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Latin America’s Total War

Peter H. Wilson revisits the War of the Triple Alliance, Latin America’s bloodiest conflict.

A Paraguayan soldier late in the war on sentry duty at López' headquarters. Copied from Harper's New Monthly Magazine, Vol. 40 (1870).While Europeans and North Americans forged nations through international and civil wars in the mid-nineteenth century, much of Latin America was embroiled in a ferocious struggle that pitted the small land-locked state of Paraguay against the combined might of the Brazilian empire and the Argentine and Uruguayan republics. The suffering it caused was immense but compared to the American Civil War or the wars of Italian and German Unification, this War of the Triple Alliance of 1864-70, or Lopez’ War, is virtually unknown outside the countries involved. If remembered at all it is for the romantic figure of Elisa Lynch (1835-86), the charming but unscrupulous Irish mistress of the Paraguayan president, Francisco Solano Lopez (1826-70), and the subject of several racy novels and implausible biographies.

Spanish-speaking republics were emerging from the post-independence era, dominated by caudillos, or military strongmen, of whom Lopez was one of the most colourful. The combination of these developments produced in Latin America a conflict of stark contrasts: one in which armies led by republican idealists fought alongside those composed largely of black slaves and impoverished gauchos, the cowboys of Latin America. Spears and lances were used alongside breach-loading rifles, high explosives, and observation balloons, while canoes battled steam-powered ironclads.

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