Mr. Washburn to Mr. Seward.
Sir: It is now nearly three months since the date of my last dispatch, and in all that time I have not received a letter or line, and scarcely have heard a rumor from beyond the limits of Paraguay. I have, therefore, no dispatches to answer, and will proceed to relate what has transpired here during the time.
After the passage of the Brazilian squadron above Curupaiti, in August last, it was supposed here that some decisive action would soon take place that woulcl bring this wasting war to an end. But month after month went by, and nothing seemed to be done by either party, so far as we could learn here, to change the relative positions of the belligerents. The Semanario nearly every week published accounts of astonishing victories, in which the Paraguayans in small force had attacked the positions of the enemy and slaughtered thousands of them, and then retired in good order, with a loss of only two or three. Such victories, we knew too well, were simply repulses, probably expensive to the allies, and certainly so to the Paraguayans. But the weary, dreary monotony of our isolation was at length broken by the announcement that the squadron had again made a move. On the evening of the 21st of February it was first made known here that several ironclads had passed Humaita, and that at least three of them were on their way up the river, and were already half way to this place. How long the government had known this I cannot say, but have reason to believe that the passage was effected nearly a week before, and that it was known here soon after. But with the public announcement came an order for the complete and immediate evacuation of this city. The order was indiscriminate and was directed to all, foreigners and natives alike, and all were commanded to go away at least one league from the capital. Before the news was generally known, the minister, Señor Berges, sent to [Page 655] request me to call at his office. I immediately complied, when he told me the ironclads were on the way up the river and might be here the next day, and that, further than that, nothing was known of what had transpired below. Nevertheless he said the town was to be evacuated as soon as possible; that the city was to be made a military post, and everybody, natives and foreigners alike, must leave it. I told him that in my opinion the government had no right to compel foreigners, by the mere proclamation that this was a military point, to abandon their property, business, and interests, and to expose themselves to the losses, hardships, and privations that would inevitably be incident to a general evacuation. But the minister said that the right of the government to do so was indisputable, and that he had sent for me to advise me early not only of the intended evacuation, but that the government would also be removed from this place to Luque, a little village about ten miles inland, and that he had thus early advised me of these measures that I might the more easily obtain a convenient place of residence beyond the city limits. I told him that this provision and interest on my account were entirely unnecessary, as under no circumstances should I abandon my legation. Señor Berges urged that very likely the enemy would bombard the town, and that it would be dangerous to remain. But I told him that I should depend on my flag to protect my premises, and had no fear but it would be respected by the enemy, as once before, much against their will, when I came through their squadron, they had been forced to respect it. He then said that after the next day there would be nothing to be got in the markets, and it would be difficult to obtain a supply of food. But I told him I would take all those risks, but would never abandon my legation till so ordered by my government.
On returning to my house I found many people there, all anxious to know what I would do, and on being told that I was resolved to stay, many asked for shelter under my roof, and many more asked permission to leave their money and valuables with me. I told them that as regards the latter, all the protection that my house or flag could give would be freely granted, but that as for the former, it would be impossible for my premises to accommodate them all, and advised such as could get away to do so at once and not render themselves liable to incur the displeasure of the government by remaining. That night and the next day a great many people came to my house with such things as they considered most valuable. But I took no risk nor responsibility, and told all that in case of sacking, bombardment, or robbery, neither the legation nor myself would be liable.
