The Uruguayan civil war (1839–1851), the longest and hardest fought in the country's history, is known as the Guerra Grande, or "Great War." The struggle originated in the rivalry between the Colorado and Blanco parties and their respective leaders, Fructuoso Rivera and Manuel Oribe. On March 1, 1839, Rivera became president for a second time, after overthrowing Oribe with the help of Unitario exiles from Argentina. Ten days later, under pressure from the Unitarios, Rivera declared war on the Argentine dictator Juan Manuel de Rosas (himself allied to Oribe and the Blancos), an act that marked the beginning of the Guerra Grande.
Rivera defeated a first invasion from Argentina, but from 1842 to 1845 he suffered a series of defeats. With the help of Rosas, Oribe and the Blancos drove Rivera into exile in Brazil and confined the Colorado government to Montevideo, which for nine years remained under siege. Rivera returned to the struggle in the Uruguayan interior in 1846, but was removed from his command the following year. On each side, in fact, the war was marked by dissension among members of the respective Uruguayan parties and between those parties and their foreign allies.
Dissension was particularly severe on the Colorado side, pitting civilian party leaders against Rivera, and Colorados against foreign collaborators. The latter included not just the Unitarios, whose only interest was to overthrow Rosas, but the French and British, who in 1845 began a joint intervention in the Río De La Plata over questions of river navigation and the interests of their own subjects. Brazil also began to provide the Colorados with financial and naval support. The outsiders' interests coincided with those of the Colorados only in that both groups opposed the apparent intent of Rosas to convert Uruguay into an Argentine satellite. Tensions also arose simply from the crowding of thousands of foreigners—from Argentine enemies of Rosas to such European volunteers as the future champion of Italian unification, Giuseppe Garibaldi—into besieged Montevideo.
The stalemate ended when Governor Justo José de Urquiza of Entre Ríos Province, Argentina, broke with Rosas in May 1851. The Colorados quickly reached an agreement with Urquiza, whose subsequent advance into Uruguay caused Oribe and the Blancos to make peace in October of the same year. The siege of Montevideo was lifted, the Guerra Grande was over, and Rosas himself was overthrown in February 1852. Economically, the country was devastated. For instance, numbers of livestock fell from approximately 6.5 million to around 2 million at the end of the war. The country still remained under Brazilian and Argentine influence after the civil war. In 1865 Brazil helped the Colorados oust the Blancos from power. Because Paraguay saw this action as a threat to its national security, this coup sparked the War of the Triple Alliance, in which Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay fought Paraguay for five years.
Uruguayan Blancos would later look back on Oribe as having bravely defended national values against foreign intruders, whereas the Colorado version of history extols the heroic defense of Montevideo against the dictator Rosas and his Uruguayan lackeys. Both versions ignore the lack of clear policy differences between the parties and the fact that their leaders were often engaged in negotiations in the very midst of the struggle. But the legacy of the war was an intensification of Uruguayan partisan alignments that lasted into the twentieth century.
John F. Cady, Foreign Intervention in the Río de la Plata (1929).
Juan E. Pivel Devoto and Alcira Ranieri De Pivel Devoto, La Guerra Grande 1839–1851 (1971).
José Pedro Barrán, Apogeo y crisis del Uruguay pastoral y caudillesco 1838–1875 (1974).
John Lynch, Argentine Dictator: Juan Manuel de Rosas, 1829–1852 (1981).
Arocena Olivera, Enrique. La rebeldía de los doctores: El Uruguay del fusionismo al militarismo, 1851–1886. Montevideo, Uruguay: Librería Linardi y Risso, 1998.
Panizza, Francisco. "Late Institutionalisation and Early Modernization: The Emergence of Uruguay's Liberal Democratic Political Order." Journal of Latin America Studies 29, no. 3 (1997): 667-691.