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  • Court of Blood:Treason and Terror under Paraguay's Francisco Solano López
  • Thomas Whigham (bio)

Treason during wartime inspires some of the worst features in the human character. Not only does the traitor besmirch his own reputation in the eyes of his countrymen, but those near him are frequently polluted by association. Worst of all, the desire for vengeance that is unleashed through treasonous acts frequently brings excesses that dwarf the original crime. It is for this reason that magistrates and systems of law in Western democracies have traditionally tried to leech the passion out of individual cases of treason as they attempt to render equitable and just decisions.

But what of authoritarian regimes whose systems favor expediency over principle? The innocent and the culpable alike can suffer under a dictator, and during war the line between the two is blurred. Are those who betray a tyrant by making common cause with his foreign enemies necessarily traitors to their country? And are the judges who hear their cases colluding in an illegitimate prosecution? These questions cry out for consideration. Unhappily, there is no dearth of historical examples to draw upon. One particularly salient instance took place during the1864-70 Paraguayan War, a conflict that, like many others, arose through misunderstanding and hubris. But unlike most nineteenth-century struggles, which were short affairs, the protracted Paraguayan struggle was of a character in which blood-letting became an object in itself.1

By mid 1868, the war between Paraguay and the Triple Alliance of Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay had gone on for more than three years. Thousands of soldiers and civilians had died and the main Paraguayan fortress of Humaitá was surrounded by an enormous Triple Alliance army whose Brazilian commander, the Marquis de Caxias, planned a ruthless attrition. Losses on the Paraguayan [End Page 325] side were so high that everyone expected Humaitá to fall in short order. Yet, despite the odds against him, the Paraguayan president, Marshal Francisco Solano López, held out—and his army paid the price.

In the midst of this tense situation and the general decline of his position, López learned of a conspiracy to overthrow his regime. The plot, which may never have existed, was said to include Charles Ames Washburn, the US minister to Asunción, several senior Paraguayan officials and military men, and the marshal's younger brother Benigno, who was widely believed to covet the presidency and be willing to submit to Alliance demands in order to get it. The Alliance forces took Humaitá in August 1868, just before López ordered the convocation of treason trials. Although the change in the military equation did not slow the investigation, and may even have sped it up, this tragic episode infused Paraguayan historiography with one of its greatest controversies. Modern dramas, novels, and musical laments have been written about these "tribunals of blood," which already include the requisite villains and heroes to incite the imagination. Yet, many things about the affair remain unclear.2

Washburn and Diplomacy "Under Difficulties"

Though he was hardly comfortable in Paraguay, Washburn had no idea that he would be accused of masterminding a plot against the nation's government.3 The fifth son of a prominent Republican family from Maine, he had been named by President Lincoln as commissioner to Asunción in 1861, with the position subsequently upgraded to minister. Although the promotion gave Washburn the political weight he craved, the post was no plum—Paraguay was surely the most obscure of the South American republics. Nonetheless, he acted with unusual verve once he arrived in the Paraguayan capital. He offered to mediate between the marshal's government and the Triple Alliance, gave protection to foreign residents on several occasions, and expressed unsolicited opinions about Paraguay's political future whenever the mood hit him. Washburn's cheek earned him resentment from López, who nevertheless refrained from cancelling the minister's authority in such mediations.

Even before the war, López had overseen the frankly despotic regime he inherited from his father in 1862, and he had steadily extended his powers since the war began. He was offended by foreigners who...


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pp. 325-348
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