The “Paraguayan War,” sometimes referred to as the “War of the Triple Alliance,” was the bloodiest conflict in South American history and noticeably changed the belligerent nations both socially and politically.
There were many causes of the War, one of them being the several border disputes among the nations of Latin America. These border disputes were a result of the chaotic and bloody independence wars of Latin America.
During the 1800s, a wave of separatism and nationalism swept through Latin America. This wave coincided with the occupation of Spain by the forces of Napoleon I, who was at the time both Emperor of the French and King of Italy. The occupation of Spain drew attention away from Spanish America, weakening the Spanish colonial administrations; this weakness gave many provinces of the Spanish Empire an opportunity to declare independence and fight for freedom.
However, the rebellious provinces did not always cooperate with each other. Many of their territorial claims overlapped in several places, creating many points of conflict. Nearly every Latin American nation had border conflicts with many -- if not all -- of their neighbors. These border conflicts often turned into full-blown wars. Such escalations were quite common during the 19th century when most Latin American nations were fighting for independence.
Many of these territorial disputes were along the Brazilian border. Brazil, unlike its neighbors (which were colonized by Spain), was colonized by Portugal. Therefore, the many treaties signed between Portugal and Spain were frequently consulted to settle many of the disputes between Brazil and its Hispanic neighbors. In many instances, however, neither Portugal nor Spain adhered to their mutually agreed upon treaties. This lack of adherence to the treaties actually caused additional problems in many instances.
Border disputes further intensified after the collapse of the United Provinces of the Rio De La Plata, a union of the territories that comprise the modern day nations of Argentina, Paraguay, and parts of Bolivia and Chile. The Rió de la Plata collapsed rather quickly; in fact, it was not even able to properly organize its internal “provinces.” After its dissolution, three new nations emerged: Argentina, Bolivia, and Paraguay. As previously mentioned, the constituent provinces of Rio de la Plata were not properly organized; as a result, there were many border disputes between Paraguay and Argentina. Additionally, the border between the former United Provinces of the Rio de la Plata and Brazil also had many disputes that were inherited by Rio de la Plata’s successor states.
In 1844, Brazil became the first country to recognize Paraguay, which at that time was a break-away province of Argentina. The reason behind this early recognition was the Argentine-Brazilian competition for dominance over the Rio de la Plata region, which is along the Argentine-Brazilian border. Brazil was initially friendly with Paraguay because of the latter’s strategic importance to Brazil. At this time, there were no roads that connected the far-flung Brazilian province of Mato Grasso from the capital, Rio de Janeiro. The best method of supply transportation was the use of river boats. However, the only rivers flowing from eastern Brazil to Mato Grasso were through Paraguay. Therefore, the Brazilian government offered military and construction aid to Paraguay with the hopes that the latter would grant the Brazilians access to Paraguay’s rivers.
Over time, the politics of both nations (along with Argentina) changed, and the common Argentine enemy was no longer a serious threat to Paraguay and Brazil. Additionally, the two nations were unable to negotiate an agreement over Paraguay’s rivers. As a result, the two nations began to distance from each other, and forgotten border disputes began to resurface.
During the 1860s, the political situation of Uruguay rapidly destabilized. The ruling “Blanco Party” of Uruguay was allied with the ruling Paraguayan regime of Francisco Solano López, who succeeded his father as President (dictator) of Uruguay. The largest opposition to the Blanco Party was the “Colorado Party,” led by Venancio Flores, a Uruguayan general. In 1854, Flores had been proclaimed the interim president of Uruguay, but was forcefully deposed by the Blancos. Flores fled from Uruguay to Argentina, whose government was aligned toward the Colorado Party. Flores became a general in the Argentine army and plotted for revenge. On April 19th, 1863, Flores invaded his home country with a force of Argentines and Uruguayan rebels, starting what he called the “Cruzada Libertadora,” or “Liberating Conquest.” The Argentine government and military were in full support of Flores’s invasion.
