. The newly appointed governor of Brazil’s Mato Grosso state was among the passengers, and his detention by López’s troops resulted in a de facto state of war between Paraguay and Brazil. A formal declaration followed on December 13.

López’s overall strategy was to launch a diversionary attack up north into Brazil’s Mato Grosso state and then penetrate in force to the southeast into Río Grande do Sul state. On December 27 Paraguayan troops crossed the northern frontier and quickly captured the fort of Nova Coimbra. More Brazilian garrisons followed, and the invaders captured considerable war materiel, but the assault failed to divert Brazilian forces from the southern front. Nonetheless, on March 5, 1865, the Paraguayan congress voted López the rank of mariscal de los ejércitos de la república (“marshal of the armies of the republic”).

To facilitate his southern invasion, López had solicited Argentina’s permission to move troops across its Corrientes Province to attack Brazil’s Río Grande do Sul. Argentina refused, pleading neutrality in the conflict. Angered by its hypocrisy, López declared war on Argentina on March 18. Paraguayan troops poured over the border on April 13, capturing the town of Corrientes and two Argentine ships on the Paraná River.

It was an offensive that would ultimately doom Paraguay.

López’s move against Argentina prompted the secret Treaty of the Triple Alliance, signed by Brazil, Argentina and Colorado-ruled Uruguay on May 1, 1865. Article 7 of the pact stated the allies’ war was not against the Paraguayan people “but against the government.” The signatories pledged to ensure free navigation on the Paraná and Paraguay rivers. They also vowed to respect the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Paraguay—a point that would cause great friction between Brazil and Argentina, both of which coveted Paraguayan territories. Each would demand reparations from Paraguay for the cost of the war. During the conflict no ally could agree to a separate peace with Paraguay (a provision Brazilian Emperor Pedro II continuously invoked), and the treaty would remain secret until the allies accomplished their principal objective—the removal of López as Paraguayan head of state. That effort would be led by Argentine President Bartolomé Mitre as the allied commander in chief, with Brazilian Vice Adm. Joaquim Marques Lisboa, Marquis of Tamandaré, in command of the allied navy. For propaganda purposes the allies created a Paraguayan legion—composed principally of anti-López exiles—and attached it to the Argentine army.

While López’s campaign in northern Brazil was relatively successful, the southern assault proved the Paraguayan president’s undoing. After some initial successes his offensive ground to a halt as the Argentines, Uruguayans and Brazilians struck back, handing the Paraguayans three significant losses.

The first came on June 11, 1865, when the opposing fleets met on the Riachuelo, a branch of the Paraná River near Corrientes, Argentina. López’s plan was to capture the allied ships (all Brazilian) in a surprise predawn attack. Things went wrong from the beginning, as the attack didn’t materialize until 9 a.m. Although the opponents were almost equal in strength—nine Brazilian ships vs. eight Paraguayan, along with seven chatas (single-gun towed barges)—the Brazilian ships were modern and carried superior guns. On hearing of his fleet’s defeat and the mortal wounding of its commander, Captain Pedro Ignácio Meza, López angrily indicated the man’s death would save him from a firing squad. López then decided Paraguay’s only choices in the conflict were victory or death. Prophetically, he had foretold his own fate and that of his nation.

The second defeat came on August 17 when General Flores, the provisional Uruguayan president, smashed a Paraguayan column under Major Pedro Duarte on the Argentine side of the Uruguay River at Yatai, Corrientes. Finally, after a brief siege, Paraguayan Colonel Antonio de la Cruz Estigarribia, who had occupied the city of Uruguaiana on the Brazilian side of the same river, surrendered his 8,000-man army to the allies on September 18 in the presence of Brazil’s Emperor Pedro II and presidents Mitre and Flores. Uruguay and Argentina forced hundreds of Paraguayan prisoners to serve in their respective armies, while Brazil opted to enslave its share of the captives. López withdrew the remnants of his army from Argentina, leaving Paraguay open to full-scale invasion.

At that point in the war the Paraguayan army could slow but not stop the allies’ progress. On May 24 López decided to gamble his army. He hurled his finest units—some 22,000 men—against the invaders at Tuyutí, just north of the Paraná River. The result was both a crushing defeat for López’s forces and the bloodiest battle in South American history, costing some 13,000 Paraguayan and 8,000 allied casualties. While the latter were able to replace their losses, López could only call on the very old or young. Yet, stupefied by the carnage, the allies dithered after this Pyrrhic victory.

