The Lost Confederados
Why thousands of Southerners fled to Brazil after the Civil War, why they stayed, and why their descendants still remember
I set out from rural North Carolina where folks drink beer, eat barbecue, and listen to Skynyrd on the local classic rock station, flew ten hours to São Paulo, took a cab eighty miles north through a pleasant stretch of Brazilian countryside, and exited onto a dirt road that wound through endless fields of sugarcane before delivering me here to the Cemitério do Campo, where I’ve just stepped through the gate to find folks drinking beer, eating barbecue, and listening to Skynyrd on the PA. The occasion is the Festa Confederada, an annual fund-raiser hosted by the Fraternidade Descendência Americana for upkeep of the grounds, and I’ve come south, way south, in hopes of discovering why, after five generations of intermarriage with Brazilian locals, the people here still seem so obsessed with their Southern heritage.
A little-known fact: Of the more than forty thousand Southerners who fled their homes after the Civil War, at least nine thousand migrated to Brazil. Many of these Confederados assimilated into the Rio or São Paulo societies, some returned to America for financial or nostalgic reasons, but the more determined formed insular Protestant colonies that more or less re-created Dixie on foreign soil. Five generations later I’m visiting the most successful of these settlements, the Santa Bárbara D’Oeste colony founded by former Alabama senator Colonel William Norris, who at age sixty-five declared that although he knew nothing of the Brazilian culture or its language, he was “just mad enough to give it a go.” The cemetery itself was gifted to the Confederados by Colonel Anthony T. Oliver, a first-generation colonist whose wife died shortly after their arrival here in 1867. Evidently, Protestants couldn’t get themselves buried in Catholic cemeteries, so Oliver donated two and a half acres for this unforeseen need. I can just make out the cemetery on the far side of the outpost, occluded by shady foliage and the general busyness of the Festa. That’s where I’ll conclude my sweep of the grounds.
The Festa feels like a cross between a low-key county fair and a formalized picnic. Half of the estimated fifteen hundred Festa goers are seated in rented chairs under awnings in a grassy clearing near the center of the outpost. The rest are milling around the retail booths that line the perimeter. I blend right in, smiling and nodding my way to an open-air kitchen where I find a generous spread of Southern basics—frango frito (fried chicken), salada repolho (coleslaw), and pudim de banana (guess), mingled with a dozen or so Brazilian mystery dishes. When a fellow beside me orders a hamburger, the server places a slice of ham on the ground beef and asks him if he would also care for eggs. He declines, and I mosey over to check out my beverage options—Skol, Ashby, Crystal, or Cerpa—all beers. Then to the sweets, booth after booth, where I am hoping to find signature holiday edibles, perhaps a Confederados version of Peeps, candy corn, or green beer, but can do no better than a yogurty concoction with red, white, and blue sprinkles. When I reach the non-edibles, I find every kind of Descendência paraphernalia—mugs, belt buckles, bumper stickers, caps—all emblazoned with the Confederate battle flag, which means you can buy it down here but good luck wearing it around town back home. The T-shirts are lettered with Portuguese phrases that are lost on me. I’m pretty sure they don’t say, Brazilian by birth, Confederado by the grace of God! or, Hell no, we won’t forget! The Confederate infantry caps with the ironed-on Brazilian flag patches are especially cool. Cool enough that I’m mentally converting reals to dollars when Kenny Rogers drops abruptly off the PA. Tap tap, mike check. Looks like something’s happening on the stage at the northern end of the outpost, so I return the cap to the vendor and say, “Not today,” which she doesn’t understand, and join the herd heading northward.
When I reach the stage, I find a color guard of sorts standing at attention on a concrete patio. All are dapper young men, dressed in Rebel gray with showy yellow sashes and aviator shades. The fellow on the end, the one who keeps looking around self-consciously and chuckling to himself as if he’d been asked to come down and help out because we’re short one Rebel and could sure use you, is sporting a soul patch. The floor of the patio has been painted into a likeness of the Confederate flag so enormous that it could double as a regulation shuffleboard lane. Behind the Confederate patio stands a two-room museum, and lining the concrete dance floor are five flagpoles. When enough of a crowd has gathered, the president of the Fraternidade, Cicero Carr, orders up the music. The crowd falls silent, and the flags are hoisted.
