Unlike the Confederacy, the other biggest slave-based economy in the Americas, the Brazilian elite didn’t like to fight. And unlike the Confederates, they sent their black slaves to do it for them. Anybody who could afford it just sent a few black slaves. And funny thing, the slaves weren’t that great troops. Slaves fight pretty well sometimes, which is one of the depressing features of history most people don’t like to think about—the way so many slaves are eager to die for Massa—but these must’ve been your smarter slaves, because they weren’t into it at all. The Paraguayans rolled over them every time they met, and that was usually by accident if the Brazilian rank-and-file had anything to say about it.
The Brazilian Army was the real Mel Brooks character in this screenplay: they didn’t manage to march to the Paraguayan frontier until 1867, and by the time they got there, their grand expeditionary force had been hacked away by malaria and other bug-borne killers to about 1500 men. They fought one battle against the first Paraguayan force they met—I mean, a shame to come all that way and not come back with even one decent war story—despite the fact that the Paraguayans had gotten bored waiting in the jungle for their Brazilian opponents to show. When the grand Brazilian expedition finally met a small force of Paraguayan cavalry at Laguna, they instantly fled back to the plantation, to resume the wonderful life of being slaves in the sugarcane fields in dear old Brazil.
So far Paraguay was winning and looking good doing it. But the trouble with being one of these undersized super-countries is that early victories go to your head and you start thinking you can take on a whole army, like Uma Thurmann with her Ginzu knife in Tokyo. Paraguay was as high on victory as Germany in 1941, so tweaked on war that in March 1865 the Lopez family decided to take on another country: Argentina. And here again it was like a midget version of the European War of 1939-1945: at first the Paraguayans scored miraculous, against-the-odds victories, one after the other. They took the Argentine province of Corrientes. This wasn’t an outback like Mato Grosso, but important and basic Argentine land. Except now it was Paraguay’s land, and Lopez was determined to keep marching toward blue water, and win his homeland a piece of the coastal pie he’d call “Greater Paraguay.”
Man, there’s nothing more deadly than these “Greater Whatever” plans. If your country starts talking like that, you better start putting your assets into offshore havens, because church is about out. The Paraguayans were about to learn that modern war puts logistical strength and flexibility above sheer guts. The same lesson the Confederacy and the Reich and the Imperial Japanese learned, and in the same hard way.
See, Brazil’s army might be useless but they had a navy, and a pretty decent one. In that part of South America 140 years ago, there were no roads to speak of; you got around by river. The Brazilian navy was twice the size of Paraguay’s and unlike the army was considered a respectably place to work if you were part of the white Brazilian elite. So it had decent training, funding, and morale, unlike the army.
In 1865, the same year Grant finally ground down Lee, the Brazilian navy beat the Paraguayan navy in the river battle of Riachuelo. The Paraguayan navy fought as well as you’d expect, but it was outgunned twice over, and numbers do tell when both sides have decent morale.
That battle was a lot like the Union victory at Vicksburg (but a lot faster); it meant that the enemy heartland was opened up to grinding, a war of attrition, where money, industrial base and coast control can be sure of beating sheer courage over time. In that way, this war was a lot like our Civil War: key river naval battle leads to Phase Two, Total War to destroy enemy civilian morale.