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Rebels Way Way Down South

Confederates flee the US to Brazil after reconstruction: they're still there

Last week (13 April 2000) the South Carolina legislature voted to remove the Confederate flag from its state capitol, scouring away official sanction of the alternate sovereignty the American South once enjoyed.[1] However, if one goes to remotest Amazonian Brazil, the flag's image can be found in local Indian pottery. How did this happen? Colonies of Southerners, fleeing their homeland in the twilight of the war and dawn of Reconstruction, established themselves in Brazil, complete with accordions, six-shooters and cornbread.

After Sherman wandered through the South, there wasn't much left. His troops ruthlessly looted the countryside:

...the trophies... which appeared in the review consisted of pack mules loaded with turkeys, geese, chickens, and bacon, and here and there a chicken-coop strapped to the saddle with a cackling brood peering out through the slats. Then came cows, goats, sheep, donkeys, crowing roosters, and in one instance a chattering monkey.

In his official report, the general himself wrote

For five days, 10,000 men worked hard with a will in that work of destruction with axes, crowbars, sledges, clawbars and fire, and I have no hesitation in pronouncing the work well done. Meridian, with its depots, storehouses, arsenal, hospitals, offices, hotels and cantonments, no longer exists.

Down Mexico Way

Faced with plummeting property values, many Southerners contemplated fleeing the nation altogether. A fair number of accomplished generals made their way to Mexico, where they enjoyed a short year or two before Mexico's French-backed emperor Maximilian got tossed out on his ear in 1867:

The [Confederate] colony was destroyed almost overnight. The air thick was dust and smoke, and flames from their huts leaping skyward, the gunfire deafening them, [one colony's] terrified immigrants attempted escape by sea... Some of the boats on which the Confederates hoped to escape were captured by hostile natives who put the colonists to the torch and threw their corpses into the ocean.

Maybe a Little Farther

As Mexico's prospects as a travel destination grew, to put it nicely, dimmer, Confederate movement established dozens of immigration societies in an effort to find friendlier locales. Many referred to the recently-published Hunting a Home in Brazil by Dr. James McFadden Gaston or maybe Lansford Warren Hastings' Emigrant's Guide to Brazil, wherein the author says

With wonder, admiration, and reverential awe, one may contemplate the vastness with which he finds himself here surrounded, the perfusion of nature's bounties, and sublimity of scenery, but to describe them, to picture them as they are, is beyond the scope of human capacity.

Pretty strong words, considering Hastings' four separate attempts at colonization actually failed. Hastings had actually been a member of the disastrous Donner party expedition to California in 1846,[2] and he died of yellow fever on the last Brazilian foray. His lack of success notwithstanding, the book sold like hotcakes. To consider moving to a land that had stymied such a stalwart explorer seems foolhardy, but thousands did nonetheless, not least because dying of yellow fever in the Amazonian jungle was infinitely preferable to, say, living in the South during Reconstruction. These colonists did so against the advise of Northern newspaper reporting of other failed colonies and the occasional diseased, demoralized returning explorer who jabbered stories about forty-foot snakes and rampant venereal disease. However, some of the news coming from Brazil was stirring indeed: exploratory parties looking for good lands to settle were met by throngs of cheering crowds, bands playing "Dixie" and emperor Dom Pedro himself. In particular the lands to the south of Brazil, free of vexing insects and mosquito-borne tropical diseases, proved fruitful. One colonist wrote to the Mobile Daily Register

I have sugar cane, cotton, pumpkins, squash, five kinds of sweet potatoes, Irish potatoes, cornfield peas, snap beans, butter beans, ochre, tomatoes and a fine chance of tobacco. I have made enough to live well on and am better pleased than other. I have a great variety of fruits on my place.

Some Good Gilligan Action

Great bounty might be available for those who could bribe their way past Union-controlled ports in the South. Medical doctors, and, in particular, dentists were in great demand in Brazil. One hapless Amazonian dentist was captured by hostile Indians, but was fortunate enough to be carrying medicines with him. Eugene Harter reports in The Lost Colony of the Confederacy:

On demonstrating his curative powers, he soon rose to the position of "medicine god" in the tribe and lived in privileged comfort among them for three years before escaping back to civilization. The experience cooled his ardor for Brazil. It was believed he soon returned to his native Georgia.

If they did not chance to encounter hostile Indians, most doctors and dentists set up profitable practices. Indeed, there are three dentists named Coachman in present-day Sao Paolo, descendents all from the original Confederate John W. Coachman. Brazilians with Confederate backgrounds report childhood meals of biscuits and gravy, cornbread, black-eyed peas, and fried chicken. The Confederate transplants enjoyed a certain level of culinary imperialism for the first generation, before their servants began to stick weird things in their food like mandioca flour.

Despite the usual problems that accompany any colonization, the Confederates flourished. Today their descendents occupy a substantial portion of several Brazilian cities, not least among them Americana, population 120,000: U.S. Secretary of State Elihu Root made a pit stop there in 1906. Interviews with locals suggest Root had little to say to the expatriates, but instead scratched his head in indifference and awkwardness before stepping back on his train and heading for greener political pastures. Root later told his biographer that he'd left in tears after telling the weepy Confederates they'd never be welcomed again in the United States, a story which is clearly the product of an old man's vivid imagination. We here at History House figure Root thought such a surreal meeting, one between a Union government official and obviously happy refugees, should have borne a little more fruit in the anecdote department. Ain't nothing wrong with lying to your biographer, especially if the only people who can correct you are all in rural Brazil.

Imperial Mercantilism Didn't Quite Work

Given the apparent success of the transplants, the Ford Motor Company decided that it could do okay down there too. In 1928, it sent tons and tons of prefabricated equipment down to the region to wrest the rubber-producing market from the Dutch in Java and the British in Ceylon. Houses, hospitals, canned food, tennis courts, plumbing, starched shirts, and earthmoving equipment arrived in ship after ship in the central Amazon, fifty miles upstream of the prosperous Confederate colony of Santarem. Ford thought that if perhaps the Southerners could integrate into the region, he could too. He hired three thousand locals of Indian descent for the grunt work, and gave a smattering of white-collar jobs to the expats. Unfortunately, after some months, the American reality forced upon the Indians was become more than they could bear:

The [locals]... turn into wild beasts. They start by smashing up the whole cafeteria, and tear everything down. A riot. The officials of the Ford Motor Company run with their families, all terrified, for the freighters anchored in port. The [locals], armed with clubs like the French in the taking of the Bastille, march on the stronghold of the directorate and management, roaring something unintelligible to the listeners aboard ship. What can they be shouting about so angrily? Can it be "Down with Mr. Ford!"? Can it be "Down with the Ford Motor Company!"? Nothing of the sort... What the [locals] were yelling was, "Down with spinach! No more spinach!" ...[they] were full of boiled spinach and well-vitaminized foods; they could not even look at spinach any more.

The plant shut down in 1940, leaving the contented Confederates behind. We envy their carefree existence sometimes, with their robust fruit trees and relaxed way of life. It sounds almost like the kind of existence we'd strive for, except for the part about having to hang out with the other Western European transplants kicking it in South America: former Nazis.

Footnotes

  1. The flag will still be prominently displayed on the General Lee automobile in this year's Dukes of Hazzard remake.
  2. What, you never heard of this? To make a long story short, some folks got snowbound in a high mountain pass on their way to California. They starved, resorted to cannibalism, and ended up marking bodies of the dead so people didn't eat their own relatives. Really.

Bibliography

  1. Eugene C. Harter. The Lost Colony of the Confederacy. University Press of Mississippi, 1985.

 
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