Francisco Solano Lopez: Who Was This South American Napoleon?

Independent South American countries were confronting each other in countless territorial disputes. Amid this chaos, Paraguayan president Francisco Solano Lopez changed the history of the continent.

Dec 11, 2021By Ilyas Benabdeljalil, MA Int'l Relations, BA Political Science

Francisco Solano Lopez battle riachuelo curuzu


Before 1860, the lack of clear land delimitation left by Portugal and Spain, along with the inability of South American diplomats to establish new borders, led to major conflicts that tore the continent apart for years to come.


The first countries to gain independence were Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia, under the leadership of the famous hero Simon Bolivar. In the South, the Spanish Viceroyalty of Rio de la Plata collapsed in the 1810s, leading to the emergence of Argentina and Paraguay. Chile also declared its independence in the 1810s, disintegrating the Spanish Viceroyalty of Peru. Brazil followed suit, declaring its independence in May 1822, under the leadership of the Prince regent Pedro of the Portuguese ruling dynasty of the house of Braganza, who became Emperor Pedro I of Brazil.


portuguese and spanish posessions south america before independance
Portuguese and Spanish possessions in South America before independence, via Britannica


A staunch rivalry quickly emerged between Argentina and Brazil to determine the great power of the sub-continent. The two fought each other fiercely in the Cisplatine War (1825-1828) over the “Banda Oriental.” As a result, the latter gained its independence from Argentina, becoming Uruguay. However, this newly established state failed to build a strong centralized government and quickly fell to a series of civil wars, subjected to numerous interventions from its powerful neighbors.


By 1851, the Colorados, a Brazilian-backed faction, managed to defeat its adversaries, the Argentinian backed “Blancos.” This victory led to a confrontation between Argentina and Brazil in the Platine War, which would last until 1862. As a result of this conflict, Brazil gained full influence over Uruguay. Argentina, defeated, took the opportunity to centralize its governance, asserting the dominance of Buenos Aires over the other provinces.

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Paraguay: The Rise of the Lopez Family & Eventually Francisco Solano Lopez

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Francisco Solano Lopez, via Britannica


Following the collapse of Spanish Rio de la Plata, Paraguay proclaimed its independence in 1811. A military junta made of consults rejected the rule of Buenos Aires, defeating its armies on the field.


Three years later, the Paraguayan Congress chose to concentrate all powers into the hands of José Gaspar Rodriguez de Francia as the sole consul. He chose to stay away from the different conflicts that tore apart neighboring countries. Additionally, the isolated geographic position of Paraguay made it a less worthy target of local great powers.


De Francia’s first matter of business was the economic development of the country, which he nationalized. Additionally, he reformed education, and through a series of progressive policies, managed to further develop the country. However, his regime quickly transformed into a full-on dictatorship with a firm ban of any opposition.


De Francia’s death in 1840 left a power vacuum and subsequently led to the emergence of various military regimes. By 1841, Congress gave power to a military man, Mariano Roque Alonso, and the lawyer Carlos Antonio Lopez. The latter quickly managed to get the support of the main political stakeholders, and in 1844, exiled Alonso and assumed full political power.


Abandoning the title of consul and declaring himself president, Lopez ruled with an iron fist until he died in 1862. Under his rule, Paraguay prospered while staying out of continental affairs. Carlos Antonio Lopez also strengthened national defense, largely expanding the military budget. The president gave key positions to his family members, naming his son, Francisco Solano, as vice-president in 1857. On September 10, 1862, Carlos Antonio passed away, leaving his son a stable country with a strong army and economy. The latter’s rule would go on to impact Paraguay and the whole of South America for years to come.


Francisco Solano Lopez and the “Third Force”

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Battle of Curuzu by Vitor Meireles, c. 1870


Before assuming the presidency, Francisco Solano Lopez served in the military. By 1853, he was sent on a diplomatic mission to Europe, where he developed a fascination for the first and second French Empires and Napoleon Bonaparte. On his return in 1855, he was named Minister of War and contributed directly to the Prussian-style renovation of the Paraguayan army.


