You probably can’t even place Paraguay on a map (its in the middle, next to Bolivia), but during the 1800s it was poised to become the most powerful country in South America. Today Paraguay is a weak, landlocked country, but in the 1860s it was a fledgling regional power with an industrialized, self-sufficient economy, protected by a powerful modernized military. Paraguay’s rapid industrialization and militarization frightened its neighbors who feared an upset in the balance of power on the continent.
Paraguayan President Francisco Solano López attempted to create an empire in South America, declaring war of three of his neighbors – Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay – at the same time. Independently ill prepared for war, Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay formed the Triple Alliance, pledging resources and troops to fight Paraguay. Paraguay’s powerful military made early advances, but was soon overwhelmed by the Alliance’s sheer numerical superiority.
As the Alliance advanced past Paraguay’s ring of defensive border river fortresses, President López refused to surrender and continued a brutal guerrilla campaign amid widespread starvation and rampant disease. By the time the war was over, 60-70% of the entire country had been killed and over 85% of all Paraguayan males were dead, making it proportionally the most destructive war in history for a modern nation-state. Paraguay’s dreams of a South American empire were quashed, and their influence in the region has been permanently limited.
Paraguay’s Industrial Base
In the 1840s, Carlos Antonio López was appointed by the Paraguayan congress to be the consul of Paraguay, equivalent to the role of a president-dictator. He ruled with an iron grip, suspending civil rights and granting himself sweeping powers that gave him absolute control over the country. Nationalistic and ambitious, Carlos envisioned Paraguay as a powerful South American nation, aiming to redesign the country’s economic, social, and military apparatus.
Using his extensive powers, Carlos encouraged self-sufficient economic development and domestic growth through high tariffs. Desperate to get out of from under the yoke of Spanish and British economic interests, he limited imports from Europe and declined all foreign loans. Naturally, this angered capitalists in Spain and Britain who pressured their governments to endorse Paraguayan regional rivals, such as Brazil and Argentina.
Yet despite European pressure, Paraguay’s production and heavy industry skyrocketed. With an extensive river-highway system for transport and trade, Paraguay developed a self-sufficient, industrial economy capable of mass production.
Paraguay Builds a Powerful Military
Rivers are the defining geographical feature of the South American Rio de la Plata basin. Trade, travel, and communications in Paraguay were dependent on river shipping along the Paraguayan and Paraná rivers due to rough terrain that made road construction difficult.
To protect these strategically important rivers, Paraguay built a series of river fortresses and a modern navy with river warships. Conscription filled the ranks of the Paraguayan army and war-related industry was subsidized by the Paraguayan government, with war factories and shipyards established to produce weapons, munitions, and ships. Paraguay established a powerful river fortress at Humaitá, a base in southern Paraguay which housed 20,000+ troops and served as the main defensive stronghold along the border.
By 1860, Paraguay boasted a modern military with 60,000 thousand trained troops, 400 cannons, and an impressive navy of 23 steamboats and 5 river warships. With an extensive industrial system and a strong military tradition, Paraguay resembled the German Empire during the same time period.
President Francisco Solano López
After Carlos Antonio López died in 1862, his ambitious but authoritarian son Francisco Solano López became president of Paraguay. Building on his father’s ambition and desperate to have Paraguay recognized as a regional power, Francisco furthered his father’s industrialization and militarization of Paraguay.
Francisco López wore a carved ring that championed his motto – ‘victory or death’. He demanded absolute loyalty from his subjects, passing draconian laws such as forbidding anyone from turning their back to him or sitting while he stood.
Francisco passed laws authorizing the sweeping military conscription of all Paraguayan males and installed himself as the absolute head of the Paraguayan military. All major decisions had to come directly from him. This single-minded chain of command hindered speed on the battlefield and slowed Paraguayan generals who were unable to advance without López’s direct approval.
