War of the Triple Alliance

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War of the Triple Alliance

War of the Triple Alliance (Great War, Paraguayan War), the protracted conflict (November 1864–March 1870) in which Paraguay fought to preserve its sovereignty from Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay.


Brazil precipitated the conflict by invading Uruguay and interfering in its domestic affairs. In response Paraguayan dictator Francisco Solano López closed the Paraguay River to Brazilian traffic, seized a Brazilian steamer, invaded the Brazilian province of Mato Grosso, and ignored Argentina's denial of permission to cross the Misiones region to attack the province of Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil. The victory of the Colorados, the liberal party in Uruguay, which Brazil supported, along with Argentine anger over Paraguay's invasion of its territory, concern over the growing power of Paraguay, and military attacks on Brazil led to an alliance of Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay, which declared war against Paraguay on 1 May 1865.

The Paraguayan army carried the war into the Brazilian provinces of Mato Grosso and Rio Grande Do Sul, but Paraguay's success was short-lived. At the battle of Riachuelo on 11 June 1865, the Brazilian navy severely damaged the Paraguayan fleet on the Paraná River south of Corrientes, limiting it to defensive actions. The Paraguayan armies that had invaded the provinces of Corrientes, Argentina, and Rio Grande do Sul also were soundly defeated. Within six months the allies halted the Paraguayan offensive and thereafter kept the war confined to Paraguay. By January 1866, allied ships had blockaded Paraguay, and in April allied armies crossed the frontier. A Paraguayan victory at Curupaití in September 1866 discouraged further allied offensives, and Paraguayan defenders confined the allied forces of Bartolomé Mitre to the southwest border region.

Paraguayans regard the May 1866 and November 1867 battles of Tuyutí in the Humaitá region as victories, since they slowed allied actions. But the war turned against Paraguay in 1868. In January, Brazilian General Luis Alves de Lima e Silva, who later become the duke of Caxias, took command of the allied armies and one month later a Brazilian naval vessel passed the well-fortified complex of Humaitá, ascended the Paraguay River, and bombarded Asunción. The fall of Humaitá left Asunción indefensible, so López shifted the capital first to Luque and then to Piribebuy. The Lomas Valentinas campaigns, which occurred in the Valentine Hills some 20 miles south of Asunción in December 1868, foreshadowed the defeat of Paraguay.

The allies took Asunción and looted it but did not establish a provisional government until 15 August 1869, when both Caacupé, the new site of the Paraguayan arsenal, and Piribebuy had been captured. Brazilian troops under the Conde d'Eu, Gaston Luis Felipe d'Orleans, destroyed the Paraguayan army at Piribebuy in a bloody campaign, after which López fled north with the remnants of his army. The Acosta-ñu confrontation between Brazilian troops and Paraguayan adolescent soldiers on 16 August 1869 led to many more deaths. López continued to wage guerrilla warfare until Brazilian cavalry surprised and killed him on 1 March 1870 at Cerro Corá.

From the opening of the war López directed his own armies and then, after the first disasters, assumed field command. His use of brutal measures to continue the war, including the drafting of young boys, his intolerance of disagreement, and the execution, imprisonment, and torture of officers, government officials, and their family members during the last year of the war revealed him to be a desperate, cruel dictator. Yet his fight to defend Paraguay against overwhelming odds made him national hero.

On 20 June 1870, Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay signed a preliminary accord that ended the war, promised elections within three months, guaranteed nonintervention in Paraguayan politics, and assured free navigation of the Paraná and Paraguay rivers. The last Brazilian troops evacuated Paraguay six years later, but Argentina continued to administer Villa Occidental until 1878, when the arbitration of U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes resulted in its recognition as Paraguayan territory.

The causes of the war are disputed. Blame has been attributed to Francisco Solano López, Bartolomé Mitre, Dom Pedro II of Brazil, Uruguayan internal political disturbances, Brazilian national interests, and British intrigue. Most historians today believe the war developed from the efforts of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay to preserve political stability and a balance of power in the region.

The war lasted six years, in part because the allies did not marshal sufficient military power. By threatening to dismember Paraguay, they encouraged desperate Paraguayan resistance and López's stubborn persistence. According to allied agreements, Argentina was to contribute 25,000 men, Uruguay 5,000, and Brazil 40,000, but by the beginning of 1865 Brazil and Uruguay were each 20 percent under force, and Argentina sent less than half the promised troops. In August 1867 the allied army had 43,500 troops, of which 36,000 were Brazilians, 6,000 Argentines, and 1,500 Uruguayans. To defend Paraguay, López had 35,305 soldiers and 3,306 officers in 1864 and successfully recruited replacements during the war.