Brazil and its allies were also stunned by the March 2, 1866, disclosure of the details of their secret treaty. An English translation of a copy obtained from Uruguayan Foreign Minister Carlos de Castro appeared in the British Parliament’s Blue Book and later in the London Times. The document was published in Buenos Aires in May and in Asunción in August. From its content Paraguayans understood their fight could end only with victory or complete annihilation.

Hoping to avert his country’s destruction, Lopez established a defensive perimeter centered on the Paraguay River fortress of Humaitá. Allied ships still controlled the region’s waterways, however, and on Sept. 3, 1866, the Brazilians bombarded and captured the Paraguayan battery at Curuzú, part of Humaitá’s defenses. On September 12, at his request, López met with allied leaders at Yataity-Corá. Brazilian Marshal Polidoro da Fonseca Quintanilha Jordão backed out of the conference, and Uruguayan President Flores left promptly after López accused him of causing the war. Argentina’s Mitre spoke at length with the Paraguayan president but, in keeping with the tenets of the no longer secret treaty, rejected all attempts at compromise. López, for his part, refused to give up the presidency, so nothing was accomplished but an exchange of riding whips and the gift of Paraguayan cigars for Mitre. But the cease-fire that accompanied the meeting gave López time to strengthen his defenses.

On Sept. 12, 1866, Uruguayan President Flores, Argentine President Mitre and Paraguayan President López, left to right, met. The alliance sought to persuade López to give up his presidency, but the meeting was a failure.

On September 22, in the wake of the failed negotiations, an overconfident Mitre launched a poorly executed attack against Curupaity, the next Humaitá strongpoint up the Paraguay River. Although outnumbered 4-to-1, the well-entrenched Paraguayans sustained fewer than 100 casualties while inflicting a staggering 4,000-plus casualties on the allies, enough to suspend the allied offensive for months. Although Curupaity was a resounding victory, López made no counterattack. The stalemate merely postponed the inevitable, extending the suffering of the Paraguayan people.

In early 1867 Mitre was ordered to return to Argentina with 4,000 troops to quell antiwar rebellions by caudillos in the western provinces. Luís Alves de Lima e Silva, Duke of Caxias and newly appointed commander of the Brazilian forces, took overall command of the allied armies. Mitre returned to the fight in July 1867 but deferred to Caxias until returning home in January 1868. Before his departure, however, the general witnessed what was very nearly a Paraguayan victory.

On Nov. 3, 1867, López again sent his forces against Tuyutí, the allies’ principal staging area, quickly gaining the upper hand against the surprised defenders. Victory seemed certain for the Paraguayans until Lopez’s men, desperate for supplies and food, began to loot the allied camp. His army soon turned into a rabble, allowing the allied troops time to regroup and launch a counterattack. Outnumbered and disorganized, the Paraguayans fell back, though they managed to capture much-needed weapons and equipment. López had bought more time, but his overall position worsened further on July 25, 1868, when Humaitá’s starving garrison fled the fortress and subsequently surrendered. In reprisal, López had Juliana Insfrán de Martínez, the wife of garrison commander Colonel Francisco J. Martínez, arrested, tortured and ultimately executed.

Her fate was emblematic of López’s growing paranoia, which led him to imagine conspiracies and treason among his officers, friends and family. The dictator accused his brothers, Benigno and Venancio, of treason; he executed the former, while the latter died in one of the interminable death marches that by that point had come to characterize the Paraguayan army’s treatment of prisoners. López also implicated his sisters and their husbands in plots, and even had his own mother tried and found guilty of plotting against him. All three women survived the war, but López executed his brothers-in-law.

Even as López was hunting down plotters both real and imagined, the allied army renewed its cautious but inexorable march upriver toward Asunción. By the fall of 1868 the Paraguayans had established a new defensive perimeter with small Pikysyry Creek as an obstacle to enemy frontal attacks. The creek flowed into the Paraguay River, and at the confluence, on the heights of Angostura, the defenders emplaced an artillery battery. To the north, the town of Villeta marked the final position on a line defended by an army comprising mainly old men, women and children. “¡Vencer o Morir!” (“Win or Die!”) had become the official battle cry of López and, by extension, his nation.

Aware of the Paraguayan trenches lining the Pikysyry, Caxias decided on a flanking maneuver. In October, leaving troops in plain sight before the creek, he crossed to the Chaco side of the river with the bulk of the allied army. He then had his engineers hack a 7-mile road along the east bank, recrossed the river with his army and marched south to attack the Paraguayan rear.

