by Gerson Lodi-Ribeiro
“Brazil expects every man to do his duty.”
(Admiral Francisco Manoel Barroso da Silva
– Sept. 29, 1804 – June 6, 1865)
In January 1873, on a sweltering summer afternoon in Rio de Janeiro, a young dark-bearded man with hair graying at the temples squatted behind the trunk of one of the many wide-canopied trees on the ample grounds surrounding the Palácio de São Cristóvão.
He was waiting and the wait was pure torture. It reminded him of the suffering and uncertainties he had endured in the dungeons of a military prison in Asunción.
In the intense, humid heat, the linen shirt stuck to his sweaty chest. Burs clung to his trousers and pricked his calves.
A loaded Spencer weighed heavily in his lap. An additional magazine complete with seven bullets dragged down the deep pocket of his jacket. The spirit of this former officer from the once proud Brazilian Imperial Navy had been broken during the years spent as a prisoner in Paraguay.
Ill at ease in his new civilian clothing, he now found himself some 50 feet away from the edge of a stone-paved road that began at the great iron gate and led to the square directly in front of the grand Imperial Palace. At that moment, the square was replete with eight carriages. The coachmen spoke in low, solemn tones as if they, and not their masters, were in a position to decide the fate of the agonizing Empire.
Meanwhile, twelve soldiers of the Paraguayan Army kept watch at their posts under the unforgiving sun. In spite of their sweaty foreheads and glistening faces, they seemed undisturbed by the heat. They remained serene in their thick red overcoats, darkened by their sweat.
Another conference day finally came to its end. He wondered if he could perform his patriotic mission that day.
Keeping close watch on the two delegations as they descended the palace steps, he searched among the many men in full-dress uniform for the face of Brazil’s greatest traitor.
He easily recognized at a distance the man who deemed himself so dignified but whose weak character was manifest in his very face. How could he fail to identify his target at first glance?
Admittedly, Brazil’s supreme leader did seem quite a bit older than in his official portraits, and visibly more low-spirited. “Just a broken old man wearing a dark-blue, full-dress uniform covered with medals,” he observed crouching behind the tree. “No!” A sudden flow of guilt ran through his soul, so thick as the mud of the bed of the Paraná. He should save his pity for the many comrades massacred in the shallow, muddy waters of that river, where the lot of Empire changed from destiny to doom.
How could he have felt sorry for this Pedro de Alcântara; an emperor that had remained safe and sound within his court in Rio de Janeiro, thousands of miles away from the battlefront? A sovereign who, albeit had never fought a war, didn’t waver one single moment over capitulating before El Presidente Solano López and, in so doing, this Emperor Dom Pedro II of Brazil had agreed to put the yoke of occupation over his nation, while there had been so many of his subjects yet eager to defend the country against those vile Paraguayan invaders.
No! There could be no pity for Pedro de Alcântara, the most ignoble traitor Brazil has ever had.
* * *
The fair-haired foreigner dismounted carefully from his horse in a vain attempt to avoid feeling that familiar twinge in his hip that had bothered him for years. He had the impression that that dull ache had originated during the Battle of Five Forks, when he earned the rather dubious privilege of surviving a terrible battle again, while losing the entire division under his command.
He tied the reins of his robust bay around the trunk of an oak, a European tree even more alien than himself in this warm tropical land. After twisting the tip of his bushy, gray-blond mustache, he removed his Sharp from the holster tied in the saddle.
Thoughtful, he caressed the butt of his old rifle, a faithful companion, not in the two long wars he had fought, but in the cherished times he had spent hunting buffalo on the Western Plains or tracking cougars down in the valleys at the foot of the Rocky Mountains.
Placing the rifle butt under his left armpit and keeping it steady with his left hand, the foreigner opened up the gun in the middle with a nimble move of his free hand. Then he removed a long, thick cartridge from the inside pocket of his gray jacket and introduced it into the gun’s breech. Then he closed it up again.
After taking out his gold-rimmed spectacles from the pocket of his faded shirt and putting them on, he unfolded his rifle’s sight and checked its accuracy by steadying the focus on the branch of a faraway tree.
The foreigner released a biting laugh, somewhat like a dry cough, as he recalled a rumor about him once rampant in Virginia that he could shoot down a buffalo half a mile away on the first try with this ole Sharp.
He hoped the target would not be so far away this time, especially because he wouldn’t be aiming at a buffalo.
This would be the first time he was planning to use his Sharp to kill a man. Did arms perchance own a conscience, a soul, maybe? If so, how would his ole friend react upon discovering it was being used to take away the life of a human being?
The blond man stroked his gray goatee. Absent-mindedly, he straightened the showy red scarf he always wore tied around his neck.
Notwithstanding all the legends and exaggerated stories surrounding his name, he had actually never killed a man in peacetime. He assumed that he had killed several enemy soldiers during the War of Southern Independence and, later, in the War of the Triple Alliance. Of course, he could never be certain on how many soldiers were killed by the many, many shots he fired. Because wars were different now. They were not like they used to be. Where was the romantic spirit that had inspired the great battles of the past he had studied at West Point?
Anyway, at war, killing was not exactly an act of murder. Rather, it should be considered an act of self-defense. Civilians often didn’t realize that in wartime things worked differently. A soldier was often left with no other choice but to kill or be killed.
However, his worries were of an entirely different kind now. This was the first time he had ever planned to kill a man in cold blood. His future victim was not even an enemy bent on killing him as well, but a man who almost certainly believed that he had long ago returned to New Orleans, along with most of the other former Confederate Army officers and men.
