The War of the Rebellion a European-style War?: Latin American Comparisons

The War of the Rebellion a European-style War?: Latin American Comparisons

The War of the Rebellion in North America has brought forth a massive number of studies in military history. Very few of them are comparative in nature.[1] In addition, there does not seem to be a corresponding scholarly interested in the many civil wars and revolutions in Latin America during the mid-nineteenth century, at least not in English-speaking scholarship. While the Americas had inherited European military traditions, there were marked differences. If we truly wish to challenge the notion of exceptionalism, both of the United States and of the Civil War, we should not just look to Europe, but also to the South—South America that is.

Like Steven Hahn, I am using War of the Rebellion because it better recognizes that the Confederate States were an unrecognized, rogue state without international legitimacy.[2] At the same time, by thinking of the Confederate States in terms of a challenge to constitutional state power, it allows for comparison to similar challenges by political and military leaders in South America. Whereas Europe struggled to define nation-states in the many wars during the Civil War era, the states of the Americas struggled militarily and politically to define the contours of constitutional and federal state systems. Although the United States had much in common with the other states in the hemisphere, it looked increasingly more like Europe militarily.

During the Age of Revolutions, armies in the Americas were small and engagements rarely involved more than 15,000 combatants. In contrast, the battles of the Napoleonic Wars included around 200,000 soldiers. By the mid-nineteenth century, European battles, like Königsgrätz, involved as many as half a million soldiers. The battles of the War of the Rebellion were smaller than its European counterparts. The largest engagements in the United States, such as the Battles of Gettysburg and in the Wilderness, involved about 160-180,000 troops. The larger population in Europe, the more militarized states with their conscription systems, and the professional character of the European militaries contributed to the much larger battles. At the same time, both European and North American military planners hoped that by putting a large force in the field they could deliver one knockout blow. Nevertheless, the question remains were the battles of the War of the Rebellion in line with other battles in the Americas?

At mid-nineteenth century, internal conflicts plagued the Americas. The War of the Rebellion coincided with rebellions in at least the Argentinian Confederation, Colombia, Peru, Mexico, and Venezuela. In all these rebellions, the two sides disagreed about the political organization of their states, such as how much autonomy did provinces/states retain as their country embraced more centralized forms of governments. Despite the shared causation, the military situation was vastly different. U.S. generals and politicians initially assumed that one major engagement would end the rebellion in a few weeks, but these expectations did not pan out. Instead, it took almost four years and the lives of over 360,000 U.S. soldiers to suppress the rebellion. In some cases, like Peru, campaigns were long drawn out affairs but involved little fighting as commanders embraced an extremely cautious approach to their campaigns. In Argentina, however, the struggle between the Confederation and Buenos Aires in 1861 involved only one engagement, the Battle of Pavón.

On September 17, 1861, the armies of Bartolomé Mitre, the governor of Buenos Aires, and Justo José de Urquiza, the commander of the forces of the Argentine Confederation, met in battle at the small hamlet of Pavón. The conflict was the most recent installment of a long and intermitted civil war over the role and place of Buenos Aires within Argentina. Buenos Aires did not wish to surrender its sovereignty and trade privileges. The battle was odd for Latin America. As one British minister reported, the national army was predominately cavalry while Mitre had a force predominately of infantry. Both armies were similarly sized with about 16,000 men each.[3] The size of the armies was roughly equivalent to the larger engagements in the Trans-Mississippi region, such as the Battle of Pea Ridge which involved about 26,000 soldiers or the Battle of Wilson’s Creek with its almost 18,000 combatants.

