Excerpt: Confederate Exodus

Alan P. Marcus is a professor of geography and environmental planning at Towson University. He is the editor of Transnational Geographers in the United States: Navigating Autobiogeographies and author of several academic journal articles about Brazil and immigration. His new book, Confederate Exodus: Social and Environmental Forces in the Migration of U.S. Southerners to Brazil (Nebraska, 2021), was published this month.


In 1857 Reverends Daniel Kidder Parish and James Cooley Fletcher colorfully described Rio de Janeiro in their widely read publication Brazil and the Brazilians. They claimed, “Probably no city in the world can compare with Rio de Janeiro in the variety of sublime and interesting scenery in its immediate vicinity. The semi-circular Bay of Botafogo and the group of mountains surrounding it form one of the most picturesque view[s] ever beheld.”

A decade later the geographical imagination of the tropics would spread throughout the U.S. South, enticing U.S. Southerners to head below the equator to Rio. In 1868 the Gazette & Comet in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, reported, “A lull has, for some time past been observable in the interest which was so lively manifested the past year or two among the Southern people for emigrating to Brazil.” The time was right to relocate to another place, and that ideal place was Brazil. By 1871 the New York Times had labeled U.S. Southern emigration a “fever,” and “entire counties were almost depopulated by the great exodus of reputable emigrants and disreputable adventurers, who were alike infected with the fever for Brazilian colonization.”

The majority of U.S. Southerners who left the country went to Brazil and were known there as the Confederados. Many were former U.S. Civil War Confederate veterans, mostly from Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Georgia, Kentucky, Virginia, Missouri, North Carolina, and South Carolina, and several were doctors, dentists, and agriculturalists. Although a few roustabouts jumped on the proverbial bandwagon at that time, for the most part Confederados belonged not to the poorest or most affluent families in the U.S. South but families somewhere in between (albeit certainly privileged).

The United States is typically known as a destination for immigrants, not as the land of emigrants departing to another place. Today the terms “refugees” and “immigrants” are commonly heard in the whirlwind of global current affairs, and the topic of immigration has appeared at the forefront of most recent U.S. political debates. Yet the topic of emigration out of the United States—that is, the emigration of an estimated ten thousand Confederates who left the country after the U.S. Civil War (1861–65)—remains conspicuously absent.

However, of the thousands of U.S. Southerners who went to Brazil, only a very small portion stayed. While the number of U.S. immigrants pales in size compared to the number of immigrants of other nationalities who arrived in Brazil at that same time, Confederados were the largest organized group of white Americans to ever voluntarily emigrate out of the United States. The voluntary emigration of large groups numbering in the thousands out of the United States is an anomaly.

This act of leaving was the result of a carefully thought out and calculated move, driven by a combination of push and pull factors. Furthermore, this migration to Brazil would not have happened at such a large scale without access to various networks available or multiple stakeholders who were invested in the migration enterprise.

This project is not a comprehensive study of all Confederate immigrants who went to Brazil, nor is it about the U.S. Civil War, the Confederacy, or the Lost Cause. Rather, this study focuses on the strategic maneuvering of several stakeholders and the ways in which they promoted, facilitated, aided, and financed U.S. Southern mobility to and within Brazil.

Race is treated as an important dimension here, as it inherently merges with this migration story. While comparative studies of race in Brazil and the United States are widely available and extensive, with few exceptions critical discussions on race have been noticeably absent in publications that specifically deal with the Confederados. In this case, discussions of race emerge as a paradox: former Confederates went to Brazil, a land where slavery was still a legal institution yet one with “no official color line divide.” The inclusion of race is also relevant here, especially since the salience of ideologies disseminated by mid-nineteenth-century politicians, scientists, and religious leaders dovetailed simultaneously to promote immigration to Brazil.

Moreover, publications in the past have tended to focus on the migration of Confederados unilaterally and in isolation—in a temporal, geographical, and sociopolitical vacuum—thus ignoring various synergies and broader global scenarios. Take, for example, the influx of thousands of immigrants from other nationalities flocking to Brazil at the same time, the new racial and scientific ideologies of the time, and the agricultural lag and chronic labor shortage that Brazil faced during the mid-nineteenth century—all of which I discuss here.

More than a mere oddity or exotic curiosity, the synthesis of Confederado immigration is a valuable case study within the broader fields of U.S. Civil War and U.S. Southern studies, migration studies, and Brazilian studies.

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