Review of The Lost Colony of the Confederacy, by Eugene C. Harter

17 Aug

In the aftermath of the Civil War, an estimated twenty thousand bitter Confederates sought to flee their devastated homeland and start anew in another country rather than face the prospect of life under the rule of victorious Federal authorities. The reasons for exodus were several. Some hated what they called their “Yankee oppressors,” and feared the political direction of the country after the South’s defeat would be unbearable for them. Some sought to escape possible retribution by the federal government for their participation in the Confederate war effort. Others were driven less by political ideology than poverty, having lost all they had. Brazil, where slavery was still legal at the time and the government encouraged such immigration, the most hardened and desperate Confederates saw an opportunity to continue the lifestyle that had come to a sudden end by military force in the United States. There are multiple accounts of the Confederate colonization attempt in Brazil. I recently listened to an audiobook version of Eugene C. Harter’s The Lost Colony of the Confederacy, a chronicle of the event and its legacy through the eyes of a “Confederado” descendant who grew up in Brazil in the mid-twentieth century.

Harter’s book, originally published in 1985, was among the first books to address this immigration story. At the time, very few people in America had any real knowledge of it. Several books have followed since that time, many based on much more rigorous research but none more personally connected to the story Harter tells. Harter attempts to introduce readers to an almost unknown story by doing several things at once so that the Confederate colony in Brazil is better understood and appreciated as a part of both American and Brazilian history. It seeks to help readers understand the rationale behind and true scale of the Confederate migration, the degree of economic success the emigrants found in their new home, the degree to which the new arrivals fit into Brazilian society, and their legacy in their adopted home country. As might be expected, it accomplishes some of these objectives better than others.

The book is not a thorough analysis of any one part of the broad story it seeks to tell, but rather a series of vignettes addressing the major themes. All are heavily colored by the author’s personal remembrances and family history. They work together to provide a compelling glimpse of a unique cultural enclave where some antebellum Southern traditions were frozen in time on another continent and others curiously blended with Brazilian society to produce a unique and most unexpected hybrid. Harter chronicles how over a century since the Confederate exodus, Southern accents, figures of speech, foodways, and other traditions continue on among a community of people that through decades of intermarriage are now thoroughly Brazilian.

Harter’s account is an almost nostalgic look at the Confederado colony. He points out the group’s contributions to Brazilian society, its acceptance among the larger population and its most visible legacy in the existence of the city of Americana which its members founded, and the ways Confederate heritage is remembered by descendants. He is sympathetic to the plight of those that immigrated and the challenges they had to overcome to thrive in a new country foreign in almost every way to them. He does not give the colonists a pass on the issue of slavery, though, pointing out directly how many Confederados moved to Brazil precisely because slavery was still legal there at the time. He explains, however, that in their adopted home the former Confederates were unable to duplicate the race-based society they had left in the South. In Brazil they encountered what was at first a bewildering social arrangement in which skin color amounted to very little as far as social hierarchy and the institution of slavery would soon be banned. The fact that they continued on and persisted in creating a community which today still proudly remembers its Southern American heritage is an intriguing story. Harter does not flesh out all of its details, but achieves well his goal of introducing readers to it. The Lost Colony of the Confederacy is far from the definitive account of its subject, but well worth a read if you have an interest in this peculiar immigration story.

JMB


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