Uruguayan Civil War Leads to Conflict
During the early 1800s, there was a fragile balance of power in South America between Brazil and Argentina, the two economic and population rich behemoths on the continent. However, as Paraguay industrialized, the two natural rivals turned their attention to the new regional power. Argentina and Brazil collaborated to keep Paraguay isolated and controlled, similar to how the French and English allied against rising Germany during the early 1900s.
Seeking potential allies on the continent, President López turned his sights to Uruguay. Uruguay was engulfed in a bloody civil war between the Blancos and the Colorados, two opposing political parties. Paraguay sponsored the Blancos, promising political and eventual logistical support for the group, hoping to establish a new, Paraguayan-friendly regime.
Brazil, afraid of Paraguay acquiring a new regional ally, invaded Uruguay to support the Colorados with troops, munitions, and logistical support. Brazilian troops quashed the Blancos and used the Colorados to establish a Brazilian-friendly government in Uruguay. Outraged at Brazil’s flagrant military incursion into Uruguay and geopolitically squeezed by a Brazilian-Uruguayan alliance, Paraguay declared war and rushed troops to offensive positions along the southern border.
But Paraguay was unable to invade Uruguay without passing through Argentinian territory and therefore asked for permission to move troops across Argentinian land. When Argentina declined, Paraguayan president Francisco Solano López briefly surveyed the disarrayed state of the Argentinian military and simply declared war on Argentina as well.
The three nations were dwarfed militarily by the Paraguayan army, and their presidents quickly met to establish a formal alliance to resist López. They unified under The Triple Alliance, appointing Argentinian president Bartolomé Mitre as supreme allied commander.
|Paraguay||60,000||27 ships||400 cannons|
|Alliance (Total)||26,000||47 ships||239 cannons|
|Brazil||16,000||42 ships||239 cannons|
At the start of the war, Paraguay had a comfortably larger army than the combined armies of the Alliance. Argentina’s troops were untrained and unruly, while Uruguay’s troops were exhausted from the recent civil war and the majority of Brazilian troops were deployed in Uruguay and therefore absent in the face of a direct Paraguayan invasion.
However, the Alliance’s strength lay in the Brazilian navy, which was deployed to blockade the economically and strategically important Paraguayan river.
The Paraguayan Invasion
Paraguayan troops rushed south across northern Argentina and east into Brazil, capturing swathes of territory and sending both the Argentinian and Brazilian armies reeling. As López’s troops pushed towards Uruguay, the alliance quickly instituted conscription and raised massive armies to defend against the Paraguayan military juggernaut.
A year later, in 1965, Brazil alone had raised an impressive army of 42,000 infantry and 15,000 cavalry. The combined allied armies slowly began to numerically overwhelm the Paraguayan troops, outnumbering them 10:1 in some provinces. Stretched thin and economically hindered by the powerful Brazilian navy’s blockade, Paraguay was forced to retreat to its prewar borders. From there, its military comfortably defended the entrenched river fortresses that Paraguay had built over the previous decade.
Time and time again, Brazilian and Argentinian excursions into Paraguay were defeated by powerful Paraguayan military chokepoints on the river. At the Battle of Curupayty in 1866, the alliance attacked Paraguayan fortified positions on the river in full force.
Nearly 20,000 Brazilians and Argentinians supported by 11 warships from the Brazilian navy opposed just 5,000 Paraguayans equipped with 49 cannons. However, the powerful Brazilian navy was kept at bay downstream by the unbroken river fortress of Humaitá. The Brazilian navy lay just out of range of Curupayty, and could only watch as the Paraguayans used their heavy cannonry to decimate the Alliance’s armies. When the dust settled, Paraguayan troops had inflicted over 4,200 Brazilian and Argentine casualties while suffering only 50 Paraguayan soldiers killed.
After the battle, López sued for peace citing a stalemate, but the two sides were unable to reach a conclusion after the Alliance demanded his removal from the presidency. López was desperate to cling to power and in order to do so issued exceedingly harsher laws, such as execution for anyone who spoke of surrender. He pulled the country into total war, drafting all men in neglect of labor for food production.