He stroked the red and white hairs of his goatee again and muttered, “May God be with me,” under his breath. He then began searching for a sign of that misguided Brazilian patriot. He’d better find that man before it was too late.
* * *
At the very beginning of the War, before the tragedy at Riachuelo, he had heard that the Imperial Army was expecting a large shipment of Spencer repeating carbines from the United States of America. North American military advisers had recommended the adoption of that carbine as the best cavalry weapon, because of its great firepower and renowned reliability in battle. Those weapons were very similar to the one he now gripped in his hands. Thanks to its astonishing swift loading system and a firing speed unsurpassed by any other weapon of its kind, the Spencer had been the last word in small arms.
As the tide of the War turned against the Empire, those repeating carbines had found their way into the hands of the Paraguayans.
Not that the he had been worried about the latest advances in weaponry at the beginning of the war against López. He was then a young first lieutenant just appointed captain of the gunboat Ipiranga, the first propeller-driven ship ever built in the Imperial Navy shipyard. He was convinced that the conflict would be only more one small brief war. Just like all the others the Empire had begun to win in the muddy waters of one of La Plata rivers.
He proved to be dead wrong on both counts.
In that morning, on June 11, 1865, on the Paraná River in Argentine territory, where the course of the river bends as it welcomes the waters of the Paraguay, its largest tributary, and close to the mouth of the smaller, streamlike Riachuelo, the dreams of glory of Lieutenant Álvaro Augusto de Carvalho turned into a bitter nightmare that would torment him for an eternity of eight full years.
* * *
Getting farther away from his bay, the mercenary strode stealthily through the tall grass. His riding boots protected his shins and calves from the sharp blades of wild grass. He hit his stride while tracing steadily the trail left by the patriot. All over the pursuit, he kept the long barrel of his faithful Sharp ‘69 rested over his shoulder.
It was easy for him to follow the vestiges the Imperial Navy veteran left behind. In his youth, he used to follow the trails of partridges and rabbits on hunting trips with his friends in the forests and fields of his beloved Virginia.
While continuing to follow the Brazilian’s tracks, he contemplated the mistakes and tragedies wars inflict on the existence of the men who fight in them.
Against his will, he remembered that heroic assault on Chapultepec in April 1847 during the Mexican War. He was a young lieutenant then, newly graduated from West Point. He had been serving in the glorious 8th Infantry when they attacked that fortified hill. In the Battle of Chapultepec, he had had to grab the banner out of the hands of Lieutenant Longstreet, a good friend who was injured minutes before.
He interrupted his tracking for a few moments to light up a cigarette. Damn Paraguayan matchs! How he missed those Yankee matchs. You wouldn’t need to worry about this stupid little box. You could always strike up a Yankee match on the sole of your own boot!
Where could his good friend Jim Longstreet be?
They had met up again during the War of Southern Independence. He had served under his friend’s command in the Southeastern Virginia campaign and, later, in the invasion of Pennsylvania, up to the Battle of Gettysburg, during those three fateful days at the beginning of July 1863.
A couple of hours before that decisive attack on Gettysburg’s third day, Jim had confessed that he had had serious reservations regarding the viability of a frontal attack on the fortified trenches that the Yankees had dug on Cemetery Hill. He had even quarreled with Lee about it. However, orders are orders and, thus, they were obeyed to the letter.
He remembered Jim’s question, “George, are you sure you can take that hill?” His affirmative answer was conveyed by a nod and confident smile, together with a perfect salute on horseback to his friend and superior officer.
His division had been fresh and rested when the bugle call to march was sounded. His troops had not taken part in the great Confederate victory at Chancellorsville. Thus, after spending their first two days in Gettysburg defending the supply wagons, it was natural that both he and his men were itching to conquer their own fair blaze of glory.
Jim had understood their longing perfectly. So, at the beginning of that decisive battle, he had ordered three brigades of the Virginian’s division to carry out the frontal attack, while determining that Ewell’s division should attack the Union’s right flank, while J. E. B. Stuart should flank the enemy’s positions to the left in order to attack its rearguard.
Both Stuart and Ewell failed to accomplish their missions.
Tactical failures followed by well-executed retreats: Stuart’s and Ewell’s divisions had very few casualities. As those two bastards had succeeded in escaping from battle unscathed, his own division was utterly obliterated while trying to execute Lee’s absurd plan.
When his three brigades had commenced their cadenced march in an irrepressible step over those remaining three-fourths of a mile separating his boys from the enemy, there had been a moment he even thought that Old Man Lee might be right after all: the Army of Northern Virginia was a tidal wave that simply could not be stopped! They would demolish the Army of the Potomac! After that bloody victory, if Lincoln didn’t plead for peace, in a matter of day they would be marching down the very streets of Washington! After two years of war, the Confederacy would finally win its independence.
Suddenly, a barrage of Northern artillery began firing with no prior warning. That same artillery he himself had sworn dead a few minutes before. A dense shower of bullets and incandescent cannonballs fell over the Confederate regiments. They were implacably massacred while moving forward. His binoculars had brought before his very eyes the vivid scenes of slaughter that consumed his troops.
Only then had he come to his senses and realized how insane Lee’s orders had really been. His boys had been the very best Virginia had had to offer, but not even they could have advanced unharmed in the open field and overtaken the enemy’s positions on that hilltop defended by entrenched Union infantry and covered by artillery fire.