In Festas past, the ceremony went this way: The Brazilian flag, or Auriverde (“of gold and green”), was raised to the Brazilian national anthem, which is a bouncy number but goes on longer than a four-verse hymn. Next up was the American flag, raised to “America the Beautiful,” and everyone more or less stood through that. Then the Stars and Bars went up to a rousing chorus of “Dixie” and everyone went crazy, especially the old-timers who whooped it up and rebel-yelled and danced all over the place. I would’ve paid to see that, but the ceremony proved a little too ebullient, a little too in-your-face for some sensitive someone somewhere, so it was bagged in favor of its present staid alternative: All flags, including two that I’d never seen, are raised together, verrrry slowly, to the singing of the Brazilian national anthem.
Getting Out of Dodge
It’s impossible to exaggerate the harsh feelings of defeated Southerners toward the Northern army. They might have been willing to accept military defeat, but when their families were burned out of their homes, robbed, and left to starve, a deeper resentment began to take hold. A resentment against America itself. With citizens starving and property in distress, unscrupulous Yankee agents purchased estates at fire-sale prices. A farm worth ,000 could be purchased for 0. The entire town of Fernandina, Florida, was purchased for ,000. Congress piled on by branding 3.5 million Southerners traitors and depriving them of their citizenship. Northern newspapers called for mass hangings. Jefferson Davis was thrown in jail. It’s no wonder that thousands of Southerners began to pack up and flee to almost anywhere else.
The voyage to Brazil was booked through emigrant organizations such as the Southern Colonization Society of Edgefield, South Carolina. Most of the original colonists were the equivalent of our present-day upper-middle class: doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers, and businessmen. They were lured to Brazil by the land, the promise of a new day, and a profound spirit of adventure. The journey was often difficult: hammocks sleeping three, with upwards of three hundred passengers per vessel. The early colonists set out from Charleston and traveled thirty days to Rio de Janeiro. Later expeditions set out from ports as far south as Galveston and as far north as New York. The trips were organized the way the pioneers organized their wagon trains—one after another and each responsible for all others, and for the most part this technique worked. Sometimes, however, the trips became perilous, as recorded in the diary of Sarah Bellona Smith Ferguson on the ship Derby in 1866. The shady Spanish captain had been bribed by Yankee agents to orchestrate a shipwreck in the treacherous waters near Cuba by tying down the helm and retiring to his cabin. “When the trick was discovered,” Ferguson writes in her diary, “McMullen and Judge Dyer and other resolute men entered the [cabin] and at the point of a six shooter forced the captain to loose the helm.” But they were too late. The vessel slammed against the rocks, and its passengers barely escaped with their lives.
"Dixie" in Portuguese
When the flags are up, a tribute to the Confederacy begins. The event resembles a Miss Teen USA pageant, and the girls pull it off so convincingly that it almost feels like a parody. Teen and preteen girls, wearing sashes to represent their states, form a line across the stage. Their escorts are the same dapper young men who hoisted the flags, each now bearing a state flag. When a moderator calls a state, its representative steps forward to a smattering of applause, and some variation on this we’ve all seen. The feature that stands out, the one quality that makes the tribute more Brazilian than Southern, is the defiant, check-me-out posture of the young ladies. It goes like this: A moderator speaking with the relaxed monotone of a fashion show emcee calls for Miss Georgia and she steps forward, hands on her hips, chin lifted, sweeping the crowd with her gaze as if coached to make eye contact with everyone there. The moderator says something in Portuguese, then “state song by Ray Char-lees, ‘Georgia On My Mind-ee,’” after which Miss Georgia swings her hips away from the crowd and steps aside. The same routine is performed by all of them, even a deliberately nerdy nine-year-old with thick glasses and a schoolmarmish hair bun.
The baddest of the bad girls is probably Miss Tennessee, a raven-haired beauty with impressive shoulders, a garnet gown, and black formal gloves. She parks her hands on her hips, shifts her weight to one foot, and looks me dead in the eye. Intended or not, these gestures are downright provocative, and now I’m wondering how tough it would be for a Protestant colonist to look the other way when the right Catholic local came along. Intermarriage for the first generation of Confederados—easily the most xenophobic—is estimated at 17 percent. From there the number escalated, and something in this hand-to-hip maneuver suggests the reason for it.
