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Defiant Rebels bolted for Brazil rather than accept defeat

It’s a Fourth of July celebration with all the earmarks of a scene from Gone With the Wind, or at least a county fair in the most “unreconstructed” corners of Mississippi or Alabama. The men, dressed in Confederate gray shell jackets, yellow-trimmed frock coats, kepis and plumed black slouch hats cross the dance floor to select their partners, elegant young women in colorful hoop-skirted ball gowns. Arm in arm, they step in time as the fiddle and banjo strike up the strains of “Dixie’s Land,” “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” “The Virginia Reel” and “Cumberland Gap”:

“Me and my gal and my gal’s pap, We walked all the way from Cumberland Gap.”

Meanwhile, families gather around banquet tables groaning under the weight of Southern fried chicken, biscuits and gravy, ham, coleslaw, a vast assortment of vegetables and condiments, and desserts with such cobwebbed names as chess pie and vinegar pie. The dishes are the products of venerable Southern recipes, kept alive in the face of time and great distance. Along the sidelines, vendors hawk defiantly Southern souvenirs: Rebel battle flags, Confederate campaign caps, and T-shirts, mugs and bumper stickers proclaiming “Hell no, we won’t forget!” and other such slogans.

A short distance from the festivities stands a small stucco-walled chapel, and down the path is a cemetery, well shaded by Alabama pines and bougainvillea and containing more than 500 graves with stones bearing such venerable Southern names as MacKnight, Miller and Baird, Steagall, Oliver, and Norris, Owens, Carlton and Cobb. The inscription on one old stone reads,

“Soldier rest! Thy warfare o’er
Sleep the sleep that knows no breaking
Days of toil or nights of waking.”

Appropriately, a church service and the somber tones of ancient Protestant revival hymns mark the day’s activities.

The setting for this Festa Confederada does, in fact, take place in the South—but not in our Land of Dixie. It is held, as often as four times a year, in “Campo” (Portuguese for “field”), an area carved out of the sugarcane fields outside Americana—a modern city of some 200,000 residents in the Brazilian state of Sao Paolo. The event is staged by the Fraternidade Descendencia Americana as a fundraiser for the continued maintenance of the chapel and graveyard, and all the participants of the day’s activities are Confederados—fifth-generation descendants of Southerners who immigrated here in the turbulent days following the Civil War. The entire scene—the dress, the music, food, even the conversation—is a carefully rendered homage to those disaffected Rebels who elected to leave their conquered nation and make a new home in a foreign wilderness.

In 1866, the future for countless Southerners appeared bleak. Not only had their bid for nationhood been destroyed; in many instances, so had their homes, their communities and their livelihoods. “The banks were ruined. The railroads were destroyed. Their few manufactories were desolated,” recalled one contemporary. “Their vessels had been swept from the seas and rivers. The live-stock consumed. Notes, bonds, mortgages, all the money in circulation…became alike worthless. The community were without clothes and without food….Never was there greater nakedness and desolation in a civilized community.” One Confederado descendant succinctly described his ancestors’ experience in his memoirs: “Helpless under military occupation and burdened by the psychology of defeat, a sense of guilt, and the economic devastation wrought by the war, many felt they had no choice but to leave.”

But there were other reasons as well.

“The idea of living and working alongside their freed black labor frightened many Southerners,” according to historians C.B. and J.M. Dawsey.

And then there were those adventurers who cast their fate on a move farther south in the hope of finding gold or silver in what was being widely touted as a tropical paradise.

Whatever their impetus, for tens of thousands of Southerners, the promise of a new beginning in an unvanquished land was irresistible, and Latin America beckoned. They came from Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, Virginia, Georgia, North and South Carolina, Kentucky and Arkansas; just how many is not known—some historians have placed the figure at around 40,000. The flow was high enough, however, to necessitate the formation of colonization societies, with agents whose main functions were to gather information on living conditions and financial prospects, and to secure a smooth transition.