He lost more than two-thirds of his soldiers in that charge, along with all the superior officers of his division. A heroic, albeit entirely futile attack.
Six years and one war later, Robles, one of the most capable and well-educated generals in the Paraguayan Army, would confess that he considered the gallant charge performed by the Confederate officer’s division as a kind of microcosmic representation of the War of Southern Independence itself: a heroic effort of unsurpassed valor marked by apparent initial success but which ended in sweeping disaster.
“That old man… had my division massacred!” he sighed in a rather bitter tone. His thoughts returned to the present at last. Somewhat alleviated, he kept on the trail of that patriot who belonged to the Radical Republican Resistance.
He got a chill up his spine as he recalled those worthless Richmond politicos that had wanted to blame Jim for the fiasco at Gettysburg, just because his friend had been the only commanding officer in that Army who was not a native-born Virginian.
After taking a last drag on his cigarette, he threw the butt on the ground and crushed it out with the sole of his boot. Even if he lived forever, he would never forgive Lee for ordering that frontal attack.
* * *
Pedro de Alcântara stood motionless while staring in attentive silence at a loquacious but deliberately severe López.
Unlike the other dignitaries, the Paraguayan tyrant was not in full-dress uniform. He wore his battlefield attire, instead. No medals at all; just a red overcoat with marshal’s insignia over dark blue trousers. His staff had probably suggested the adoption of that stark attire to contrast with the pompous solemnity exhibited at the regalia of the defeated emperor.
The veteran tried to aim at His Majesty’s chest; but Estigarribia, former general and present Paraguayan ambassador to Brazil, insisted on eclipsing the monarch, either by employing his thin body or his big head adorned by an imposing North American top hat.
Of course, it was quite easy for the emperor to play the role of the resolute nobleman in extremely adverse circumstances when it was not he who had gone through hell and back in the Battle of Riachuelo.
This would be the first attempt sponsored by the Resistance against Pedro de Alcântara’s life.
There had been three attempts on López’s life. Three complete failures. In the third assassination attempt, however, el Presidente suffered a scratch in his face. Hundreds of Brazilian civilians had been executed in reprisal for such a small scar!
Thus, the Resistance leaders decided to adopt a new strategy. The movement couldn’t afford other decline in the popular support that would surely result from a new retaliatory massacre inflicted on the Empire’s subjects. There was only one man whom the patriots hated almost as much as the Paraguayan dictator: the collaborationist emperor who had agreed to surrender after so many men had died for the nation, when so many others yet were willing to sacrifice their lives for it.
An infiltrator brought the information that the Paraguayan High Command would probably be much more lenient toward any attempt on Dom Pedro II’s life. After all, the Paraguayans had always loathed Empire’s monarchical institutions. Moreover, by their temperament and rude sense of duty, they would tend to readily accept as fair any hypothetical attempt on a ruler considered responsible for the most disastrous military defeat in the Brazilian history.
Thus, the plans of the Resistance were altered. A new agent with wide military experience was assigned for that patriotic mission.
* * *
At times, he guessed the war deities themselves had conspired in favor of Paraguay on that clear winter morning at Riachuelo. There was no other way to explain how those first volleys discharged by the batteries of the Paraguayan cannons and rockets were able to damage the starboard wheel of the Amazonas, the Imperial Navy’s flagship.
That fortuitous hit was the greatest misfortune of the Brazilian cause, because the very first volley smote Captain Barroso da Silva, the commander-in-chief of the imperial task force. Struck while carrying out the final inspection of the two wheel gears, Barroso died at once. He was a brilliant strategist. If he had survived unharmed, perhaps the Imperial Navy might have been able to avert that tragic outcome.
Clumsily maneuvering in those shallow waters, the grand steam frigate kept navigating, propelled solely by her port wheel. However, even under perfect nautical conditions, with her deep draft, an ocean-going ship like that frigate would have come up against enormous difficulties making its way through the sinuously narrow navigable section of the channel formed by the Paraná, close to the mouth of the Riachuelo. Maybe Barroso could have done it. Maybe not.
However, without her skillful commander and deprived of one of her paddle wheels, the flagship soon ran aground near the channel’s steep left bank becoming an easy prey for the enemy batteries. Unfortunately, the grounding had taken place at a spot that was dangerously close to where the Paraguayan Marines had been quartered in order to board the Brazilian ships that might get stuck on the low-lying riverbeds.
The tragic loss of both the Amazonas and Barroso had sealed the fate of the Imperial Navy.
About the same time, the Paraguayan naval force sped down the river with the flagship Tacuary in the lead. Having a lower draw than the Brazilian ships and sailing on a favorable current, the Paraguayan vessels navigated easily in single file in front of the imperial fleet whose crews were still immobilized by the shock of the loss of the Amazonas.
Meanwhile, in the Brazilian task force, gunboat Jequitinhonha’s captain assumed the command of the rest of imperial flotilla and led a vain attempt to escape the punishing bombardment launched from the enemy ships and the Paraguayan military positions on the banks of the Paraná.
However, chaos and desperation had already taken hold aboard the remaining ships of the Imperial Navy. Relentlessly punished by concentrated enemy firepower, the steamboat Belmonte had also suffered serious damage and her crew was forced to run the ship aground to avoid sinking, so that she remained out of action only to be taken over by the Paraguayan crews aboard the Tacuary and Salto Oriental four hours later.
