When the US Attacked Paraguay

You totally knew about that, right?

In the 1840s and 50s, while the US Navy was struggling with steam, a variety of technical oddities were built, before Navy leaders figured out that screw propulsion was better than alternatives (some of which were common, like side-mounted paddle-wheels; and some of which were weird). As transitional vessels, these mid-19th-Century hybrids were still primarily sailing ships; they used the steam power to counter sail’s disadvantages and to supplement the ship’s speed; these funny looking neither-fish-nor-fowl contraptions made their best speed downwind with full sail and full steam. With sail, you could circumnavigate the globe; with steam alone, you had better know where your next coaling station was.

USS Water Witch after sidewheel conversion

USS Water Witch after sidewheel conversion

The USS Water Witch was initially one of these ships configured with weird propulsion, a set of ghastly, draggy horizontal wheels designed by a serving officer, one Lieutenant William W. Hunter,  who managed to sell this to the Army (Topographical Engineers), the Navy, and the Revenue Cutter service (future Coast Guard) on no fewer than ten vessels, all of which performed miserably. One of these was Water Witch, originally built to be a sort of aquatic Gunga Din bringing water down the Dismal Swamp Canal to troops in harbor. At that, she was a failure of a sort you didn’t think occurred until recently: the geniuses who built her designed her with a draft two feet plus deeper, and a length greater than the canal locks she was supposed to traverse. Then, the Hunter horizontal propulsive wheels could only drive her to 6.5 knots. A rebuild as the first American ship with twin screws added only a few knots.

The Water Witch goes to Paraguay — Briefly.

But after a second rebuild as a side-wheeler, and refocused on exploration voyages, the Water Witch served well. On a routine show-the-flag and survey-the-rivers mission on the South American Parana River on 1 Feb 1855, she was fired on by a Paraguayan fort. It may have been hot blood or mistaken identity, but the Paraguayans weren’t lacking in gunnery skills — they delivered substantial damage to the American ship and wounded several crewmen, one fatally. The decedent’s name doesn’t seem to have mattered much to those writing things down at the time but they mention that he was the helmsman.

The skipper of the Water Witch, Lt. Thomas Jefferson Page, demanded satisfaction from Paraguay. The Paraguayan government at the time, the nationalistic but astute Carlos Antonio López government, was not interested in parley, let alone reparations, and Page returned to the USA. It had taken him several years of the surveying journey to find himself under the Paraguayans’ guns, but he got back home in a matter of months. There he began to demand from the American public a response. Page’s story struck a chord with newspaper editors and the public, and a punitive expedition was assembled, under the command of Commodore William B. Shubrick with Page as his flag lieutenant.

Shubrick and the Punitive Expedition

William B. Shubrick (1790 - 1874), U.S. naval officer. Original print in possession of Library of Congress.

William B. Shubrick (1790 – 1874), U.S. naval officer. Original print in possession of Library of Congress.

Shubrick was a fascinating character, already almost seventy when the expedition sailed. He was from a Naval family, but a rare slave-plantation-born, Harvard-educated naval officer and a friend of the writer James Fenimore Cooper, author of frontier tales. (And, though they are all but forgotten today, Cooper wrote histories and biographies of the Navy and its officers). Shubrick had served long and with distinction in wars remembered (he fought with distinction in the War of 1812 and led the Pacific operations of the Mexican War) and wars forgotten (the Second Sumatran Expedition of 1832).

Shubrick’s flagship was the brand-new frigate USS Sabine, and its first sea cruise was to Paraguay — with 18 other US ships. Sabine bore a US diplomat, James Bowlin, whose mission was to extract three things from López:

  1. An apology;
  2. An indemnity for the family of the slain Water Witch crewman;
  3. A commercial treaty on favorable terms.

As it happened, Sabine, built for the open sea, drew too much water and stood out in the River Plate while the other 18 ships, selected for river-friendly drafts, sailed up the river to bring the message home to Asunción.  López, who had been unwilling to treat with Page (and his single, battered ship) was remarkably more diplomatic with Bowlin, who left with everything he came for, and not a shot fired.

From that day to this, the USA and Paraguay have always maintained diplomatic relations, and the last shots fired between them were those of the fort on the Parana, and the guns of the USS Water Witch, in February, 1855.

Afterward

Almost every participant in this strange episode had further remarkable events ahead.

USS Water Witch returned to South American survey duty, and then was mothballed. Returned to duty, she served the Union well in the Civil War, until a daring Confederate raid by Lt. Thomas Pelot and his men boarded and captured her on the night of 3 Jun 1864. The Rebels apparently intended to use her in a special operation, but wound up burning her to prevent recapture by Sherman’s advancing army.

