Confederados forge new cultural identity
Plagued with economic ruin, psychological terror and personal tragedy at the end of the Civil War, many Southerners began to discuss packing up their war-torn lives and emigrating to foreign lands as an antidote for their suffering.
Southern diarist Mary Boykin Chesnut wrote about Confederate officers going to Mexico and Brazil, and Scarlett O’Hara twice considered the idea of fleeing to Latin America in the epic novel “Gone With the Wind.”
One Southern girl confided in her diary: “The men are all talking about going to Mexico and Brazil.” Another addressed the same theme: “There is complete revulsion in public feeling. No more talk about help from France or England, but all about emigration to Mexico or Brazil. We are irretrievably ruined.”
One man summed it up for many: “You folks made our lives so impossible in the United States that we had to leave.”
In 1868, the 14th Amendment to the Constitution made it illegal for former Confederate officers to hold any state or federal position in the United States. It is no wonder so many felt like exiles and strangers in their own homes.
Lives of seemingly endless despair motivated many to relocate. An estimated 3 million Southerners abandoned their homes in the former Confederate States. They moved all over — to Texas, out West and even to Northern states. Many left the United States altogether despite language difficulties, distance and expense, never to return.
Many migrated to Mexico, Canada, England (pro-Confederacy during the war), Venezuela or numerous other foreign locations. But the most popular country of Southern emigration was Brazil. Southerners were energized with the favorable news that Brazil rolled out welcome mats for them, provided cheap land and, for good measure, threw in cheering crowds, parties and serenades.
It was almost too good to be true, but adventurers such as the scientist Matthew Fontaine Maury had already scouted out Latin America years earlier and had written extensively about its benefits. “The Amazon,” Maury wrote, “reminds us of the Mississippi. Its climate an everlasting summer and its harvest perennial.”
A popular ditty at the time went:
Oh, give me a ship with a sail and with wheel,
And let me be off to happy Brazil!
Home of the sunbeam — great kingdom of Heat,
With woods ever green and snakes forty feet!
Land of the diamond — bright nation of pearls,
With monkeys aplenty, and Portuguese girls!
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 “Welcome, Old Hoss!”
Brazil had been officially neutral during the war but had made no secret that it sympathized with the Confederacy. Brazilians had harbored and supplied Southern ships (including those running Yankee blockades) and had refused Union demands to treat Southern ships as pirate vessels.
With an open border, Brazilian Emperor Dom Pedro II welcomed the Southerners’ technical expertise and determination. He hoped to make Brazil the major cotton supplier to Britain. His agents met with prospective colonists at offices in New York and Washington. He subsidized passage, made land available very cheap, provided free temporary housing and accelerated and simplified the naturalization process.
In 1866, a group of Brazilians established the International Society of Immigration to encourage legislation for new and beneficial immigration programs.
A former Alabama cotton grower encouraged others in 1868:
“Move here and buy land, which you can do on four years’ credit, at twenty-two cents per acre, better than I ever saw anywhere in the United States even in the richest portions of Alabama. Bring with you all tools you can, as yours are generally better than can be bought here.
“Bring all your household furniture except very heavy articles of wood. With what means you have don’t fear to start. If you can bring any number of such families as your own, I can safely guarantee them homes, and plenty of land for which Providence has done more than for any other I have ever seen or heard of. (I have almost forgiven our enemies all their wrongs, on account of the better country to which they forced me.)
“We have here a beautiful place for our village, in the center of rich land, and on a grand river. This is mid-summer, thermometer at 85 ranging through the year from 95 to 65.”
Nearly all Southern newspapers railed against the exodus, knowing the loss of citizens (today called “brain drain”) to be harmful to society. Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis vociferously urged against it.
Despite these protests, many went to Brazil. They planned to stay and usually did. By 1867, one Brazilian newspaper reported that it seemed as if Confederados were living on every block of Rio de Janeiro.
Their letters back home to friends and newspapers were positive. Emigrants wrote of a perfect climate, “neither too hot nor cold, and where frost is never known, water as cold as the mountain spring, and so equally distributed as to allow every man to run his plantation machinery from it. Here also everything grows, and grows well.”
Another wrote, “The war worn soldier, the bereaved parent, the oppressed patriot, the homeless and despoiled, can find refuge from the trials which beset them, and a home not haunted by the eternal remembrance of harrowing scenes of sorrow and death.” Although slavery still existed in Brazil at the time, the great majority of Southerners who emigrated were pleased simply to have found comfortable new homes.
They became known as Confederados and quickly gained a reputation for honesty and hard work. They adapted and set up communities, including those known today as Americana and Florida. Those communities have frequent gatherings and celebrations, including some in which women dress in antebellum gowns and men in gray uniforms similar to the type worn by their ancestors.
Many Brazilians still carry names such as Lee, Jefferson and Washington. The Confederados learned Portuguese but often continued to speak English at home and at gatherings with other emigres. Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter visited in 1972; both he and his press secretary remarked how the Confederados sounded and seemed just like Southerners.
Paul N. Herbert is the President of the Historical Society of Fairfax County, Va. and author of “God Knows All Your Names.”
(Above) In 1972, Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter visited Brazil and remarked on the similarity between American Southerners and Confederados, descendants of Confederates who emigrated to Brazil after the Civil War. The youngsters with him are fifth-generation Confederados. (Below, right) Flags of Brazil, the Confederacy and the U.S. in a church speak to the descendants’ mixed heritage.