[ Recap of Part One: In 1876 the new republic of Brazil is faced with a problem in the remote northeast. A mystic preacher named Antonio the Counselor has gathered a huge following and built a town at Canudos. Other towns claim that bandits from Canudos are robbing them. One town claims that it is threatened with invasion. The state government of Bahia sends a few hundred men who are dispersed after a small skirmish. A second, larger, expedition fares no better. Now the government gets serious and sends thirteen hundred soldiers with artillery and machine guns under the command of Moreira Cesar, a harsh and feared officer. The expedition ends in disaster; two hundred men are killed, including Moreira Cesar.]
News of the Moreira Cesar expedition’s disaster spread across Brazil via newly strung telegraph lines. First reports indicated a great massacre and it was weeks before the true number of casualties were known. In the meantime, fear spread through Brazil’s cities. At some point, Antonio the Counselor was labelled a royalist; soon it was claimed that he meant to overthrow the republic and restore the emperor. Brazil’s states were discrete units — the wealthy cacao barons of the south were little interested in poorer states like Bahia — but they were united in anti-royalist sentiment. They had reason to be concerned about the possibilty of the government being overthrown; there had been three major revolts in the eight years since Dom Pedro II’s departure. Now the states joined in an effort to end this threat to the republic.
Da Cunha treats this phase of the Canudos War with some amusement, mocking the extravagant reports of the press, though his newspaper reports filed at the time show the same anti-monarchist hysteria as those he quotes. Much later, when da Cunha actually reads some of Antonio’s words, he calls them “innocuous”.
An army was assembled with units from every state. There was a call for enlistments and the president swore to put the entire legislature in uniform, should more troops be required. No effort was to be spared in ending the terror of the revolutionary monarchist, Antonio the Counselor, and his band of savage warriors. The troops gathered in Baía where some showed their republican loyalties by trying to smash the carved royal coat of arms over the custom house doorway. Da Cunha: “Patriotic passion, the truth is, was verging on insanity.”
It is decided that General Arthur Oscar will command the new expedition. He divides his force of more than three thousand and puts part under the command of General Claudio Savaget. Oscar’s plan is to send Savaget around the east and then west to Canudos along the road created by the now dry riverbed of the Vasa Barris. Meanwhile, he will take his force directly north from Monte Santo, but enter Canudos via Mount Favella. This is not exactly a pincer movement since the routes of the two columns converge slightly east of Canudos.[NB: see the map in Part One]
So, in April, General Oscar set out for Monte Santo. His group was almost two thousand men and included artillery, not just the Krupp field guns already seen in the War (four of which were lost on the Moreira Cesar expedition) but also a huge Whitworth 32, a 170mm siege gun that weighed tons. He also had a detachment of engineers that proceeded ahead of the force and actually cleared a road through the bush and up the side of Mount Favella that will accept the traffic, including the Whitworth, that is to follow. (I found myself wondering why the sertanejos didn’t wipe out this lightly armed forward party. Perhaps they only attacked when units came within a certain radius of Canudos. Or perhaps they realized that the road was a marker of the advance and that they could set up positions and wait.)
General Oscar spends some time drilling his troops and draining the surrounding country of supplies. It is June before his column moves north. General Savaget also spent his downtime training his troops, almost three thousand, and has created a unit of lancers, mounted and lightly armed, to be used as scouts. In June, Savaget also moves toward Canudos.
General Oscar’s group has problems. His soldiers have eaten most of the food in the area so that they are given only half rations for the march. The heavy Whitworth cannot keep up with the troops — at one point, it is twenty-nine miles behind. The rear guard unit is assigned the task of guarding the artillery while it makes its slow progress. Meanwhile, the unit’s supplies, rations and ammunition, follow the rear guard and the cannon. So Oscar commands three separated units moving north into the sertão. General Savaget splits his supply unit into three parts and assigns each to a section of his force. The lancers work very well as scouts and Savaget’s column is not surprised by an enemy attack.