A number of countries vied for the privilege of hosting the disaffected Americans, who possessed valuable agricultural expertise. Honduras, Venezuela and Mexico made attractive offers, and did, in fact, manage to lure some of the immigrants. Emperor Maximilian of Mexico appointed a commissioner of colonization, and named former Confederate General John B. Magruder chief of the land office. He offered free passage, 640 acres to heads of families, 320 acres to single men, freedom of religion, and freedom from taxation for one year and exemption from military service for five years. Venezuela’s overture was similarly attractive.

The most favorable offer, however, came from Brazil’s Emperor Dom Pedro II. Brazil had been a strong ally to the Confederacy throughout the war, harboring and supplying Rebel ships, and assigning the South the official status of belligerent. And although Brazil had formally closed its ports to the African slave trade in 1850, it would not abolish slavery for another 38 years. Of all the Latin American nations, Brazil was the one to which Southerners felt the strongest bond.

The emperor, desperate to expand and upgrade cotton cultivation, put together a package to ensure that it happened. Dom Pedro’s proposal reflected great foresight, focusing largely on the economic opportunities the colonists would enjoy. Besides offering an impressive list of amenities, he committed to building a railroad and a new network of roads for conveying crops to market.

In contrast to the problems planters had faced growing cotton in the South’s depleted soils, high-quality cotton could be grown and harvested twice yearly in Brazil. England was Brazil’s strongest client, paying more for Brazilian cotton than for Southern cotton.

Other crops, such as sugar cane, corn, rice, tobacco, bananas and manioc flourished as well, and the Southern farmers envisioned great fortunes for the making. The promise of riches also appealed to the professional class among the émigrés—doctors, teachers, dentists, merchants, artisans, machinists—as well as to laborers. And when representatives of the colonization societies and the first transplanted settlers sent back glowing reports of an Eden-on-Earth, Southerners signed on by the thousands. Brazil would become the New South. The prospect of real barriers—a foreign culture with a difficult language, strong competition from native Brazilians, an often hostile environment, a racially mixed society, a different and restrictive national religion, homesickness and the loneliness of distance and isolation—factored little in their plans.

Over the next several years, as many as 20,000 Southerners left for Brazil. Several organized themselves loosely into colonies, and for reasons of both security and economy, they chose to travel in groups. Their agents chartered the ships and scheduled their departure from New York, New Orleans, Mobile, Galveston and Baltimore. The first destination for most was Brazil’s capital, Rio de Janeiro. While some passengers chose to rebuild their lives in this large and sophisticated city, the rest continued farther down the coast or into the interior, where they attempted to plant their roots anew.

They sailed in vessels ranging from small packets to large ships, such as Marmion, which carried 350 future colonists. It was a long and—at least, for some—uneventful trip. Marmion left New Orleans on April 16, 1867, and completed the 5,600-mile voyage to Rio a month later, without incident. For other vessels, the voyage was arduous—and sometimes fatal. Neptune sank in a storm off the coast of Cuba, taking with it all but 17 passengers. And an outbreak of smallpox on Margaret claimed the lives of nearly everyone aboard. Perhaps the most bizarre voyage was Derby’s. Only 15 days out of Galveston with a complement of 150 Texans and Louisianans, the small steamer struck a rock in a squall off Cuba and pitched on its side. A remarkable firsthand account of the event was written by Sarah Bellona Smith Ferguson, a colonist who recalled making the trip with her family as a young girl, and who claimed the wreck was deliberate:

“We learned afterward that [the captain] had been bribed by the Yankees to wreck the vessel somewhere on the coast….Soon after the storm began, he tied up the helm and retired to his cabin, leaving that whole crowd to the mercy of the waves and storm. When the trick was discovered, [colonists] McMullen and Judge Dyer and other resolute men entered the [cabin] and at the point of [a] six shooter forced the captain to release the helm.”

It was too late; despite manning the pumps through the night, the crew and passengers were unable to avert disaster. Once Derby was awash, “battered…back and forth like a cradle,” the crew lowered the passengers by rope into the turbulent waves, and guided them to shore. Miraculously, no one was killed, but half the baggage was lost, the rest ruined by salt water. All were rescued and taken to Havana, where—after an extensive layover—they caught a side-wheel steamer for New York. After another month’s delay, the bedraggled colonists booked passage on a more fortunate Rio-bound ship. “We heard afterward,” Ferguson recalled, “that the two other vessels seen the eve before [the wreck] had not been so fortunate. Most of [the] passengers they carried were lost.”