December brought the Paraguayans a series of crushing defeats. Battles at Ytororó on the 6th and Avay on the 11th decimated López’s remaining forces. The Dezembrada (as Brazilians called the campaign) culminated with the December 21–27 Battles of Lomas Valentinas. During a lull in the fighting on Christmas Eve, Caxias demanded López’s unconditional surrender but was rebuffed. The Allies responded on Christmas Day with a brutal cannonade. Two days later, reinforced by 9,000 Argentine and 800 Uruguayan troops, the allies steamrolled the Paraguayan defenders, forcing the surrender of the last Pikysyry line holdouts at Angostura on December 30.

The Brazilian vanguard entered the largely evacuated capital of Asunción on Jan. 1, 1869, and Caxias and the bulk of the allied army soon followed. While most Argentine troops remained outside the city, those within proceeded to thoroughly pillage the capital, ransacking and burning homes, government buildings and foreign consulates and desecrating churches and even cemeteries. Brazil confiscated the treasures of Paraguay’s national archives—encompassing the history of the nation—as war trophies. Women who remained in the city or returned in search of food risked sexual assault.

Sick, old and tired, Caxias declared “mission accomplished” and returned to Brazil, leaving the army under the command of Pedro II’s French son-in-law, Prince Gaston d’Orléans, Count of Eu. López, still at large and determined to resist to the last drop of his (and his people’s) blood, was the subject of an intense manhunt. His capture or death was an obsession of Brazil’s emperor, whose son-in-law would stop at nothing to please him. The allied juggernaut swept everything before it as the war entered its final phase with the Campaign of the Hills.

And the war took on an even more sinister character.

On August 12 Gaston took Piribebuy, the third provisional capital established by the elusive López. After the Frenchman’s favorite general João Manuel Mena Barreto was mortally wounded, the enraged count ordered that captured Paraguayan Lt. Col. Pedro Pablo Caballero be tortured, decapitated and quartered, all while his wife was forced to watch. Next Gaston ordered the Piribebuy hospital—packed with more than 500 wounded and sick and attending staff—sealed and set afire. Soldiers bayoneted anyone seeking to escape the conflagration. Four days later, in a continuation of the wrathful immolation of the nation, a Brazilian army of 20,000 men caught up with some 4,000 Paraguayans at Acosta Ñu. Though the fleeing “army” comprised mostly boys between the ages of 9 and 15, the Brazilians indiscriminately slaughtered them.

Nearly seven months passed before the allies finally caught up with López. On March 1, 1870, at Cerro Corá—at the heart of Paraguay’s present-day border with Brazil—Brazilian troops destroyed the remnants of López’s command and killed Vice President Domingo Francisco Sánchez. Wounded and with Brazilian troops close behind, López himself made it to the nearby Aquidabán River. On the banks of a branch called Aquidabán-Nigüí the pursuers demanded his surrender. López, with sword in hand, lunged at his attackers, yelling, “¡Muero con mi patria!” (“I die with my country!”) and was immediately cut down. His 15-year-old son was also shot and killed while shielding his mother from Brazilian captors. Father and son were buried side by side.

The War of the Triple Alliance ended with a preliminary treaty on June 20, 1870, followed by separate treaties with Brazil (Jan. 9, 1872), Uruguay (Dec. 13, 1873) and Argentina (Feb. 3, 1876). Brazil withdrew its last troops from eastern Paraguay on June 22, 1876. Argentine troops evacuated Villa Occidental on May 14, 1879, and Paraguay renamed the city Villa Hayes in honor of U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes, who arbitrated in favor of Paraguay in its 1878 dispute with Argentina over the Chaco Boreal region.

The war was a calamity for Paraguay, with battle, mass executions, starvation and disease claiming the lives of somewhere between 500,000 and 1 million of its people—more than half of its prewar population. Some scholars speculate that 90 percent of the nation’s male population was killed.

Moreover, the allies devastated Paraguay’s industry and economy while systematically looting or destroying much of the nation’s cultural heritage. At war’s end occupation officials banned instruction in the native Guaraní language, spoken by the vast majority of the population—a prohibition only lifted officially in 1992. Paraguay ceded nearly 55,000 square miles of disputed territory, to Brazil in the Mato Grosso state and to Argentina in the Gran Chaco and Misiones regions. The victors occupied the nation fully or in part for nine years and imposed crippling war reparations. While Uruguay forgave reparation payments in 1885, Argentina and Brazil collected theirs until 1942 and 1943, respectively. MH

Jorge E. Taracido, a retired college prep instructor from Kansas City, Mo., holds a doctorate in Romance languages and Renaissance studies from the University of Missouri. For further reading he recommends The Paraguayan War, by Thomas L. Whigham, and The War in Paraguay, by George Thompson.