Soon afterward, Jequitinhonha herself ran aground right in front of the Paraguayan batteries installed near the mouth of the Riachuelo. While attempting to come to help her, INS Paraíba had her helm destroyed by enemy firepower.
The Imperial steamships Mearim and Beberibe had been cornered and forced to follow through a narrow passageway between the left bank and a chain of islets. After four hours of bombardment from the enemy batteries and gunned flatboats, the few survivors of the inferno couldn’t resist to the fiery attack of the Paraguayan Marines.
Realizing that the battle had already been lost and counting on the fact that their ships were more agile than the larger vessels of the imperial flotilla, the captains of the Brazilian gunboats Araguari and Iguatemi ordered a retreat. Much later, while in captivity, he had heard that those cowards had escaped unharmed. Instead of being court-martialed, they had been greeted in Corrientes with naval honors.
At the same time, on the bridge of the Ipiranga, he was leading an attack on the enemy gunned flatboats. Having their cannons mounted on high decks, the larger ships of the imperial fleet were not able to hit those low flatboats. Ipiranga sank her first flatboat in the very beginning of combat. The Paraguayan captains soon discovered his plan and centered their ships’ firepower on Ipiranga’s broadside.
Wrenched off by discharges fired at point blank, slivers of wood from Ipiranga’s rail flew all over her main deck, taking a greater number of victims than the direct hits from the cannonballs. Raining mercilessly over the quarterdeck, shrapnel fire from the flatboats and artillery barrages from the riverbanks left no survivors in the main deck.
Once mingled, the bloods of sailors and officers flowed together, soaking the main deck’s wooden flooring, making it treacherously slippery. In the throes of death, more than a dozen mutilated men groaned amidst the acrid smoke emanating from the mouths of the cannons and the piercing smell of burning gunpowder, as the guns of the Ipiranga incessantly riposted the attack. Makeshift cannoneers did not hesitate for a second to promptly substitute their former comrades-in-arms, who were either dead or dying; both whole bodies and mere bloody pieces were scattered all over the deck.
Half of Ipiranga’s garrison already lay prostrate when her guns hit the second flatboat. That explosion was followed by a brief jubilant cry ringing out from bow to stern in commemoration of what the remaining crewmembers supposed would be their last victory.
As captain, of course he had considered the hypothesis of retreat however, a sudden impact astern and the subsequent reverberation of the quartermaster’s shout throughout the ship: “We have just lost the propeller, my captain!” decided the matter otherwise.
He recalled the feelings of serenity that had invaded him then. The certainty of imminent death seemed to have filled the spirit of all those still able to fight with the iron will to take along with them as many enemy combatants as they could.
Without any hope of retreat, his remaining crew was able to sink yet a third flatboat.
He was convinced his life would end that very afternoon. The mud of the Paraná riverbed would be his tomb.
However, he was to survive to his ship and his men.
His last conscious memory of the battle was the thunderous explosion of a cannonball on the bulkhead behind him, two palms away from his own station.
Then, the nightmare that would haunt him till the end of his days had begun. He had just to close his eyes to get it started again. Those memories of terror would be with him forever. The crackle of burning wood; the moans of the wounded; the diminishing shouts of triumph from his men; the nervous screams begotten of rage and impotence.
A sensation of lying prone, wet-faced; the stench of blood. The roar of cannonry from the Ipiranga that made the gunboat shake from her hold to what was left of her bulkhead could be heard at longer and longer intervals. The remembrance of increasingly frequent echoes of enemy cannonry hammering more and more insistently, frenetically against the hull of the ship he had been entrusted with. His first and last command.
Then, darkness. Oblivion.
He regained consciousness five days later, just to find himself lying on an infected cot, manacled to two other prisoners by the rings of a thick chain in a loathsome military prison. There were seventeen other men with him in that dank, dark cell: fourteen Brazilians and three Argentineans, besides a huge number of rats.
He shook his head to get rid of those bitter memories and bring his mind back to the present.
Damn Estigarribia! Hadn’t the defeats the Paraguayan general had inflicted on the remnants of the Imperial Army in the Province of Rio Grande do Sul been enough? Was it possible that even after discarding military discipline and a general’s regalia in favor of cutaways and diplomatic deferences, that man could continue to undermine the Brazilian cause?
Indifferent to his curses, that notorious Paraguayan hero never stopped jabbering with el Presidente Solano López and Emperor Dom Pedro II.
The fact that Pedro de Alcântara acted as if his interlocutors were but old friends paying him a visit in his palace simply reinvigorated the resolve that had threatened to leave him few minutes before. His sweating hands fingered the rough edge of the trigger as he mused, “Your time has come, Pedro de Alcântara!”
* * *
He had finally spotted the veteran.
It had been hard to make him out against the green of the tall grass and the brown of tree trunks. His prey was squatted next to a leafy oak in the midst of some especially thick vegetation.
A fleeting reflection of the sun’s rays on the Brazilian’s gun barrel had betrayed him.
The Virginian confirmed his initial suspicion looking through the sight of his Sharp. Yep, that was the Brazilian in the flesh!
It seemed he had arrived just in time to be able to accomplish his mission.
He was still about 100 meters away from where the veteran was hiding. He chose the path that would most quickly lead him to his prey. Taking long, cautious strides in the direction of the man behind the tree, he mulled over what he knew about Lieutenant Commander Álvaro Augusto de Carvalho.
The Paraguayans had told him that at the beginning of the War of the Triple Alliance, Carvalho commanded the small gunboat Ipiranga. In the company of eight larger Imperial Navy vessels, the gunboat had sailed up the Paraná River to search and destroy the enemy fleet, in order to establish the blockade of Paraguay.