I am the only foreign minister here, and there is but one fully accredited consul, the Italian, and he has been here only three months. The late French consul here was relieved in October last by a person named Ouberville, who was sent by the French minister in Buenos Ayres to take charge of the consulate until the arrival of a duly appointed consul. The Portuguese have an acting consul here, holding no commission from his government, and the three constitute the consular body. Late in the evening, after the incidents above mentioned, the three came to see me. They had heard that I was determined to remain, and the Frenchman and Italian were greatly concerned lest I should expose myself and family to the horrors of a bombardment and sacking of the town. They had resolved to leave the town and go with the government, while the Portuguese said he would take his chances with me and remain. The Frenchman, however, hastened to advise the government that his Portuguese colleague was not disposed to leave the city, and the next morning at seven o’clock he had a peremptory order from the government to [Page 656] depart within a few hours. The entire foreign population are intensely disgusted at the conduct of the French and Italian consuls. They believe if they had refused to leave the city, except as prisoners, and had advised all their countrymen to do the same, the government would not have ventured to force them to do so, and that if it had felt itself under the necessity of allowing the foreigners to remain, the miseries of the evacuation would have been spared to the natives. The evacuation, however, was enforced, and not a family remained in town except such as were under my roof. Several English families, the heads of which had been long in the government employ, asked me the privilege of occupying some vacant rooms pertaining to the legation. I advised them to first obtain the government’s permission to remain in town. This being granted I gave them leave to come, and they yet remain here. I also received all the Americans here within my premises, so that besides the English I have about thirty persons on my hands. Among these is the former minister of government, war and marine, of Montevideo, Señor Don Antonio de las Carreras, who, from his strenuous efforts to repel the invasion of General Flores into the republic of Uruguay, made himself very obnoxious to the allies. Such was the condition of affairs here when the Brazilian gunboats approached the town on the 24th of February. The Paraguayans had still a small fort on the bluff of the river, just below or rather opposite the town. In this fort they had but one large cannon and three or four small field-pieces. At about 10 o’clock in the morning the iron-clads approached, when the firing between them and the fort commenced. The only Paraguay cannon large enough to be of any service against iron-clads had just been finished and put in place, and it was found that it could not be depressed enough to send her shot anywhere near the enemy. Nevertheless it was discharged a few times, and the Brazilians, after discharging sundry shot and shell, so far as I know without touching the fort and without having a shot come within a hundred yards of themselves, turned tail and went down the river, probably to give an account of their splendid victory.
For a long time we expected a return of the iron-clads with re-enforcements, but days and weeks passed, and we could only learn that they had gone down to seek shelter under the guns of Tayi, a point some two or three leagues above Humaita, where the allies have a large force. At length, on the 22d of March, we are told that the Paraguayans have achieved another great victory; that Paso-Pucu had been attacked in force at several points, and that the enemy had been repulsed at all points, with great slaughter, the Paraguayans, as usual, suffering little or no loss. This glorious news, however, was even followed by another announcement not quite consistent with it. It was that Marshal Lopez had abandoned Paso-Pucu with a large part of his army, had crossed the Paraguay, and come up through the Gran-Chaco, on the right side of the river, about fifty miles, and then crossed back above the river Tebicuari, where he was again fortifying. A strong force, however, was left to defend Humaita. Such is the military situation so far as we can learn anything about it. We know nothing of what is transpiring below, except what the government chooses to disclose. Therefore we cannot judge anything as to the probable duration of the war. Our situation is about as cheerless as it is possible to imagine; deprived of many of the necessaries of life in an abundant city, and cut off from all communication with the outer world, the monotony of existence is scarcely bearable. By my refusal to leave the capital, and become a camp-follower of the government, I have reason to believe I gave great offense, and that my relations with it will not be again so cordial as they have been. Indeed, [Page 657] some things have occurred already, greatly to my annoyance, that show anything but a friendly disposition. The case of the American citizen, James Manlove, will be made the subject of a separate dispatch.
But it is feared by all, and believed by many, that the worst is not yet upon us. Should the enemy advance on the present positions of President Lopez, in such force that he will be obliged to retire, it is believed that he will fall back into the mountains with his army, driving before him all the population, including women and children, the old, the sick, and all foreigners. Such an extreme measure would probably have the effect, so soon as known in Buenos Ayres, to cause the most energetic measures to be taken, on the part of the foreign diplomatic representatives and naval commanders, to rescue their countrymen from the miseries to which they will inevitably be exposed. But I have no doubt that this step will be taken, should President Lopez be driven from his present position. Indeed, I know that the people, now living one or two leagues inland from the river, have received orders to be ready at a moment’s notice to retreat to the woods and mountains. In that case the government would doubtless be removed from Luque to some place far in the interior, and the consuls will follow in its wake. As for me, however, I shall remain where I am, unless I am carried away as a prisoner.
I am, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
Hon. William H. Seward, Secretary of State, Washington, D. C.