The Lost Confederados

Robb Aaron Gordon
by Gary Hawkins - Even Farther South - Sept/October 2008

Why thousands of Southerners fled to Brazil after the Civil War, why they stayed, and why their descendants still remember

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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.