He smiled while recalling Lincoln’s futile attempt to implement a blockade on the Confederacy. Unlike the Southern States, however, Paraguay could not count on thousands of miles of coastline. As a country without direct access to the sea, it was imperative that it exercised absolute control over the Paraná and the Paraguay Rivers to keep them open to shipments of weapons and aid from foreign nations.
The decisive confrontation of two naval forces took place at the mouth of the Riachuelo, a minor tributary of the Paraná. A well-planned strategy enabled the Paraguayans to render the imperial flagship helpless within the first few minutes of battle. According to the official version of the event announced in Asunción, the eight remaining ships of the Brazilian flotilla were then lured into the treacherously shallow waters bordering a riverbank where the Army had hidden batteries of cannons and rockets. After running aground, most of the Brazilian boats soon became easy prey for the cruel bombardment.
After a large number of the crew had already fallen on the Brazilian ships and fire had spread too many of their hulls and decks, the Paraguayan Marines boarded them. The Brazilians surrendered without resistance. Privately, he always viewed this version of the battle with suspicion, taking into account the low number of captured survivors. Anyway, as that damn Sherman said, “War is hell.” Moreover, did he really possess any moral authority to judge Paraguayan’s attitudes in that bloody long war?
Three warships of the Imperial Navy had managed to survive that terrible initial confrontation. Two of them had withdrawn and taken refuge in the temporary safety of the Argentinean port city of Corrientes, while the smallest of the three vessels, Carvalho’s Ipiranga, had continued to engage the enemy in spite of her inferior numbers and the certainty of defeat.
Before being boarded, however, the small but courageous Ipiranga had sunk three chatas, small flatboats armed with cannons, besides damaging seriously the much bigger Salto Oriental, and exploding four enemy artillery positions on the banks of the river.
Carvalho survived the Paraguayan assault and was taken prisoner by the Army. After a brief period, he was transferred to a detention camp reserved for enemy officers in Asunción. It appeared that even the Paraguayans considered him a hero.
“He is a true hero, indeed!” thought the mercenary with admiration.
Having won at Riachuelo, Paraguay could control its access to the Atlantic and thereby keep steady the flow of weapons and ships that had been purchased in Europe. Thanks to that crucial victory, Paraguay garnered the support of two of the wealthiest provinces within the Confederación Argentina. So, little by little, the tides of the war began to change. Finally, an event the Brazilians had deemed impossible actually came to pass: the conflict was transferred from Paraguayan and Corrientine soils to the territory of the Empire.
After winning on both the Argentinean and Uruguayan fronts, the Paraguayans were able to concentrate their efforts on the invasion of southern Brazil. In fact, he had arrived in an already conquered Buenos Aires in July of 1867 as commander of 5,000 men from the former Army of Northern Virginia, to help the Paraguayans to overthrow the tyrannical Empire of Brazil.
He had never forgotten that first meeting with Solano López in Corrientes. Obviously testing the seriousness of his commitment, el Presidente announced that Paraguay was in the process of organizing Negro battalions composed of deserters from the Imperial Army and runaway slaves from Brazilian plantations. López asked if a general who had fought to maintain slavery would mind fighting side by side with newly-freed slaves.
He replied in pidgin Spanish while stroking his goatee: “I did not fight to defend slavery. I enlisted as a Virginian to free my homeland from the political and economic oppression of the North. Our fight was similar to that of your own people. We also longed for independence.”
“I understand. This concept of self-determination of yours is a very beautiful thing,” replied López while shrewdly scrutinizing his face. “But, what about the Negroes?”
“I don’t care about the Negroes. We fought against whole platoons of Negroes sent by the Union. Experience has proven that, if efficiently led by white officers, they know how to obey orders and, therefore, they make good soldiers. In the name of your country and of your noble cause, as well for the gold you have promised, I would not mind training or commanding them one bit.”
And he fulfilled this promise. Over the next two years, invading Paraguayan troops conquered the Empire’s southern provinces, bringing chaos in their wake to Brazilian slave economy, as more and more Negroes fled from the farms and swelled the ranks of the occupying troops. He and his veterans of the A.N.V. personally trained many of those same black soldiers.
Meanwhile, Carvalho was still a prisoner of war in Asunción. He was finally released on Christmas Eve 1869, more than a month after the signature of the armistice between la Gran República and the dying Brazilian Empire.
Upon returning to the remaining imperial lands, amidst massive Negro flight, economic chaos, and executions of abolitionists in the Imperial Square, during a time when republican rebellions were breaking out in every Brazilian province, even without Paraguayan support, Carvalho thought it would be wise to join one of the many resistance movements opposed to the Paraguayan occupation forces.
The mercenary then opened his lips slightly, expressing sad, weary smile. He admired the valor and courage of the Brazilian veteran. He knew that a man of Carvalho’s caliber would feel like a traitor if he were ever to turn his back on the futile efforts of the Resistence.
He had waged the two bloodiest wars ever fought in the Americas, having known both the heinous defeat fighting for his beloved Virginia in the War of Southern Independence and the glorious victory as a soldier of fortune employed at the Paraguayan Army in the War of the Triple Alliance. Throughout the harrowing years of those two gargantuan conflicts, so similar yet so profoundly different, he had met very few men with the integrity of a Lieutenant Commander Carvalho.
