Thousands of Southerners Fled the U.S. after the Civil War and Ended Up in this Country
Thousands of Southerners Fled the U.S. after the Civil War and Ended Up in this Country

Thousands of Southerners Fled the U.S. after the Civil War and Ended Up in this Country

Dariusz Stusowski - May 16, 2017

The American Civil War left large regions of the United States utterly devastated. Most of that devastation was located in the Southern states that made up the Confederacy. Many cities like Richmond and Vicksburg were captured by Union armies through siege warfare, which involved massive bombardment and prolonged isolation that destroyed infrastructure, crippled industry, and caused severe hunger and even starvation. Widespread societal disintegration soon led to outbreaks of disease.

Thousands of Southerners Fled the U.S. after the Civil War and Ended Up in this Country
The ruins of Richmond, Virginia – Circa 1965.

Collapsed urban centers were not the only problem facing Southerners during this time. Social upheaval brought on by the elimination of slavery led to economic chaos. As if all of these catastrophes were not enough, some in the South felt the imposition of what is now known as Reconstruction (1865-1877) to be completely intolerable. Many believed that Reconstruction would transform the South into a socially unrecognizable place, and that it would last indefinitely. Some who felt this way decided the best course of action was to leave their war-ravaged homes and begin their lives in a new place.

The vast majority of those who made the choice to leave the South stayed within the U.S. Most moved to the American West, where land was plentiful, government impositions were scarce or even functionally nonexistent, and where people with a dark past could start anew, as could those who were just looking for a new beginning. It was during this time that the West became wild. Flooded with battle-hardened soldiers, poverty-stricken farmers and former slaves all looking to escape a ruined South, unorganized territories west of the Mississippi became chaotic amalgams of peoples and cultures for decades to come.

But not everyone who no longer felt the South could be their home sought their fortunes in the American West. Some saw the situation so dire that they decided to leave the United States forever. Most that did settled in various places within South America. A few American emigrants who settled in Latin America became famous, such as the fugitives popularly known as “Butch Cassidy” and his partner, the “Sundance Kid”. However, most Americans who resettled in Latin America were simply looking to escape the effects of a devastating war and were not looking to escape justice.

Thousands of Southerners Fled the U.S. after the Civil War and Ended Up in this Country
Present-Day Celebration of Confederate Heritage in Americana, Brazil

Most Southerners who left the U.S. after the Civil War settled in Brazil. At the end of Civil War, Emperor Dom Pedro II, ruler of Brazil, expressed serious interest in Americans that could bring with them knowledge of modern agricultural techniques, and an understanding of how to grow cotton, which was still a profitable cash crop. Also, it did not hurt that the Southerners were aware of how slave-based agriculture operated, as slavery was still legal and fully functional in Brazil. Slavery would not be abolished there until 1888.

With land selling as cheaply 22 cents per acre in Brazilian States like São Paulo, the Emperor’s attempt to lure Southerners to Brazil was fairly successful with anywhere from 9,000 to 20,000 Americans eventually settling in Brazil. The biggest of these settlements came to be known to this day as “Americana”. The town soon prospered as the colony gained a reputation for efficiency and trustworthiness. Within a generation, the town was important enough to warrant the building of a railroad and the establishment of a cotton weaving factory.

Thousands of Southerners Fled the U.S. after the Civil War and Ended Up in this Country
A woman in traditional Southern clothing in a Brazilian graveyard during a celebration of Confederate settlers. New York Times

Despite the many cultural differences in language, religion, food traditions and other basic ways of life, the town coexisted peacefully with its neighbors, eventually adopting not only many aspects of traditional Brazilian culture, but accepting intermarriage with local people by the second generation. The town became prosperous enough to attract additional immigrants from Europe, primarily from Italy and Germany, so much so that the ethnic identity of the town as “Americana” began to fade.

Though Americana was by far the most successful Confederate colony in Latin America, it was not the only one. Settlements in Belize and Mexico were attempted but quickly failed. Belize seemed like a great place to start a new life for many Southerners, as the country is English-speaking and developed close economic ties to the Confederacy during the Civil War. However, extreme weather and voracious insects soon destroyed any attempts to grow profitable products like cotton.

Perhaps most odd were the attempts to settle Mexico with ex-Confederates. It seems very unlikely that Mexican officials would invite Americans of any kind into Mexico, as just a few decades earlier a similar policy led to a catastrophic loss of territory during the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). After briefly inviting United States citizens to settle portions of Texas while it was still a part of Mexico during the 1820’s, political changes in the Mexican capitol led to those same Americans to revolt in the 1830’s. Trouble over Texas soon led to full-scale war.

Nevertheless, the possibility for American Southerners to start their lives over again originally seemed more promising than settling in any other country. Emperor Maximilian invited ex-Confederates to settle in his country for many of the same reasons as the Emperor of Brazil. Maximilian enthusiastically endorsed the establishment of a series of colonies, mostly in the north and east parts of the country, with plans to connect some of the larger American settlements to railroad lines.

Perhaps these plans may have succeeded if given enough time and a stable government. However, the political situation was far less stable than that of Brazil. Just two years after the Civil War, Emperor Maximilian’s political and military support rapidly disintegrated, which soon led to his execution. This left American Southerners vulnerable to murder by bandits and partisans. Any Mexican settlements soon disbanded.

Only the settlement of Americana persists in any real way as Confederate cultural area. Travelers to Brazil are often still surprised at the persistence of Southern culture in Americana. Famously, in 1972, then Governor Jimmy Carter, during a trip to Brazil was amazed to see so much Southern culture hidden so far away from the place where it was born.

Thousands of Southerners Fled the U.S. after the Civil War and Ended Up in this Country

Oddly enough, Carter’s wife was a direct descendant from one of the original settlers. The events surrounding the Civil War provide us with some of the most dramatic and vivid events in all of United States history. However, this period also provides us with events like these which are little-known and sometimes even harder to believe.