Combined with the Brazilian river blockade which eliminated foreign food imports, the reduction in domestic food production created a severe famine as Paraguayan women and children began to starve. As years dragged on, Paraguay’s river navy and large border garrisons were slowly worn down by the naturally resource and population rich Brazil and Argentina, supported by a recovering Uruguayan army.
In July of 1868, the seemingly impenetrable Paraguayan river defense system was overcome.
Exceptionally heavy rains raised the level of the Paraguayan river, leaving the 20,000 man strong fortress of Humaitá undefended against the Brazilian navy. Finally able to engage the Paraguayans, the Brazilians destroyed the fort and quickly swept upriver to shell the Paraguayan capital at Asunción.
López refused surrender and gathered what was left of his beleaguered army. He sought a final showdown at the Piquissiri River and camped his forces on the bank of the river. However, the Alliance simply crossed upstream through heavy rapids to encircle the Paraguayans and annihilate them. López was lucky to make it out alive, supported by mere hundreds of able bodied men.
The once fierce military machine that had held the armies of three resource rich countries at bay lay in tatters. Industrial production had ceased as the majority of men were dead, and the remaining women and children were ravaged by rampant cholera, dysentery, and malaria.
Paraguay had been decimated.
However, López still refused surrender and pledged to wage guerrilla warfare against the now overwhelming forces of the Alliance. López demanded support from his devastated populace, conscripting children and wounded into a new child army. Unable to arm his new child soldiers, he gave them sticks painted to look like guns and glued fake beards to their faces. With no weapons and sometimes no clothes, the children were slaughtered by Allied troops again and again. Modern day Paraguay celebrates ‘Children’s Day’ on the anniversary of a massacre that claimed over 2,000 children’s lives.
López, isolated with a small band of followers, grew paranoid and began ordering extensive executions and torture – even ordering the execution of his brother and the torture of his mother and sister. Eventually, López was cornered and encircled with just 200 followers by over 10,000 Brazilian troops. When the Brazilian commander demanded López surrender, but still guaranteed his life, he refused. Screaming “I die with my fatherland”, he charged the Brazilian front lines with his sword drawn.
Aftermath of the War:
With López’s death, Paraguayan resistance ceased and the Triple Alliance declared victory, annexing nearly 50% of Paraguayan territory and occupying Paraguay for 8 years.
Paraguay’s economy was shattered and her populace nearly exterminated. Before the war, experts estimate roughly 550,000-700,000 people lived in Paraguay, but a post war census shows only 221,000 living Paraguayans – of those just 28,000 were men. With 60-70% of Paraguay’s prewar population (and 90% of all men) killed by war, famine, and disease, The War of the Triple Alliance is one of the most proportionally destructive conflicts ever for a modern, industrialized nation.
One woman described the hollow scene of the remaining Paraguayan men – “living skeletons…shockingly mutilated with bullet and sabre wounds.” For contrast, the Soviet Union, horrifically massacred by the Germans in World War II, lost just 14.2% of its population.
Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay installed a complacent government in Paraguay and defanged the country. The remnants of Paraguay’s powerful military were dismantled, her economy was ravaged, and key river strongholds and economic waterways were annexed by Brazil and Argentina. Paraguay’s once vibrant crop export industry was taken over by Brazil, and Paraguay has never fully economically recovered from the conflict. Paraguay’s hopes becoming a regional power in South America were eliminated, and today Paraguay ranks below most other Southern American countries in terms of production and population.
If Paraguay were to win the war, they would have been able to establish an empire in the center of the continent. On an alternate timeline, Argentina, Brazil, and even the United States would have had to potentially deal with an industrialized, belligerent regional power in South America. Perhaps during the First World War Germany would have appealed to Paraguay in the Zimmermann Telegram, instead of Mexico.