When the first Southerners disembarked at Rio, they were greeted with brass bands, parades and flowery speeches. “Balls and parties and serenades were our nightly accompaniment,” one former Confederate general recalled, “and whether in town or in the country it was one grand unvarying scene of life, love and seductive friendship.” The emperor welcomed many of the new arrivals personally, as the bands played “Dixie.” As the emperor had promised, the new arrivals were given temporary living quarters, at no cost, in a luxurious Rio hotel. One American was so taken with the welcome he received that he composed a poem, which appeared in the March 18, 1866, New Orleans Picayune:

“Oh, give me a ship with sail and with wheel,
And let me be off to happy Brazil!
I yearn to feel her perpetual spring,
And shake by the hand Dom Pedro her king,
Kneel at his feet—call him, “My Royal Boss!”
And receive in return, ‘Welcome, Old Hoss!’”

For most of the settlers, conditions would never be this elegant again. “Later, the Confederados, confined to their isolated primitive surroundings, would harken back to the first few days spent in Brazil’s capital city and wish they could see it once again,” one descendant wrote.

Their welcome was both expansive and sincere; but Dom Pedro’s promises of support for the farmers, although no doubt made with the best of intentions, went generally unfulfilled. By sheer coincidence, 1865—the year the Civil War ended—saw the outbreak of the War of the Triple Alliance, a conflict engaging Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina against an aggressive Paraguay. The booming economy of the previous decades had collapsed, plunging the country into an economic depression. And by the time the first Southerners arrived, the emperor was confronting massive internal issues and struggling with his own poor health.

As prospective settlers sailed to Brazil over the next several years, members of the professional class among the immigrants generally settled in the larger cities, such as Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Meanwhile, some who had come to farm found that the land they had chosen was located far from those who had come before. The country was vast, and great distances often separated the Americans as a growing number of remote colonies dotted a 250-square mile stretch along the east coast. To make matters worse, many of the chosen locations were inhospitable and ill-suited for growing crops. Farms where the crops did prosper were often too far from the market, and the roads and rail system that had been promised simply had not yet been built. In time, farms failed, community leaders died and colonies fell apart under power struggles and losing battles with poor soil, harsh climate, insects, mildew, weeds and illness. A few scattered planters bought slaves and sought to replicate the old antebellum plantation system; they soon found only failure.

While some disillusioned colonists returned home, many others migrated toward the most successful of the American settlements, the Norris Colony. Colonel William Norris, a former Alabama senator, had founded the outpost in 1865, choosing a fertile and favorable site near the village of Santa Barbara D’Oeste in the state of Sao Paulo. As most of the outlying American colonies were gradually abandoned, Santa Barbara became a mecca, as well as Brazil’s most populous and productive American colony. Some 100 Southern families eventually put down roots here. And when the railroad finally did come through, the settlers built the beginnings of the nearby market town that has come to be known as Americana.

Even here, life could be brutal. Former Rebel Colonel Anthony T. Oliver had immigrated among the first settlers along with his wife, Beatrice, and two teenage daughters. Within the first year, his wife died, presumably of “galloping consumption” (tuberculosis), followed shortly by both his daughters. When locals told him that his wife was not permitted to lie at rest in the Catholic cemetery, he promptly donated a one-hectare (2.47-acre) section of his land—the parcel that has ever since been known as “Campo”—for a Protestant cemetery, to be occupied exclusively by the Confederados. The colonists soon built a small chapel nearby, which became the center of worship—and connection—for the transplanted Americans.

Oliver was one of the few colonists to actually own slaves. According to local lore, about four years after his wife’s death, Oliver caught one of his slaves stealing and whipped him. Next day, the slave broke into his owner’s home and clubbed him to death with a hoe.