This picture shows Water Witch closer to her 1855 appearance with a white hull, but it's of poor quality.

This picture shows Water Witch closer to her 1855 appearance with a white hull, but it’s of lower quality. Does embiggen, though.

USS Sabine had a successful if uneventful career, and ended her days as a receiving ship in Portsmouth, New Hampshire in the 1870s.

Commodore Shubrick retired in Washington, DC, in 1861 at the age of 71. He lived another 13 years. Sadly, he seems to have left no memoirs. (His correspondence from the period of the Paraguayan Punitive Expedition survives in the National Archives, US Office of Naval Records, Records Group 45).

Shubrick William Branford signature

Thomas Jefferson Page resigned his US Navy Commission in 1861 to serve his state of Virginia, first as an artillery officer, and then from 1863 as a Confederate naval officer. He was on his way to the New World with a powerful new ironclad, CSS Stonewall, when the war ended. Refusing to surrender to the Union, he sailed to Havana and donated the ship to Spain; helped Argentina modernize her Navy, and retired to Italy for the remainder of his years. (His correspondence from the Water Witch incident is in the National Archives, in the Naval Observatory Records, Record Group 79).

Carlos Antonio López left Paraguay richer and stronger that he found it, largely through bluster leading to diplomacy, negotiation and a strategic backdown; the pattern shown here, he also replayed with Paraguay’s neighbors, especially Brazil. He also left Paraguay a considerably more damaging legacy: his son, Francisco Solano López, a man who would almost erase the nation in a quixotic war with all its neighbors at once, a war contracted to stroke López fils‘s ego and his self-image as the self-styled “Napoleon of South America”; a monster who had his mother, brothers and sisters murdered (along with most of the foreign diplomatic corps) as the paranoia that seems to attend a certain personality type overtook him. Half the population of Paraguay fell in the war, which saw even women drafted (95% of adult men perished); the native Guaraní indians were nearly exterminated; nearly half the nation’s territory was ceded to Brazil and Argentina; to this day, Paraguay has never recovered the relative prosperity it had under López pêre. 

Latins being Latins, the disastrous Francisco Solano López, who went down in a flurry of Brazilian swords screaming “I die with my country!” was posthumously elevated, beginning with propaganda during the Chaco War, to the nation’s greatest hero, and his diplomatic dad is deprecated.

 

References

Canney, Donald L. The Old Steam Navy: Volume 1: Frigates, Sloops and Gunboats, 1815-1885. Annapolis, 1990: US Naval Institute, pp. 25-40.

Hanratty, Dannin M. and Meditz, Sandra W. , eds. Paraguay: A Country Study. Washington: American University / Government Printing Office, 1988. Retrievable from: http://countrystudies.us/paraguay/

Howard, Alexander. Cruise of the U. S. Frigate Sabine. Portsmouth, VA, 1861.: TH Godwin, pp. 9-22.

Williams, John Hoyt. The Rise and Fall of the Paraguayan Republic, 1800-1870. Austin, TX, 1979: University of Texas Press.

8 thoughts on “When the US Attacked Paraguay

  1. Aesop

    Don’t be quite so harsh on the hybrid ships.

    One of them helped Phileas Fogg and Passepartout get from New York to Liverpool aboard the Henrietta in Around The World In 80 Days.

    Probably about all they were good for.

  2. staghounds

    The British settled the paddle versus screw controversy with a tug of war. If you go to the old Greenwich dockyard, the propeller from Rattler that settled the matte is leaning up against the wall like someone is about to take it to the scrapyard.

    1. Hognose Post author

      The screws first used on Water Witch were not Ericsson screws but a different type (blanking on name, too late to go get book) which actually contributed more to modern screw design than Ericsson’s did, although he gets the credit. For whatever reason they did not work on Water Witch.

      Paddle wheels were logical for people who understood water power but their weight and drag really limited the power of ships.

  3. Ghost Rider 6

    I love these “footnote to history” type stories. Thank you, sir, and please feel free to write more of them.

    1. Hognose Post author

      The problem is they usually get really in-depth and exhausting — and too long for the blog! This one was just the right size, in terms of the information in it, the fascinating people (who was that poor bluejacket cut down at the helm? And what did Paraguay pay to salve his bereaved family?), and the technological aspects. The early steam Navy is really interesting. They knew they were on to something but not many visionaries had an idea where it was going.

      They were working on submarines and ironclads around this time. We tend to think of CSS Hunley and USS Monitor as sort of stand-alone innovations. They had lots of peers and forerunners, and just as many fascinating people.

  4. Russ Kendall

    The remains of the Water Witch and a full size replica are on display at the National Civil War Naval Museum in Columbus GA.

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