Courage under fire…
Is there a similar expression in either Spanish or Portuguese? Never mind.
He firmly believed in that old military maxim that the true character of a soldier could only be known under fire, in the very heat of battle. It is precisely in that critical situation that a man will be forever defined as either hero or coward. An occasion when the truly fortunate soldier finally perceives that death has no importance at all, if one fights for a great principle or ideal.
Ever since he had crossed the equator in response to López’s invitation, he thought perhaps he might have forgotten a few things he had been taught at West Point about honor and patriotism. However, there remained a bitter certainty in his heart: if Valhalla really existed, that naval officer’s noble soul would deserve its ingress in those glorious evergreen pastures more than his own broken one.
Gettysburg… Riachuelo… It was hard to imagine two more diverse battles, though each in its own way clearly represented pivotal turning points in the tides of war, actually determining the outcomes of subsequent battles which would ultimately shape the very destiny of the nations involved.
Notwithstanding the defeat of the Imperial Fleet, no one doubted that the greatest Brazilian hero at Riachuelo was Lieutenant Commander Carvalho. On the other hand, many believed that he was the hero at Gettysburg, albeit defeated one. He had always adamantly contested this thesis.
Despite Carvalho’s heroic deeds, Brazil lost the Battle of Riachuelo for sure and, consequently, the very war.
It was a whole different story at Gettysburg. The Army of Northern Virginia was defeated and lost the war because of him and his personal failure to take that goddamn hill.
Some defeats bear heroes; some don’t.
* * *
Estigarribia insisted on remaining squarely in front of the veteran’s Imperial target. Still hidden behind an oak, he leaned his left shoulder against the rough tree trunk and held up the walnut butt of the Spencer on his right shoulder. While squinting with his left eye, he took aim with the right.
If the past could be relived, he would gladly place his gunboat between the Amazonas and those killing rockets, so that he could have received over his own chest the fire that took Barroso’s life. Perhaps Brazil would be a better place then.
His former captors seemed to view him as a kind of celebrity. Only later he understood their philosophy. In appreciating his adversaries’ deeds, the Paraguayans made their victories sound even more imposing than they might have been viewed otherwise.
As soon as the news of the Paraguayan victory at Riachuelo had reached Corrientes, General Urquiza, president of that prosperous Argentine province, switched to the side of López. He and his 10,000 cavalrymen didn’t hesitate in swearing their oaths of allegiance to their former enemy’s cause. One month later, both the militias of the Entre-Rios Province and the Uruguayan partisans of López also abandoned the Triple Alliance and converted to Paraguay’s cause. Reinforced by the formidable power of the Corrientine cavalry, Robles’ armies surrounded the Brazilian and Argentinean forces in Concórdia.
At the beginning of August, Estigarribia’s troops took the Brazilian town Uruguaiana. The battleships Paraguay had ordered from European shipyards had dropped anchor in the Paraná River during the months of October and November. At about the same time, Robles’ troops disembarked in Montevideo and captured the Uruguayan capital with no resistance. Toward the end of that fateful year, 100,000 rifles manufactured in Europe and more than 500 modern, high-caliber steel cannons Solano López had ordered from Prussian Krupp Waffenfabrik arrived at La Plata.
In the first few days of 1866, Estigarribia’s combined Paraguayan and Uruguayan troops advanced victoriously overland into Rio Grande do Sul, repelling the badly-equipped forces the Empire had rushed to the front. Within a month, Robles had routed the Brazilian and Argentinean armies garrisoned in Concórdia and had captured General Osório, Imperial Army’s commander-in-chief. The Paraguayan official statement claimed that General Bartolomé Mitre, the president of Confederación Argentina, had fallen in combat. The defeat in Concórdia signaled the end of the Empire’s struggle to halt the Paraguayan advance in foreign territory.
In March, the Paraguayans occupied Porto Alegre, Rio Grande do Sul’s provincial capital. In the same period, Negro soldiers captured by the Paraguayan Army swore allegiance to la República and to López and were enlisted into the Army’s first Negro platoons. At the same time, the dictator’s emissaries succeeded in signing commercial treaties in both Paris and Washington, so providing the necessary credits in order to enable the Paraguayans to acquire those amazing American repeating carbines and order the speedy construction of modern battleships built in French shipyards.
According to his captors, the Empire had first begun to fear losing the war after Buenos Aires surrendered to General Robles’ forces. As soon as the influence of that great metropolis over the Confederación Argentina had been neutralized, it became relatively easy for López to persuade the remaining provinces to sign an armistice with la Gran República del Paraguay: The first time they referred to the amalgamation of their own nation with Uruguay and two northernmost Argentine provinces as such.
Ah! At last, the infamous Estigarribia, the so-called Butcher of Porto Alegre, removed his top hat with a bow. As the ambassador took a step backward, the chest of the emperor came plainly into view.
He took aim in that chest full of medals, not in the least intimidated by that vast constellation of laurels now utterly devoid of meaning. He knew that the shiny medals on the traitor’s chest would offer no armor against his Spencer’s high-caliber bullets.
He suddenly heard the crackling sound of someone stepping on kindling wood. Frightened, he instinctively jerked his head around to find himself facing a tall man wearing strange gray uniform with the insignias of a Paraguayan Brigadier General attached to the shoulders. The man was aiming a long rifle at him with a strange kind of sight system on its barrel top.
“Son, I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”
The older man spoke those words in a poor Portuguese, with an odd, slow drawl. He did not perceive the slightest hesitation in the man’s eyes. There was only a faint, almost imperceptible sign of amusement mixed with sorrow and weariness.