As Vice President when his father died, Lopez peacefully took the presidential office with Congress’s approval. While pursuing economically isolationist policies, Francisco Solano Lopez also desired to place Paraguay as a major power on the continent, rivaling Brazil and Argentina. He wanted to gain coastline and open Paraguay to foreign trade. To this end, he established an alliance with Uruguayan president Bernardo Berro of the Blanco Party. Lopez aimed to unite the smaller regional nations as a “Third Force” on the continental level and directly influence the Rio de la Plata Bassin.


This displeased Brazil, who then openly supported a rebellion of the Colorado Party in Uruguay in 1863. Despite Paraguay’s threats of intervention, Brazil invaded Uruguay in 1864. Francisco Solano Lopez declared war in December 1864, invading the province of Mato Grosso.


Despite spectacular successes, Paraguayan armies were unable to stop Brazilian forces from taking Montevideo in Uruguay and instituting their Colorado ally, Venancio Flores, as president. President Lopez was left with no other option than to march directly through Argentina to aid his allies. However, Paraguay failed to gain permission from Argentine president Bartolomé Mitre, which led Lopez to declare war on Buenos Aires in April 1865. Paraguayan forces quickly invaded the Corrientes Province, winning important military victories.


In May 1865, Argentina, Brazil, and Colorado’s Uruguay signed the Treaty of the Triple Alliance in Buenos Aires, aiming to defeat the Paraguayan armies and overthrow the government.


The War of the Triple Alliance: The Coalition Counterattacks

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The Battle of Riachuelo by Vitor Meireles, 1882-1883  


The first strategic objective in the War of the Triple Alliance was to push Paraguay back from occupied territories in Brazil and Argentina. To that end, the Brazilian command sent Colonel Manuel Pedro Drago towards Mato Grosso. The latter was pushed back time and time again. Paraguayan troops would occupy the region until 1869.


The Paraguayan successes were made possible by General Estigarribia’s offensive in the Rio Grande do Sul and the occupation of Uruguaiana in early 1865. However, by September of the same year, Brazilian troops successfully forced their foes into abandoning the city, effectively pushing Lopez’s army back. This victory would open a direct road to Paraguay.


Paraguay’s invasion of Corrientes caused a major uproar in Argentina, in which the president was chosen to be Supreme Commander of the allied forces. Bartolomé Mitre organized a major counterattack that failed as Paraguayan troops held solid supply lines through the Parana River, which runs through Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay.


On June 11, 1865, Brazilian admiral Francisco Manuel Barroso da Silva launched a major assault on the Paraguayan navy led by Pedro Ignacio Meza on the river, effectively destroying it in the bloody Battle of Riachuelo. This victory would prove decisive, as it would cut off Paraguayan forces in Argentina from their homeland. This victory would turn the tide of the War of the Triple Alliance and allow allied troops to go on the offensive.


War of the Triple Alliance: The Invasion of Paraguay

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Uruguayan batteries at the battle of Sauce – 18 July 1866


Following the victory in Riachuelo, Lopez was forced to abandon Corrientes and adopt a defensive strategy. The allies mobilized 42,000 infantry and 15,000 cavalry to launch a full-on invasion of Paraguay. The defenders fought well, scoring minor victories at the Battles of Corrales and Itati, but were forced to retreat slowly in Paraguayan territory.


In April 1866, allies penetrated the Paraguayan mainland before being brutally ambushed at the Battle of Estero Blanco on May 2nd, losing multiple artillery and munitions to Lopez’s army. Believing that the war could be won, the President launched a major offensive on the coalition at the battle of Tuyuti on May 24th.


The allied superior artillery inflicted bloody casualties on the Paraguayan troops. Losing 13,000 men, the latter had no choice but to retreat. Despite this defeat, Paraguay inflicted severe casualties on the allies, forcing them to maintain their positions.


