Confederates In Brazil: They Fled American South

UP TO 20,000 CONFEDERATES fled a crumbling South, taking slaves, cotton and watermelon seeds to new colonies in Brazil. Today, Brazilian descendants there don Civil War attire and sing old American songs to honor their family histories.

AMERICANA, Brazil - There's not much left now to tell their story, save a small museum and scores of weather-beaten tombstones in a shaded cemetery far from the American towns and cities they once called home.

Historians say theirs was the only political exodus of American citizens in the history of the United States, though it is rarely mentioned in history books. In the latter half of the 1800s, thousands of Americans from all over the South left their homes and families in search of new lives in Mexico, Cuba and Brazil.

Many returned disillusioned soon afterward; others were wiped out or run off by locals. But in Brazil they carved out a foothold, and many prospered.

This month, a dwindling handful of their descendants will gather, as they do annually, at a special memorial ground surrounded by seemingly endless sugar-cane fields in this city of 150,000, to pay homage to the men and women, most buried nearby, who came as pioneers.

Men like Col. William H. Norris, former Alabama senator; Ezekiel B. Pyles, the final military escort for Confederate President Jefferson Davis; H.F. Steagall, Confederate spy, from Wall, Texas; George S. Barnsley, assistant surgeon, 8th Georgia Infantry; Johnathan Ellsworth, drummer, 1st Arkansas Brigade, and Benjamin C. Yancy, 16th Battalion, Alabama Sharpshooters.

Their grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren will sing a hymn in Portuguese, say a prayer, then unfurl three flags - the American Stars and Stripes, Brazil's green and yellow symbol and the red, white and blue Stars and Bars of the old Southern Confederacy.

Once again they will tell the stories, some even today speaking with a Southern drawl, of how America's Civil War rebels made their last stand in Brazil.

"They came here because they felt that their `country' had been invaded and their land confiscated," said Judith McKnight Jones, 68, great-granddaughter of the original McKnight family that moved to Brazil from Texas. "To them, there was nothing left there. So, they came here to try to re-create what they had before the war.

"I grew up listening to the stories. They were angry and bitter. When they talked about it - moving here, the war, leaving their homes - it was always a very sore subject for them."

Jones is the resident historian and keeper of the flame for the 350 members of Brazil's Fraternity of the Confederate Descendants, to whom she sends a newsletter every three months. Her home sits on part of what was once a 5,000-acre plantation that was the beginning of the most successful Confederate colony. Inside it are hundreds of pieces of memorabilia that Jones has collected - tattered photographs, letters, notes, diary entries.

They represent the memories and lives of slave owners, soldiers, belles, schoolteachers, dentists, doctors and farmers during their early years in Brazil.

Every year, about a dozen Americans - historians, students, vacationers and Southerners whose ancestors told them of the emigration - make their way to her home to inquire about what some call the "Lost Colony of the Confederacy."

Patiently, carefully and often with great humor, Jones, hobbled by age and arthritis, tells the stories of lost ships, families wiped out by tuberculosis and fortunes made and lost in a new land.

An estimated 10,000 to 20,000 Confederates emigrated from the United States during the years right after the Civil War. The number would have been much larger, historians say, had not the still-revered Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee publicly urged Southerners to stay in the United States.

Still, the fever to leave spread, and thousands shipped out of emigration stations set up in Galveston, Texas, New Orleans, Baltimore, New York City, Mobile, Ala., and Newport News, Va.

Many chose Brazil, where the government promised cheap land in the hope that the Americans' farming techniques would establish the country as a leader in a worldwide cotton market depleted by the Civil War.

Brazil was also attractive to many Southerners because it still practiced slavery - until the country abolished it in 1888. Many hoped to start a plantation system based on a life they had cherished in the South.

They established several colonies, one in northern Brazil 500 miles from the mouth of the Amazon River, which became the city of Santarem, another in Rio Doce near the coast, three more - Juguia, New Texas and Xiririca - in southern Brazil, and another just outside a town called Santa Barbara, 80 miles northwest of Sao Paulo.

"Most of the colonies failed," Jones lamented. "There were all kinds of problems. In Santarem, they were just too isolated. A few people did well, but most gave up and they didn't hold together long."

Initially, the Confederates remained a cloistered community. They intermarried and established their own schools and churches, sending back to the states for teachers and ministers. They established a separate cemetery initially, because the Roman Catholic Church in Brazil did not allow the Protestant Confederates to be buried in their cemetery.

Even after 80 years in the country, many spoke exclusively English in their homes. "I remember when I was 4 years old, I was lost in a textile factory and I couldn't tell the people anything because I only spoke English," recalled Allison Jones, 51, an engineer and third-generation descendant. "I didn't learn Portuguese until I started school."

Their community, which bordered Santa Barbara, was dubbed Villa Americana by native Brazilians and officially became Americana some years later. In the interim, the Confederates introduced to Brazil baseball, peaches, pecans, various strains of rice, cotton and even a rose. There were fortunes made in cotton and watermelon with seeds brought from Georgia. They also brought with them their rebel spirit. When a brief Brazilian civil war erupted in 1932 as the state of Sao Paulo tried to secede, many of the Confederate descendants, such as Roberto Steagall, fought on the side of the secessionists.

"Once a rebel. Twice a rebel," reads Steagall's tombstone.

To keep their history alive, the descendants established a small museum in 1988 in Santa Barbara. There are sporadic picnics throughout the year to keep the descendants updated, and an annual celebration during which they don antebellum gowns and Civil War uniforms, hoist the flags of the 13 Confederate states, look at old pictures and reminisce about an era that millions of Americans are happy is long past.