Announcements, presentations, and some awards. Cicero Carr is buying time for a gown change. When he finishes, the young adults return to the stage, the boys unchanged and the girls in bright, off-primary hoopskirts—crimson, lavender, custard, periwinkle, pomegranate, fandango, and fuchsia. The music is cued and they launch into an energetic period dance that I’ve seen somewhere before, but it’s not until they segue into a group waltz that I recognize it as a re-staging of the Virginia reel–waltz montage from Gone With the Wind. “Tonight I want to dance,” Scarlett tells Rhett. “Tonight I would dance with Abe Lincoln himself.” Maybe I don’t get out (of the country) enough, but this demonstration of Hollywood’s image-making authority took me by surprise. The Confederates migrate to Brazil, form an isolated society largely immune to four generations of American homogenization, and Hollywood still manages to rewrite their history for them.
When the waltz concludes, the youth perform a square dance set to “Dixie” followed by a line dance set to a medley of Irish jigs. It’s all very lively and spring-like, even if April is autumn in the southern hemisphere. The girls in their gowns are capsized tulips skipping along invisible currents, and the boys are upstanding courtiers from an old-fashioned mating ritual. Another gown change and the girls come prancing out in pastel yellow to the tune of “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” Judging by the enthusiastic response, this is a crowd favorite. For me it’s dangerously close to a Lawrence Welk skit. Yet another gown change, and just when I thought I had this thing pegged as fifties Americana, the girls strut out in black petticoats and launch into a spirited, high-kicking cancan. If the girls get their way, this one will become another big crowd-pleaser. They’re practically begging for wolf whistles, throwing up their skirts to “Galop Infernal,” locking arms for an up-tempo chorus and building to a big rowdy finish.
It couldn’t get any better than that, so I slipped away from the main stage and strolled in the general direction of the cemetery, thinking how all of this could go terribly wrong—a benefit concert, the booking of a professional dance troupe from São Paulo, an overblown ribfest—and then I realized that if it was going to go wrong, it would’ve gone wrong already, but it hasn’t, because the Festa coordinators are not simple folk who take themselves too seriously, but accomplished professionals with bigger fish to fry. Cicero Carr is an engineer, and his cousin Daniel Carr de Muzio, an interpreter by trade, holds advanced degrees in sociology and cultural anthropology. Daniel’s son is a prominent surgeon in São Paulo, and his daughter is a practicing civil attorney, and those are just the first few folks I met. So no, this is not Mayberry, Brazil. These are disciplined, tough-minded individuals, worthy of their ancestors’ commitment to the Terra Nova.
A Long, Strange Trip
Colonel Norris and his wife arrived in December 1865 and sent for family and friends, who traveled on the Talisman, which wandered off course to the Cape Verde Islands, near the coast of Africa. This added three months to their voyage, so they didn’t arrive until April 1866. Norris purchased a tract of land near the village of Santa Bárbara D’Oeste and quickly established himself as a successful cotton farmer. In the coming months he was joined by other immigrant families—the Halls, the Terrells, and the Dumas. Because they arrived at different times, they tended to purchase noncontiguous parcels of land, meaning they didn’t settle in a single area but were scattered across more than 250 square miles of territory. Staying in contact became one of the colonists’ primary difficulties. By 1868 the Santa Bárbara D’Oeste clusters had significantly increased, including arrivals by the Presteridges, Yanceys, Estelles, Broadnaxes, Moores, Triggs, Mills, Scurlocks, Coles, Carltons, Fenleys, Beasleys, Seawrights, Weissingers, Crisps, Cullens, and Hollands. Every state of the Confederacy was represented. In all, about one hundred families formed the Santa Bárbara D’Oeste cluster, and most of them are now buried in the Campo cemetery.
Unlike the European immigrants who succumbed to serfdom on the Brazilian fazendas (farms), the Confederados were less likely to intermingle with the Brazilians on a day-to-day basis. They tended to remain self-sufficient, especially after they began to plant more profitable crops such as coffee and sugar. Soon, more colonists arrived to fill the support system—machinists, doctors, dentists, teachers. Because the immigrants were Protestant, those values took hold as well—the education of women, a fierce work ethic, discipline in all things. But I’m convinced that the main reason the colonists managed to cling to their identities well into the twentieth century was the establishment of Campo as a fixed gathering site.