Although the initial conflict occurred in western Uruguay, the rest of the small country was not free from instability. In northern Uruguay, Uruguayan farmers attacked Brazilian farmers, damaging their crops and homes. The rural violence along the Uruguayan-Brazilian border escalated to the point that, in April 1864, Brazilian diplomat José Antônio Saraiva, along with the Brazilian Imperial Navy, arrived on the eastern shores of Uruguay. Saraiva demanded that the Uruguayan government pay Brazil for the damage caused by Uruguayan farmers. The Blanco president of Uruguay, Atanasio Aguirre, rejected Saraiva’s demands; in fact, he presented his own demands to Saraiva and called on his ally Paraguay for help. President López of Paraguay offered to mediate between Brazil and Uruguay. Foreseeing López’s obvious bias in favor of Uruguay, Brazil rejected his offer. On August 4th, 1864, Saraiva issued an ultimatum to Uruguay, demanding that the Uruguayan government comply with his demands, or the Brazilian army would retaliate. The Uruguayan government stiffly resisted Brazilian pressure. As a result, Brazil officially came to the aid of Flores and the Colorados on October 12th, 1864. Additionally, Brazil and Argentina began to cooperate more closely because they were both allies of Flores and the Colorados. Paraguay protested the actions of Brazil and Argentina with demands and ultimatums to no avail. In February 1865, the Colorado forces and their allies took control of Uruguay, overthrowing the Blancos and reinstating Flores as President of Uruguay. Because Brazil and Argentina helped the Colorados take power, the two nations became close allies of Uruguay, and the border conflicts among the three were soon solved. Nevertheless, the dramatic political shift of Uruguay would not come without consequences.
President López of Paraguay was furious at the defeat of his Blanco allies and demanded that Brazil hand over disputed territory and withdraw from Uruguay. After the Brazilians failed to comply with Paraguayan demands, Paraguay issued a similar ultimatum to the Argentines, who also failed to comply. As in most cases when ultimatums are rejected, this situation meant one thing: war.
As expected, the Paraguayans invaded the Brazilian province of Mato Grosso on December 14th, 1864. Over 3,000 Paraguayan soldiers were transported by a naval squadron deep into Mato Grosso. The Brazilian garrison of 150 men was able to stop the invaders until the former’s ammunition ran out after three days of continuous fighting. The garrison retreated upstream via the Rio Paraná River. Because of the Brazilian retreat, the Paraguayans were able to move northwards and capture large amounts of territory, including many key cities. However, the Paraguayans eventually met fierce resistance from the Brazilians, who had prepared their defenses deep into Mato Grosso. The Paraguayans were not able to advance any further; thus, they were not able to capture the capital of Mato Grosso, Cuiabá.
Having reached a stalemate in Mato Grosso, the Paraguayans invaded the Rio Grande do Sul province of Brazil and the Corrientes province of Argentina in order to gain new tactical advantages; one such advantage was that the loss of Rio Grande do Sul and Corrientes would cut off land routes that connect Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay, allowing Paraguay to use the “divide and conquer” strategy. As a result, diplomats of Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay secretly signed the “Treaty of the Triple Alliance.” The Alliance was to be a defensive military alliance with the sole goal of thwarting Paraguay. The Treaty also contained agreements on carving up Paraguay and forcing it to pay for the war. President López, who was also a general, hoped that he could gain the support of the powerful Argentine “caudillo” (meaning “strongman” or “warlord”), Justo José de Urquiza, who was the governor of the provinces of Corrientes and Entre Ríos and opposed to the ruling party of Argentina. Unfortunately for López, Urquiza pledged his allegiance to the central Argentine Government and helped them fight against López. The Paraguayans were able to march only 200 kilometers into Argentina before ultimately being defeated by the Argentine counter attack.