In July, a Paraguayan army led by Colonel Elizardo Aquino managed to inflict a severe defeat on the Argentine and Uruguayan troops during the Battles of Boqueron and Sauce. However, the benefits of this victory were nullified by an impressive Brazilian breakthrough at the battle of Curuzu in September 1866. Count Manuel Marquez de Sousa managed to overrun entrenched Paraguayan forces with naval support and take effective control of the Paraguay River, halving the forces of Solano Lopez.


Following this defeat, Lopez tried to initiate separate peace talks with Argentina and Uruguay, to no avail. However, Argentinian and Uruguayan diplomats led by the two presidents Mitre and Flores demanded a complete change of government in Asuncion. This condition was not acceptable to the Paraguayan president, and the War of the Triple Alliance resumed.


The Battle of Curupayty and the Stalemate

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Battle of Curupayty, by Candido Lopez, 1866


Refusing to retire from the presidency, Francisco Solano Lopez ordered his most talented General, José Eduvigis Diaz Vera, to organize a defensive line at Curupayty. On September 22nd, allied forces led by the Argentinian president Bartolomé Mitre and Brazilian Admiral Joaquim Marquez Lisboa launched a massive assault on the Paraguayan positions.


A naval bombardment did not manage to damage the Paraguayan defensive, barely creating a dust that led Mitre to assume that the enemy was overrun by Brazilian shelling. Ordering a charge, his armies were trapped and completely annihilated.


The Paraguayan victory did not change the course of the war; however, a 10-month long stalemate began, and the allied army’s command collapsed. The Brazilian military pressured the authorities of the alliance to take command away from Bartolomé Mitre. This angered him, and he returned to Buenos Aires. Venancio Flores abandoned the front and returned to Uruguay, where he was forced out of office in 1868. Uruguayan participation in the war effort would be minimal from that point onward.


In the meantime, Argentinian and Brazilian military leaders blamed each other for the defeat. After long disputes, they agreed to give full command to the talented and experienced Brazilian general Luis Alves de Lima e Silva, Duke of Caxias. He quickly reformed all command of the allied troops, appointing commanders to key positions for their ability rather than social rank or influence. However, the offensive could not be resumed before July 1867, as allied armies were struck with a cholera epidemic.


Francisco Solano Lopez was unable to use the momentum gained by the victory at Curupayty. The Paraguayan war capacity was strongly weakened. Additionally, a Brazilian shell managed to mortally wound General Diaz. Without his most talented commander and severely restricted numbers, Asuncion could only prepare for the next allied offensive.


The March to Asuncion

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The Battle of Tuyuti by Candido Lopez, 1889, via The Guardian


On July 1867, the allies resumed the offensive, isolating the city of Humaita. By November, the city was effectively besieged. Lopez attempted to weaken the enemy, attacking the rearguard of the coalition at the second Battle of Tuyuti. Despite managing to capture multiple resources, the Paraguayan army could not stop the allies’ offensive.


The siege of Humaita lasted until July 1868. In the meantime, Francisco Solano Lopez attempted multiple maneuvers to stop the momentum of the Triple Alliance. In March 1868, a bloody battle occurred in the Paraguay River, at the shores of Humaita, ending in a disastrous defeat for the besieged forces.


Once the northern metropolis fell, the way towards Asuncion was open. In December 1868, the alliance’s army attacked 12,000 Paraguayan troops in what was called the Pikysyry maneuver. Using his tactical genius, the Duke of Caxias swiftly destroyed all the Paraguayan divisions protecting the capital. On January 1st, 1869, Asuncion was finally occupied. Refusing to admit defeat, Francisco Solano Lopez retreated towards the hills of central and northern Paraguay.


In Asuncion, the allies established a friendly government, gathering from various factions of Paraguayan politics. At its head was Carlos Loizaga, Jose Diaz de Bedoya, and Cirilo Antonio Rivarola. However, it was clear that this government’s main purpose was to serve the interest of the coalition, as the War of the Triple Alliance against Francisco Solano Lopez was far from over.


