At the end of the Civil War in 1865, the South was ruined. Physically, financially and socially. Fears of Yankee retaliations and racial conflict were common. For die-hard Confederate loyalists like Col. William Norris, this burden was too great. They couldn’t live under what they regarded as a foreign occupation. So some decided to establish a new life in the slaveholding country of Brazil. About 10,000 to 20,000 former Confederates followed them. Though hardships prompted many to come right back, descendants of these “Confederados” maintain a presence in Brazil even today.
Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee had urged Southerners to stay and rebuild the Confederacy. But those who were too proud to accept defeat, or whose homes were confiscated by the Federal government, felt they had little choice but to leave for a new start. Several countries tried to entice Southerners, largely for political and agricultural reasons. However, Brazilian Emperor Dom Pedro II, a Confederate ally who sheltered and supplied Confederate ships made the best offer. He offered land to the Confederados for as little as 22 cents an acre! Also provided temporary lodging, promised quick citizenship and even sometimes greeted them as they disembarked.
Col. William Norris, a former Alabama state senator, was one of the leaders of the movement. Norris arrived in 1866 and purchased between 400 and 600 acres. His farm in São Paulo became the central area of the settlement area. In 1870, the local railroad reached the vicinity, and the terminus became known as the “Village of the Americans.” It would evolve into the city of Americana.
As the United States moved on from the horror of the Civil War, the Confederados made every effort to preserve the illusion of life as it had been in the South. They practiced Protestant Christianity, cooked Southern food, and spoke English. They introduced new crops, including Rattlesnake watermelons and pecans. They introduced new agricultural technology to Brazil, including the moldboard plow to cut through and turn the soil. Many settlers, including Norris, helped neighboring Brazilians in farming methods. Although primarily focused on cotton, their fields soon became devoted to the locally abundant cash crops: coffee and sugar cane.
As the heads of individual colonies failed financially or died from disease, their followers drifted to other colonies, especially Norris’s Villa Americana in São Paulo. But perhaps the most significant reason for the failure of the Confederate migration was the failure of the Reconstruction. In 1877, federal troops were withdrawn from occupation duties in Southern states, taking with them the best protection freed black citizens had.
With federal authorities out of the way, Jim Crow began as Southern politicians regained their power and exacted revenge for their humiliation on their former slaves. To many struggling Confederados, this was more than they could have hoped for: the restoration of racist supremacy in the South.
Although the Confederados failed to build their longed-for Confederate country, they left a deep impression in the country they helped settle, with their contributions seen for years afterward in agriculture, technology, and society. In the years following their arrival, the Confederados were soon dwarfed by massive waves of immigrants from Germany, Italy, and Japan, each bringing their own contributions and leaving even more obvious impressions on Brazil.
Even today, although their descendants speak mostly Portuguese and identify as Brazilian, the Confederados gather each year to celebrate their ancestry. Dressed in antebellum hoop skirts and Confederate uniforms, they eat Southern food, dance to pre-war music, and fly the flag of the defeated South in a tribute to one of the strangest emigrations ever. In the wake of the recent protests about memorials to slave-owners and the legacy of the Confederacy, the community grapples with their history and how to commemorate it. The migration of the Confederados was a significant event during the turmoil immediately following the Civil War, and it affected personal histories and general society in the United States as well as Brazil.