The Argentine counter attack in Corrientes and the following events turned the tide of the war in the favor of the Triple Alliance. On June 11th, 1865, Admiral Francisco Manoel Barroso da Silva of Brazil destroyed the powerful river-based Paraguayan Navy in the naval Battle of Riachuelo, inhibiting Paraguay’s use of rivers for transporting troops. A Paraguayan division of 3,200 men continued to march towards Uruguay through Corrientes and Rio Grande do Sul, but was met by a far superior force of 10,390 Allied troops under the command of Venancio Flores. In the resulting “Battle of Jataí,” the Paraguayans were overwhelmed by the Allied forces. Approximately 1,700 Paraguayans were killed, 300 wounded, and 1,200 captured, making Jataí one the bloodiest battles in the War.
After the Paraguayan losses in Rio Grande do Sul and Corrientes, the Brazilians were able to push the Paraguayans out of Mato Grosso. Meanwhile, the Argentines and Uruguayans forced the last Paraguayans on Argentine soil to retreat; in fact, the Argentines and Uruguayans were even able to begin the Invasion of Paraguay. Over the next five years, the Triple Alliance gradually pushed into Paraguay from all directions. In December 1868, the Allied Forces encircled Asunción. López prepared a fortified defense of 12,000 men. The Duke of Caxias, the supreme commander of the Brazilian forces, avoided direct confrontation and instead initiated the Piquissiri maneuver. The Duke sent a small force to engage and distract the Paraguayan forces that were guarding the Angostura Fortress, while sending a larger force around the fortress and over the Piquissiri River. Then he ordered the construction of a road into the swamps of Gran Chaco. Next, he and his forces crossed the River again. Rather than advance to Asunción, the Duke and his men attacked the Angostura Fortress from the rear; this offensive became known as “Dezembrada” and led to the Paraguayans’ defeat in the Battle of Angostura, paving the way to Asunción.
López fled from Asunción and retreated into the Chaco. The Allied Forces easily overran and sacked Asunción. From that point on, the Allies had practically won the war. In the Chaco, López organized a small guerilla force. The Allies soon came to know of López’s location and sent their armies in pursuit of him and his guerilla force. On March 1st, 1870, an allied force led by General José Antônio Correia da Câmara ambushed the last Paraguay Camp at Cerro Corá. In the battle that followed, López was wounded and separated from most of his men. Unable to walk, López was escorted by his aide and a pair of officers, who took López to the bank of the Aquidaban-Nigui River. The pair of officers left López and his aide there to look for reinforcements. After the officers left, Câmara and a small band of soldiers spotted López. Câmara offered to guarantee López’s life in exchange for surrender. López replied “¡Muero con mi patria!”, which means “I die with my homeland!”, and attempted to attack Câmara with his sword; López was subsequently killed by Câmara’s men. Thus, the long conflict, which had begun in 1864, finally ended on March 1st, 1870.
After López’s death, Paraguayan diplomats were forced to sign the secret agreements of the Triple Alliance, ceding roughly half of its territory. Paraguay was forced to permanently give up all of its territorial claims in Gran Chaco, Mato Grosso, and Misiones. (However, Paraguay and Bolivia later fought a short war in the 1930s, in which Paraguay reclaimed most of Gran Chaco). Paraguay was also forced to pay the debt of the war. This debt was later pardoned by Brazilian President Getúilo Vargas in the mid-1900s. A new pro-Brazilian government was installed in Paraguay to prevent future conflicts. The economic and domestic effects of the War, however, far outweighed the political effects. The Paraguayan economy was damaged so badly that, in some ways, Paraguay has not recovered from the war even today. About 70% of the Paraguayan population died in the war due to starvation, violence, and disease. 90% of these people were men, making the war that nearly wiped out Paraguay still haunt it to this day.
As for the Triple Alliance, each of the members saw far less destruction than their vanquished foe. Brazil and Argentina cemented their position as the dominant powers of South America. Additionally, the cooperation between the two regional powers prevented further mass conflicts from breaking out.
In conclusion, the Paraguayan War was an extremely bloody conflict that killed 440,000 people, but resolved many of the conflicts that had previously brought instability to South America.