The Campaign of the Hills and the End of the War of the Triple Alliance 

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Battle of Campo Grande by Pedro Américo, 1871


Following the fall of Asuncion, Francisco Solano Lopez retreated to the hills in the Northwest of the city, from where he led a bloody guerrilla war. To finish off the Paraguayan president, the coalition gave command to Luis Filipe Gastao de Orléans, Count of Eu, the son-in-law of the Brazilian Emperor.


In order to remove the Triple Alliance from his lands, Solano Lopez implemented extremely questionable tactics. He mobilized children and executed any who would suggest surrender. Deploying the remains of his government and army in Piribebuy, the Paraguayan president was forced to abandon this town on the 12th of August 1869, after suffering a major defeat at its gates. This defeat was followed by the complete massacre of the Paraguayan rearguard at the battle of Acosta Nu, where many children died crushed by a Brazilian cavalry charge.


A few days later, the Count of Eu is said to have fallen into depression, not taking part in the command of the alliance’s army any longer. Command fell to the Viscount of Rio Branco, José Maria de Silva Paranhos, the leader of the Brazilian diplomatic delegation to Paraguay since the fall of Asuncion.


Following these last defeats, Lopez fell into paranoia, increasing his cruelty towards his soldiers and officers. Defections multiplied, and the number of available troops diminished further. On the 1st of March 1870, the last camp of the Paraguayan army was ambushed at the battle of Cerro Cora. Francisco Solano Lopez fought alongside his men. Being severely hurt, he managed to retreat alongside some of his aids to the banks of Aquibadan-nigui River, where he was caught by the troops of general José Antonio Correia da Camara. Refusing to surrender, Lopez fought on until he was shot to death by Brazilian troops, shouting: “I die with my homeland!”


Francisco Solano Lopez’s Legacy

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The Brazil-Paraguay border seen from Ciudad del Este, via the North American Congress on Latin America


Francisco Solano Lopez is a controversial historical character. Considered by some as an active adversary to imperialism and by others as a merciless dictator, he significantly marked South American history and identity.


Despite his military genius and the various victories achieved through the war, Lopez and his armies were eventually defeated. As the war went on, the Paraguayan president slowly sank into folly and paranoia, executing any civilian, military, or politician who dared question his orders or suggest an eventual surrender. By the latest years of the war, Lopez conscripted even children and the elderly into his armies. The Battle of Acosta Nu is still commemorated each year in Paraguay, in what is called the “Children’s Day,” to remember the death of child soldiers during that gruesome encounter.


The political losses of the war were minimal, as Paraguay had to relinquish all claims on bordering Brazilian and Argentinian territories and renounce any influence in Uruguay. However, the human cost was beyond repair.


The War of the Triple Alliance allowed Brazil to exercise hegemonic influence on South America until the coup d’état of 15th November 1889, which overthrew Emperor Pedro II and established a Republic. Considered the main beneficiary of the victory, Brazil occupied Paraguay until 1876 while receiving major yearly reparation payments, which lasted until 1943.


In Uruguay, the victory allowed the Colorados to keep a hold on power until 1958, but it remained under the influence of its bigger neighbors. As for Argentina, major criticism rose against Mitre’s government due to the major cost the war had on the national treasury.


Nowadays, the War of the Triple Alliance is considered to be one of the bloodiest conflicts in modern history. For the four belligerents, it is an episode of shared history which is still commemorated to this day.

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By Ilyas BenabdeljalilMA Int'l Relations, BA Political ScienceIlyas holds a BA in Political Science and an MA in International Relations. He studied economy, sociology, public policy, and history and worked as a researcher for think tanks and consulting firms. It is his strong passion for political and military history that brought him to TheCollector. Nowadays, he is preparing for a PhD program in International Cooperation and Public Policy.