He recognized the gringo at once, though they had definitely never met before. How often he had come across drawings and political cartoons about the older man both in Paraguayan and Brazilian newspapers. How could he not have remembered hearing about that Confederate general who, after being defeated in the American Civil War, had sold his own and his men’s honor to López for gold? The man whose name was always linked to the horrors and killings of the campaigns waged in Paraná and São Paulo.
The black soldiers whom this gringo had trained wore the red overcoats of the Paraguayan Army and killed and imprisoned whites, including civilians, at the gunpoint of those dreaded repeating carbines furnished by the North Americans.
What did the Paraguayans call him? Oh, yes…
“Estaca… ¡El General Estaca!”
* * *
Acknowledging his nickname, the former Confederate general pronounced in loud and clear English, “You’re dead right, son.”
Disgusted, Álvaro spit out: “It’s not your business at all. The war is over. We have decided not to do anything against your boss’ life. If that’s what is bothering you, you have nothing to worry about and now you can go right back where you came from.”
“I know. The Emperor Pedro is your target this time, right?
“Exactly. Pedro de Alcântara is our problem! It has nothing to do with your Paraguayan bosses.”
“I know. I know,” the Virginian smiled as he straightened the red scarf tied around his neck while keeping his rifle aimed straight at the Brazilian’s forehead. “But… stop talking! Stand up and drop that carbine, very slowly. All right. Now: ¡Venga!”
As the Brazilian considered his chances, the Virginian stroked his mustache and then grabbed onto his gun firmly with both hands. He gently pulled the trigger backward until he heard its click. The Virginian’s cold and resolute demeanor convinced the Brazilian, because he ended up propping his Spencer up against the trunk of the oak and stepping slightly away.
The mercenary glanced at the military carbine, “It’s indeed a very fine weapon. I would say it is the most reliable one for a cavalryman. But, I don’t think it is fit for killing people, specially at a distance like this.”
In response to the inquisitive expression on the Lieutenant’s face, the older man gestured with the barrel of his Sharp rifle, without taking his eyes off his target, and said, “This one would be much better!”
The certainty of disaster was stamped on the Brazilian’s face as he stared at the Virginian in silence.
“Now, lie down. Boca abajo. Slowly. That’s good. All right.”
The mercenary pressed the sole of his heavy boot onto the veteran’s back causing him to catch his breath. The older man felt oddly proud as he noticed Carvalho did not make the slightest noise.
Estigarribia was moving in the direction of the Emperor again. Time was ripe. He raised his Sharp away from the Brazilian’s nape. It was fairly easy for him to make out his target among the crowd since his victim’s uniform was in profound contrast to the garments the others were wearing. He took aim and fired swiftly.
The shot echoed throughout the terrain of the Quinta da Boa Vista.
The victim fell to the ground mortally wounded. Ruby blood gushed from his chest soaking and darkening that simple already red campaign uniform his subordinates had insisted he should wear to distinguish himself from his former antagonist’s showy attire.
* * *
He struggled under the gringo’s boot. But the terrible weight on his back forced him to remain motionless on the ground. He was only able to emit a muffled groan.
“What have you done, Estaca?”
“He muerto al Presidente.”
“López is dead!”
The Brazilian heard an uproar in the distance. Orders being shouted nervously in harsh Spanish. Someone screaming out for a doctor. The hammering of the heels of Paraguayan boots on the flagstones of the palace square. Horses whinnying in response to their coachmen’s agitation. Loud voices trying to be heard above the din that reverberated far away.
He reflected on the heinous consequences of this act. For years, they had longed for the assassination of the self-aggrandizing “Napoleon of the Americas”. Many attempts on his life had been made to no avail. In reprisal, the punishments meted out to the civilian population had been so severe that the Resistance was forced to abandon any further attempts on the dictator’s life.
For better or worse, López was dead now.
Ironically, he had been killed by the hand of one of his most faithful allies.
“Democracia…” the mercenary murmured in the guise of explanation as he removed his boot from the Brazilian’s backbone.
While he was turning over, he heard the older man reloading his rifle. The Brazilian stared at the long barrel of the Sharp pointed at his forehead.
“What do you mean?”
“The Paraguayans long for democracy. After winning the war, López had become the greatest hero of the South America.” The Virginian tried to explain, mixing his broken Portuguese with phrases in Spanish and English. “But López was also a tyrant… even worse than Napoleon. He was literally worshipped by his people. It would be impossible to remove him from office. El presidente no quería elección libre…”
“Are you saying that the Paraguayans paid you to kill López?”
“No, no. La Gran República del Paraguay is a great nation now. It needs to become a democracy in order to consolidate its military conquests. It would be impossible to establish a democracy with López in power, don’t you see?”
“Yes, of course.”
The Paraguayan plan finally became clear to him. He would be found holding the Spencer and the assassination would be ascribed to the Resistance. Paraguay would get rid of López, a perfect military leader to fight against the Triple Alliance, but a veritable obstacle to the realization of the democratic ideals so long defended by the more liberal segments from both the Paraguayan Army and the society at large.
The murder of the greatest national hero would serve as an excellent pretext for the imposition of more severe laws of occupation. After all, had not a particularly repressive occupation force been the greatest desire of el Presidente himself since the signature of the armistice four years before?
He could feel more than actually hear the tramping of footsteps that made the ground shake. Soldier boots coming closer and closer. He watched as the Confederate glanced at him with an air of resignation, raised his arm, and made a sign.