After all, you can’t have a sense of place until you have a place, and Campo satisfied that necessity wonderfully. Campo is Portuguese for “field,” and in 1865 that’s all there was—grazing land for animals to the horizon in every direction. When Colonel Oliver cleared a parcel of land for Confederate burials, the area became the Cemitério do Campo, but almost immediately the title was abbreviated to Campo and remains so today. Thus the word for “field” has come to mean what it is not—an exception to the field—a parcel of hallowed ground where a cemetery and a chapel now stand. This is where the Confederados gathered to remember who they were, and still gather.
The original chapel, which fell into disrepair, was a wooden structure with seats and an aisle down the middle. Women sat on the right and men on the left. A changing room for the ladies buffered the front door from the main room. This is an area where they could slip out of their riding gear and into something more appropriate for a church service. Once a week the colonists met at the chapel for church services; they also held burials, weddings, and baptisms there. For me, getting around in this twenty-mile stretch is no problem. I’m covering fifteen miles in as many minutes in my American Rádio Taxi, but for the colonists, travel to Campo was an all-day affair, with food (including fried chicken), conversation, letter reading, gossip, and the singing of hymns. These weekly meetings tended to keep the colonists Southern, at least for a while.
I stroll by the Confederados Monument, which is basically a miniature of the Washington Monument. I’d read it described as a “twenty-five-foot granite obelisk,” and the height looks about right, but the surface is definitely whitewashed concrete. The names of the original colonists are supposed to be etched into its base, but I can’t see them because couples are sitting all around it. I continue on, fifty or so feet on a shaded brick path, up the worn steps of the new chapel and inside. The interior resembles a severe one-room country schoolhouse with stucco walls and tile floors. The seats are flat, wood-backed, and as cramped as the center section of a jumbo jet. None of the original colonists ever entered this structure, built in 1962, but I’m betting the seats are a throwback. Hard religion on hard seats.
The entrance to the cemetery is indirect, almost serpentine. I weave past a variety of trees that deny me a full view until I’m in it, and now I’m in it, and nothing I’d read or seen had prepared me for this. With shade trees and ten-foot rows of sugarcane forming a ceiling and three walls, the cemetery is effectively a room. The gaps between the sugarcane and the tree crowns are high cathedral windows. There are no manicured lawns or polished stones, nothing to mow or weed-whack. The grounds are relaxed and unkempt by design, meaning Nature has been invited to have a say in how things look and work in here. Tiny saplings grow from cracks in the headstones; plots fill with berries; headstones sink so deep into the topsoil that you can’t tell when their designees died; etchings wear down to obscurity; trees interrupt the tidy alignment of plots; trees distract the casual observer from the headstones; trees dazzle the viewer with their diversity—eucalyptus trees from Australia, mango trees from India, banana trees, pine trees, copaiba trees, coconut trees, caryota palms, and several more I can’t identify. The cemetery with its hundreds of trees and stones is the real chapel here. The cemetery is sagrado. Sacred ground.
The oldest plots are laid out against the sugarcane wall at the back of the cemetery. Among them is that of Beatrice Oliver, Oliver’s wife. Oliver, you remember, is the colonist who donated a parcel of his land for the burial of Protestant Confederados. His wife was the first colonist to die in Brazil. The headstone reads:
In Memory of Beatrice E. Oliver
Consort of A.T. Oliver
Born Georgia, USA, Aug 8th 1827, died July 13th 1868
With a full Christian hope she sleeps in Jesus
Oliver’s daughters are buried here, too—Ingliana F. Oliver, who died on April 19, 1869, and Mildred Oliver, who died on December 17 of the same year. Ingliana was eighteen when she died, and Mildred was fourteen. There’s no written record of how Oliver responded to these tragedies, whether he was mad with grief or somehow accepting of it all. I think it’s safe to say he was Job with the hedge lifted. Not that his neighbors were in any way protected. Nancy Bankston lived six years. Juliet MacKnight lived less than a year. The MacKnights’ second child died unnamed—“Infant of Harvey and Mary MacKnight, 3-7-1922.” Pattie Ethel Thomas lived sixteen months, and Francis B. Hawthorne lived eight years. The sorrow is everywhere around me. Mal-assombrado. Annie Seawright (1856–1908) and Eugene Virgil Seawright (1854–1918) are buried next to a stone that bears the remarkable words “4 Seawright Babies,” and behind it, on a tiny stone almost hidden in the weeds, words that tell us that everything and nothing happened one day long ago. “Sept. 7, 1869—Asleep in Jesus.”