The battle unfolded in two stages. The fighting began with Urquiza’s cavalry charging, overwhelming, and chasing off the field the opposing cavalry. With the cavalry eliminated, Mitre brought his large infantry force to bear and overwhelmed Urquiza’s troops. Urquiza fled with only an escort of about fifty men and did not stop until he returned home in Entre Rios. Mitre withdrew the next day as well. Both sides claimed victory. Mitre boasted that he had forced the enemy infantry to flee from the field.  The Argentina Confederation claimed that Mitre did eventually abandon the battlefield and the Argentinian cavalry had practically annihilated the enemy cavalry.[4] There were no other large military engagements as Argentinian resistance collapsed. Ultimately, Mitre’s victory allowed for the unification of Buenos Aires and the Argentinian Confederation with a new more centralized government.

Similarly, Colombia’s federated state also suffered from rebellion when liberal and conservative forces clashed in 1860. The conflict started when the Provinces of Antioquía and Santander seceded from the New Granadan Confederation and the conservative government tried to remove the governors. Faced with this situation, Tomás Cipriano de Mosquera, the governor of Cauca, rose up against the government. By early 1861, the New Granadan government had 9,000 men under arms.[5]

After much skirmishing around Cauca, Mosquera decided to advance toward Bogota and connect with another rebel army. Mosquera located a strong defensive position where he entrenched his force but the position did not allow Mosquera to use his cavalry. General Joaquín Paris Ricaurte, the commander of the government force, had 4,000 men for the defense of Bogota. On May 25, Paris finally attacked. Both sides had significant casualties without achieving a clear victory. Mosquera lost three generals, several officers, and over 1,200 men dead, wounded, or missing. The government forces had lost about 800 dead and wounded. After four days of eying each other uneasily, another skirmish resulted in the destruction of Mosquera’s reinforcements.[6] Considering only about 8,000 soldiers were involved in the battle for Bogota, this would have been a small battle in the War of the Rebellion. The contemporaneous Battle of Bull Run (July 21, 1861) involved about 40,000 troops.

These are only two examples, but it was fairly common that large scale military engagements in Latin America used such small armies. When compared to contemporary battles in North America or Europe, however, these Latin American engagements were more reminiscent of the fighting during the American Revolutions where smaller engagements like the Battle of Cowpens, which only involved about 3,000 soldiers, and larger battles like Saratoga or Yorktown involved about 16,000. The War of the Rebellion was unique for involving far larger armies than were common in the Americas. These engagements proved almost European in nature. Of course, the central irony is that many people in the United States, from Southern imperialists to the radical George Henry Evans, had always wished to avoid becoming like Europe, but on some level, they had become similar to Europe.[7]


[1] Stig Förster and Jörg Nagler, On the Road to Total War The American Civil War and the German Wars of Unification, 1861-1871 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997); Brian Holden Reid, The Civil War and the Wars of the Nineteenth Century (New York: HarperCollins, 2006).

[2] Steven Hahn, A Nation Without Borders: The United States and Its World in an Age of Civil Wars, 1830-1910 (New York: Viking, 2016), 4.

[3] Edward Thornton to Lord John Russell, September 7, 1861, Foreign Office: Political and Other Departments: General Correspondence before 1906, Brazil, FO 6, The National Archives, Kew, UK.

[4] Edward Thornton to Lord John Russell, September 22, 1861, Foreign Office: Political and Other Departments: General Correspondence before 1906, Brazil, FO 6, The National Archives, Kew, UK.

[5] Philip Griffith to Lord John Russell, January 1, 1861, Foreign Office: Political and Other Departments: General Correspondence before 1906, New Granada, FO 55, The National Archives, Kew, UK.

[6] Philip Griffith to Lord John Russell, May 30, 1861, Foreign Office: Political and Other Departments: General Correspondence before 1906, New Granada, FO 55, The National Archives, Kew, UK.

[7] Eric Foner, Tom Paine and Revolutionary America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), 268; Matthew Karp, This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018); Claire M. Wolnisty, A Different Manifest Destiny: U.S. Southern Identity and Citizenship in Nineteenth-Century South America (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2020).

One Reply to “The War of the Rebellion a European-style War?: Latin American Comparisons”

  1. Excellent article! Using the term “War of the Rebellion” does indeed make sense when placing the conflict into a greater international context.

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