“Do you understand everything now?”
He did not answer. Nonetheless, the intensity of the hatred in his eyes revealed a perfect understanding of the punishment that would be given to both himself and his country.
“Absolutely nothing personal. You’re a soldier, like me. You understand, I had to carry out this mission.”
“You had just caused the ruin of the Empire, you son-of-a-bitch mercenary!”
“No, no, no!” Expressions of indignation and surprise danced all over the older man’s face. “I was not paid to kill López. I was not paid at all!”
“What the hell do you mean?”
“I did it for my friends, the true Paraguayan patriots. I did it also to make amends for something that I should have done in my own country but could not. A failure I committed far from here, a long time ago… in another war. It’s a long story. There isn’t enough time to tell you now.”
At last, the Paraguayans arrived and surrounded the two of them. A lieutenant, a sergeant and five soldiers. The officer had a Colt revolver in a black holster attached to a leather belt. The sergeant and the soldiers, two of whom were Negroes, aimed their Winchesters at the Brazilian.
Without taking his eyes or his rifle off the Brazilian, the Confederate addressed the officer in a Spanish much more fluent than his Portuguese.
“I got here too late, Teniente. The criminal had already pulled the trigger. I heard the shot, but… I’m sorry.”
“¡Asesino!” The lieutenant howled beside himself with rage. “¡Mataste al presidente!”
Certain he could count on his officer’s tacit approval, the sergeant kicked the Brazilian in the head, leaving him unconscious.
* * *
“No!” the Virginian screamed as he turned his Sharp in the direction of the Paraguayan sergeant who was just about to give the Brazilian a second kick in the head. “We cannot kill him cold-bloodedly. The assassin must be tried in a court of law.”
The infuriated lieutenant stared at the tall gringo standing before him and tried to muffle his anger. Then he finally noticed the insignias sewn onto that strange pale gray uniform designating the Confederate a general in the Paraguayan Army. The officer swallowed hard and ordered the sergeant to refrain from further violence. At last, he paid a perfect salute to the Virginian and asked:
“¿Sus ordenes, mi general?”
“Take this man away. We’re going to take him to the palace. Find the local police commissioner, and notify Governor Robles we have arrested the killer.”
“¡Si, mi general!”
Resting the Sharp over his shoulder, he walked a few steps behind the soldiers who were dragging the Brazilian away. Desolate but solicitous, the lieutenant tried to strike up a conversation.
“Mi general, what will become of la República sin el Presidente?”
The Confederate absently replied that this would be a matter to be decided by the Army and the Congress.
He provided the officer with no further details.
Obviously, he had pictured what was about to happen to Paraguay. The winds of change were about to blow, heralding difficult and tumultuous times to come, no doubt. La Gran República del Paraguay would either emerge from this transitional period as the most powerful genuine democracy south of the Rio Grande or it would succumb once and for good to a reign of political chaos that had seemed to be the destiny of so much of the South America.
He tried hard to hide from the Paraguayans his sorrow for Lieutenant Commander Carvalho. He was fully aware that the Brazilian hero would most certainly be condemned for the crime of high treason and executed by a firing squad within the next few days. Moreover, he had a strong suspicion that the veteran naval officer would soon become the greatest martyr of the Resistance and an eternal source of inspiration for new recruits. To some extent, he almost envied the Brazilian, because he knew he would never be remembered in such glorious terms neither by his comrades-in-arms, nor by posterity.
It seemed odd that the Resistance reviled the old emperor, a man who, in his own peculiar style, had once symbolized the yearnings of the Brazilian nation in the same way Robert E. Lee had personified Virginia’s longing for independence. Would the Brazilian infantrymen have been so willing to sacrifice their lives for Dom Pedro II as the young Virginian soldiers had when they followed every Lee’s orders until their death? He didn’t think so.
Right or wrong, Lee had always maintained himself at the front of his troops, rallying them on, celebrating their every victory, and commiserating with them in every defeat. How could anyone have expected Brazilians to die for an emperor who was not only far removed from them, but also superbly indifferent to their plight on the battlefield?
Anyway, that’s history now. The future will be challenging to these South Americans. He only hoped with all his heart that they would come out of this terrible struggle the better for it.
As for himself, he suddenly felt very old, much older than his almost 48 years. Old, yet six years younger than General Lee had been when the War of Southern Independence broke out in that long-ago year of 1861.
Funny, he thought. For the first time since Gettysburg, he realized that he no longer harbored as much hatred for Old Man Lee.
That realization, however, was not much of a consolation for him.
After having fought in two long wars and participating in the defeat of the Confederacy’s dream of freedom as well as in this epic victory against tyranny in South America, he felt exhausted and debilitated.
He knew that the time had come for him to return to his beloved Virginia.
He felt the time was right, even if that meant having to see again with his very eyes, the devastating destruction wrought by the damn Yankees on the fields, towns and cities of the only country he had ever called home
Copyright © 2013 by Gerson Lodi-Ribeiro
Gerson Lodi-Ribeiro is a Brazilian science fiction and alternative history writer, editor & publisher, and alternative history scholar. He has published short stories and novelettes in professional Brazilian science fiction magazines, one of which, „The Ethics of Treason“, was the very first alternative history story ever published in Brazilian science fiction. Gerson was publisher of Ano-Luz Brazilian small press and between 1999 and 2003 president of the Brazilian Science Fiction Readers Club.
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