I’m not morbid, and I don’t make a habit of hanging out in graveyards. But Campo is not morbid. And it’s not a graveyard. It’s not any kind of yard. It’s a garden. In fact, it may be the loveliest garden I’ve ever visited. It’s a garden and a cemetery, and I don’t know if there’s a word for that. There’s as much life as death present, and as much night as day. In the middle of the day it feels nocturnal. Maybe it’s the blackness of the stones or the density of the leafy shade, but the bright dapples read more as moonlight in here. They fall across the concrete plots, berry-flecked dirt, weeds, and wildflowers.
The Brazilian sun clears a high conifer and settles on Miriam Constance Capps, and for a minute or so the words are an illuminated manuscript. Then the sun finds another name—John Wilson Cullen. What is there to know about John Wilson Cullen? Capps occupies her own lonely plot, but Cullen is buried among family. When he married, his wife became Annie Luther Terrell Cullen. (Long names are a way of keeping track of property and bloodlines, common in island societies.) When Cullen gave his daughter’s hand in marriage to a non-descendência, she became Doris June Cullen Pierami. These etched records of assimilation are everywhere. Martha Smith is survived by Henrique Smith. Joe Joseph Green is survived by Genny Green Junqueira Franco, and Albert and Josephine Carr are survived three generations later by my new friend, Daniel Carr de Muzio.
Daniel would later complete the sad saga of A.T. Oliver for me. “First, let’s not be too hard on the Catholics,” he says. “There is reason to believe that Beatrice Oliver was denied their burial grounds not because she was Protestant, but because she died of galloping consumption [a virulent strain of tuberculosis], and the groundskeepers didn’t want to handle the body. She contracted the disease either on the voyage to Brazil or in Charleston Harbor and arrived deathly ill. Oliver’s daughters caught the same disease and died the same way.”
According to Daniel, there is no reason to believe that Oliver ever cursed his Maker for his misfortune, so I was accurate with the Job allusion. But I can’t help thinking the man was driven mad with grief.
“So what happened to him?”
“Four years after the death of his family,” Daniel explains, “Oliver caught a slave stealing crops and whipped him. The following morning the slave broke into Oliver’s home and beat him to death with a hoe.”
The Next Generation
I decide to rejoin the celebration, hoping maybe the cancan girls will do a curtain call. As it turns out, they’re finished for the day, but I’m able to pull one of them aside and pretend to be a journalist for a few minutes. Her name is Danielle (pronounced Dan-yelly) Sanchez Carr. At twenty years old she is already in her third year of law school at Pontificia Universidade Católica De Campinas. She is the daughter of Cicero Carr, president of the Fraternidade, and her mother, a non-descendência, is of Italian, French, and German lineage.
I break the ice by asking about her favorite music, and she lists eighties bossa nova, the Killers, and the Arctic Monkeys in that order. When I ask her about movies, she tells me that she finds the plotlines of the Brazilian films over-the-top and the performances forced, and generally laments the lack of a true indie film scene in Brazil. When I ask her about the Confederate flag, she tells me she was surprised when she discovered that it was linked to race.
Danielle speaks with enormous confidence, and at times I feel like she wants to shake me, to help me understand her words. When she can’t find a word, she invents one, à la Bjork.
“In law school we debate international problems,” she says, but “we can’t solutionate them.” She is proud of her history and the fact that it is “preservated.” “I am descended of all these places,” she continues, “and I intend to be buried there like my grandmother and my father.” This certainly doesn’t sound like any twenty-year-old I know. “It’s a place of reunion,” she explains, “a place where we identificate ourselves.”
Then she says something that clarifies the whole preservation effort, the existence of the Fraternidade, the engine that makes the whole thing go. It’s obvious, but it still helps to hear it. “I intend to keep doing my father’s job, possess his love for that, and continually live close to family.” I move a few words and restring her phrases until I grasp what she is trying to say, and when I do, I find it enormously touching. Danielle is telling me that because she loves her father, she loves what he loves, and this sentiment strikes me as so central to the Confederados experience that I don’t hear the rest of what she has to say. I don’t hear anything. I see instead an island outpost amid an ocean of sugarcane.