The stones under which the Olivers are buried stand among those of hundreds of other Rebel colonists. While some chronicle only names and dates for the deceased, others tell sad, tantalizingly sparse stories. Annie and Eugene Seawright’s graves lie beside a stone with the heartbreaking inscription, “Four Seawright Babies.”

Hard though the life could be, many who chose their locations well and put in the work thrived. The Rebel farmers had brought spades, harrows, rakes and mold-board plows—tools unfamiliar to the Brazilians—as well as what were seen by locals as advanced cultivation methods. In a short time, the colonists’ crops flourished. In addition to raising the native Brazilian products, they introduced pecans and watermelon. So popular was the “Georgia Rattlesnake” watermelon that by the late 19th century, Confederados were shipping 100 carloads daily from Americana to various parts of Brazil.

The Confederados made other, less tangible contributions. According to Brazilian agriculturalist Zilmar Marcos, the greatest of these were in “their beliefs and values, their progressive minds, their capacity for action, and their technical competence.” Historian Blanche H.C. Weaver asserts that the two most significant advances occasioned by the advent of the Southerners were in the fields of religion and education. In a short time, the displaced Rebels established a reputation as hard workers and diligent and independent citizens.

They did, however, go to great lengths to maintain their distinct identity. Although the generations intermarried with the Brazilians in increasing numbers and became an inextricable part of Brazilian culture, they never lost sight of their history and traditions. This was not always viewed as a positive trait. Dr. George S. Barnsley, who left the ruins of his Georgia plantation, “Woodlands,” for Brazil in 1867, summarized the character of his fellow immigrants, and explained why—although they might intermarry—they would never surrender their own culture:

“The Anglo-Saxons are completely ignorant of amalgamation of thoughts and religion. Naturally egotistical, they do not admit superiors, nor do they accept customs which are in disagreement with their pre-formed ideas. They think it is their right to be boss. In my opinion… the Anglo-Saxon and his descendants are birds of prey, and woe to those who get in their way.”

One clear indicator of the fierceness with which the Rebel settlers maintained their identity is in their speech. Despite five generations of assimilation, the English language has survived, perfect and intact, among a number of the bilingual Confederados.

Amazingly, although most have not visited the United States, their speech clearly reflects the American South. Jimmy Carter was stunned when, while governor of Georgia in 1972, he visited Campo—where Rosalynn Carter’s great-uncle, W.S. Wise, is buried. “The most remarkable thing was, when they spoke they sounded just like people in South Georgia,” Carter said.

Against all odds, the Confederados of the 1860s and ’70s achieved their ultimate goal: self-determination. Brazil was not the only destination of disaffected Southerners at war’s end; it was, however, the only place where the Confederate émigrés managed to carve a life—and an extended community—from the jungle and to found a dynasty that thrives today. The living descendants of Brazil’s original Rebels, now scattered throughout the country, enjoy the richness of a dual culture. They see themselves as Brazilians, but also as distinctly American—the last Rebels of the Civil War. Says one historian, “They are proud to have Brazil as their mother country, and the United States as their grandmother country.”

Any white supremacist beliefs that fueled the Confederacy have lost their potency in a land of many mingled ancestries; Americana itself is now predominantly of Italian descent.

At Campo, near the cemetery and the chapel, stands a 20-foot white stone obelisk—a smaller, simpler sibling of the massive Confederate Monument in Louisville, Ky. At its base is the Confederate battle flag, along with the incised names of the original settlers. The monument is well maintained, and there is little chance it will soon be forgotten or allowed to fall into disrepair. As one descendant, who learned English before he learned Portuguese, put it, “Actually, we’re the most Southern and the only truly unreconstructed Confederates that there are on Earth. We left right after the war, and we never pledged allegiance to the damn Yankee flag.” Echoes a man whose antecedents on both sides came from the Rebel South, “The Confederate flag is a symbol of our origin. It’s an icon. We can’t think of anything better to represent our ancestors.”

Scrimshander and historian Ron Soodalter is the author of Hanging Captain Gordon: The Life and Trial of an American Slave Trader.