IZECKSOHN: Slavery and War in the Americas (2014)

Slavery and War in the Americas: Race, Citizenship, and State Building in the United States and Brazil, 1861-1870 by Vitor Izecksohn. University of Virginia Press, 2014.  Cloth, ISBN: 978-0813935850.  $45.00.
Historians have called, at least twice, for comparison of the Civil War with the War of the Triple Alliance. In 1986, Richard E. Beringer, Herman Hattaway, Archer Jones, and William N. Still, Jr., commented, in Why the South Lost the Civil War, that “just as the Civil War ended, the landlocked South American republic of Paraguay launched a war that presented interesting parallels with, and at least one sharp contrast to, the Confederacy” (440). Similarly, two years later, in Battle Cry of Freedom, James M. McPherson noted the “instructive example” of Paraguay (856). However, no historian has subjected the two wars to a sustained comparison until Vitor Izecksohn, Professor of the Institute of History and the Post-Graduate Program in Social History at the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro. The 1860s, Izecksohn observes, were difficult times for the U.S. and Brazil. While the U.S. was nearly ripped apart by the Civil War, Brazil’s interference in Uruguayan affairs sparked the agonizing War of the Triple Alliance. Izecksohn argues that wartime necessities led to centralized recruitment which, in turn, strengthened national governments and “profoundly affected the lives and customs of populations subjected to the draft” (2). However, Izecksohn also highlights limitations to state building encountered by centralizing elites and discusses how they attempted to navigate around these obstacles. Finally, while Izecksohn compares Northern and Brazilian recruitment, he also suggests a comparison of the Confederate and Paraguayan situations could be just as fruitful.

Izecksohn begins by discussing U.S. and Brazilian military traditions, noting that both countries were marked by popular distrust of a professional military. In addition, because both countries maintained decentralized structures of defense, authorities had to rely on the help of local community leaders. In the spirit of the best comparative histories, Izecksohn discusses both similarities and differences. One very significant difference concerned attitudes toward military service. In the U.S., service in the militia was considered honorable, but the Brazilian view of the military service was derogatory. Ultimately, the U.S. and Brazil entered the 1860s with small regular armies unfit for the conflicts to come. For the benefit of those who do not know much about the War of the Triple Alliance, Izecksohn thoughtfully provides an overview.

The author then turns to an exploration of the crises in recruitment. He divides story of recruitment in the U.S., which will be familiar for many readers, into three phases. The initial call produced widespread enthusiasm and many volunteers. However, this enthusiasm (phase one) was quickly replaced by phase two (tension) when the Northern army did not immediately crush the rebels and the federal government confronted the realities of provisioning an army. Though Brazil and the U.S. faced similar difficulties, there was at least one clear difference: “citizenship was much more widespread in America. Opposition political parties could elect state governments in the United States, whereas in Brazil, provincial presidents were appointed by the emperor” (44). Copperhead opposition to the war did indeed flourish. Phase two soon gave way to phase three (federal reaction), as the federal government extended the range of recruitment through the Militia Act and the Enrollment Act. Izecksohn concludes with an important point: “if the draft exemplified a push toward centralization, its failure was clear by the fall of 1863. It revealed the limits of radical legislation to expand the powers of the federal government” (57-58). Because of this failure, Izecksohn argues, it became necessary to fill the ranks with other people, namely African Americans.

Izecksohn then considers the crisis in Brazilian recruiting and contends that during the period from 1865 to 1868, “the Paraguayan campaign was crippled by the Empire’s inability to transform Brazilian civilians into soldiers” (61). As was the case in the U.S., volunteers poured in at the beginning of the conflict. Indeed, both countries saw intense outpourings of support and successful initial recruitment, which led each government to cut off the flow of volunteers and provoke manpower problems.  Recruiters in Brazil relied on local institutions and bosses, which was especially problematic because these leaders were often unwilling to contribute soldiers. Furthermore, Imperial authorities antagonized local leaders by legalizing the transfer of the National Guard soldiers to the regular army, which left towns and plantations unprotected in the face of potential slave rebellions. Although Brazil did not have as organized an anti-war movement as the U.S., internal resistance was such a problem that it “was as serious a threat to a Brazilian victory as Paraguay’s military efforts” (71). Because of the strident anti-recruitment attitude among all social classes and because the war created demand for a steady supply of troops, Imperial authorities began to consider emancipation and the enlistment of slaves.

After analyzing these crises, Izecksohn turns to recruitment of black soldiers in the U.S. and the manumission and enlistment of slaves in Brazil. Izecksohn offers an overview of the recruitment of black soldiers (again, much of this information will be familiar to many readers) and notes that “black enlistment in the army advanced the African American struggle for citizenship, yet the military experience was not necessarily good for the soldiers who served in the USCTs” (117). Izecksohn’s discussion of the Brazilian case begins with a significant observation: in contrast to the U.S., Brazilian slaves could not be recruited into the army. Therefore, some masters literally sold their slaves to the nation, using military service as a way to rid themselves of undesirable slaves. In other instances, however, just as the northern army helped destabilize slavery in the southern states, the Brazilian army accidently enrolled slaves and provided a refuge for some bondsmen. Slave recruitment was not numerically significant during the first years of the conflict, but because the military situation “between 1866 and 1868 created a perception of national crisis,” slave recruitment became a “lesser evil” (140). Izecksohn notes that, officially, 4,003 slaves were freed for the army and 2,257 enlisted in the navy, making for a total of 6,260 individuals (4.4 percent of the 91,298 soldiers in the war).

Ultimately, the two wars led to very different outcomes. Unlike the U.S., where the participation of black soldiers helped to consolidate emancipation, in Brazil, freed slaves “returned to a depressed and unchanging society, where the values and practices of slavery still mattered” (162). Where the Civil War engraved preserving the Union and ending slavery “on the pantheon of noble American achievements and helped unite the country (except for the South) around shared sacrifice and triumph,” the War of the Triple Alliance “generated debts, resentments, and few practical benefits or ideological principles that might have given meaning to the bloody military victory” (176).

This is an important book. That said, there is one issue that merits notice. Izecksohn seems to overlook the moral arguments behind emancipation. In this treatment, emancipation is simply a war measure designed to add warm bodies to the ranks. But what of the Radical Republicans and African Americans who pushed Lincoln to enlist black soldiers and recognize black equality? Some recognition of these perspectives would have been appreciated. That aside, it is important to note that Izecksohn has successfully demonstrated the richness of this topic. Hopefully, additional historians will respond by investigating other similarities and differences. For instance, did the behavior of Confederates toward captured black soldiers have any parallels in the War of the Triple Alliance? Would it be possible to compare the severe discipline of black soldiers in the Northern army with black troops in Brazil? These issues, and many others, could profitably command the attention of future historians.  In sum, this fine book will appeal to lay and scholarly audiences and should be utilized in upper-level undergraduate classes and graduate seminars.


Evan C. Rothera is a doctoral candidate in history at The Pennsylvania State University.  

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