Despite its defeat Paraguay remained independent, serving as a buffer between Argentina and Brazil, but it paid a high price. The war destroyed a half century of economic development, ended social experimentation that had favored the campesinos, and destroyed a system of modernization based on the country's own resources. Paraguay lost between 8.7 and 18.5 percent of its prewar population—not 50 percent, as is often claimed—38 percent of its prewar territory, including the loss to Argentina of an economically valuable 17,568 square miles in the Misiones area, and all of its heavy and most of its light industry. Foreign influences and dependence on Argentina and Brazil replaced the self-sufficient, nationally directed economy of earlier decades, and a new political instability was reflected in the thirty-two presidents who administered Paraguay between 1870 and 1932.

The war also affected Brazil and Argentina. In Brazil the war created respect for the professional officers associated with the rising urban middle classes. It delayed consideration of internal issues such as slave emancipation. And although the war squandered lives and funds abroad, it increased the size of Brazil's territory. Argentina, the chief beneficiary, obtained territory and destroyed Paraguay's rival power. Argentina invested less capital and fewer lives in the war than the other allies, while its cattle ranchers, farmers, and merchants benefited from the Brazilian military's purchases of Argentine food and supplies. And President Mitre used the war to subdue the interior and increase the power of centralized authority.

See alsoLópez, Francisco Solano; Mato Grosso; Rio Grande do Sul.


A great deal of literature about Paraguay has focused on the causes of the war. Pelham Horton Box, The Origins of the Paraguayan War (1930, repr. 1967), blames Francisco Solano López for the war, while F. J. Mc Lynn, "The Causes of the War of Triple Alliance: An Interpretation," in Inter-American Economic Affairs 33 (Autumn 1979):21-43, faults the policies of Argentina, specifically its president, Bartolomé Mitre; Juan José Cresto, La correspondencia que engendró una guerra: Nuevos estudios sobre los orígenes de la guerra con el Paraguay (1953, repr. 1974) holds the internal political conflicts of Uruguay responsible, and Carlos Pereyra, Francisco Solano López y la guerra del Paraguay (1953), attributes the war to Brazil. José Alfredo Fornós Peñalba, "Draft Dodgers, War Resisters, and Turbulent Gauchos: The War of the Triple Alliance Against Paraguay," in The Americas 38 (April 1982):463-479, believes foreign interests, particularly those of the British, to be more responsible, whereas Efraím Cardozo, Vísperas de la guerra del Paraguay (1954), argues that efforts to maintain a balance of power in the Río de la Plata region were responsible for the war. Diego Abente, "The War of the Triple Alliance: Three Explanatory Models," in Latin American Research Review 22, no. 2 (1987):47-69, reexamines the evidence with mathematical models and concludes that a modified power transition best explains the origin of the war.

The major revisionist work on the demographics of Paraguay was contributed by Vera Blinn Reber, "The Demographics of Paraguay: A Reinterpretation of the Great War, 1864–1870," in Hispanic American Historical Review 68 (May 1988): 289-319. The most complete descriptions of the war are found in Juan Beverina, La guerra del Paraguay, 5 vols. (1921), and Efraím Cardozo, Hace cien años: Crónicas de la guerra de 1864–1870, 6 vols. (1866–1872). John Hoyt Williams, The Rise and Fall of the Paraguayan Republic, 1800–1870 (1979): 206-226, gives a description of the campaigns and effects of the war, as do two primary sources, George Thompson, The War in Paraguay (1869), and Andrew James Kennedy, La Plata, Brazil, and Paraguay During the Present War (1869). The results of the war are well covered in Harris Gaylord Warren, Paraguay and the Triple Alliance: The Postwar Decade, 1869–1878 (1978).

Additional Bibliography

Bethell, Leslie. The Paraguayan War (1864–1870). London: Institute of Latin American Studies, 1996.

Leuchars, Chris. To the Bitter End: Paraguay and the War of the Triple Alliance. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002.

Marco, Miguel Angel de. La guerra del Paraguay. Buenos Aires: Planeta, 1995.

Whigham, Thomas. The Paraguayan War. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002.

                                Vera Blinn Reber