General Oscar’s group runs into a few probes, outbreaks of sniper fire, and small skirmishes that da Cunha suggests were meant to keep the column advancing along a certain line. The sertanejo in command is none other than Pajehú, the unwittingly heroic cafuso. By the time Oscar’s column reaches Mount Favella on June 27, it is under sniper fire which grows ever fiercer, but the troops keep going. Around midday they pass the remains of Moreira Cesar’s expedition:
…bleached shreds of uniforms swaying from the tips of withered branches, and old saddles, and bits of military cloaks and capes scattered over the ground, along with fragments of bones. At the left side of the road, on the bough of a tree — turned into a clothes rack from which hung a weather-beaten uniform — was the decapitated corpse of Colonel Tamarindo, the arms dangling, the skeleton hands clad in black gloves, while at the feet lay the colonel’s cranium and boots. Upon leaving the side of the road and plunging into the weeds, the soldiers come upon the remains of other unfortunate ones: skeletons clad in tattered, filthy uniforms, lying supine here and there in tragic formation or parlously attached to flexible shrubs which, bending with the breeze, conferred upon them the weird movements of specters. All of which had been deliberately staged…
But the column cannot stop because the rifle fire has become serious. They reach the top of Favella, which is crushed by the earth’s martyrdom and somewhat indented so that the troops are marching into a bowl surrounded by a rim of high ground. The sniper fire is now a crescendo, but a couple of the Krupp guns are dragged across the mountaintop and up the slope that overlooks Canudos. Night has fallen. The heavy Whitworth and other artillery are still some distance behind them and the supply train is five miles to the rear. The cannon fire twenty-one shots at Canudos, just for the show of it. General Oscar first sees the town, less than a mile away, through the glare of artillery fire. Suddenly:
…the entire range of slopes from top to bottom burst into running flame and a terrible, deadly rifle fire broke upon them from the hundreds of trenches, as if the ground beneath their feet were exploding with shells.
The slopes of Mount Favella are riddled with rifle pits and the government troops are sitting ducks. They run about in confusion, tripping over wounded comrades, and try to figure out what to do. A blind charge up the hillsides in the dark seems not a good plan and the troops wind up hugging the ground, waiting things out. After an hour or so, the shooting stops. In the dark, the Whitworth and other artillery are brought up the mountainside. What General Oscar has yet to learn is that, at the same time his soldiers were being shot up, the sertanejos attacked the supply train in the rear. Not only is Oscar surrounded by hidden rifle men, there are no supplies, no ammunition, no rations, for his troops.
Meanwhile, the Savaget column, coming around from the northeast along the Vasa Barris river expects and finds contact with the sertanejo forces on June 25 at a place called Cocorobó. This is a rough gap where two gorges formed by the river when it is in flood come together, then open out onto a plain. The sertanejos are waiting in the jumbled rocks overlooking the road and the plain and open up on the troops as they come out of the gap.
…the sertanejos were staging the same rude, sinister,, monotonous drama of which they were the invisible protagonists. No matter how long or arduous their apprenticeship in the art of war, their system never varied, for the reason that, by its very excellence, it admitted of no corrections or additions. From those dismantled parapets, they could fire in safety on our men, who formed a perfect target there on the barren level plain down below….they did not waste their ammunition; they depended not upon quantity but on the accuracy of their aim.
The two forces fire away at one another but it is Savaget’s column that is taking damage. After two hours, a Krupp gun is brought up and trained on the rocks where the sertanejos are dug in. A bombardment of the mountain side results in a lot of rocks being blown up in spectacular fashion but having no other practical result. The gunfire from the sertanejos increases and Savaget is taking serious losses. “This was something very like a defeat,” says da Cunha:
After three hours of fighting, the attackers had not gained one foot of ground. At a distance of five hundred yards from their adversaries, with thousands of eyes fixed upon those barren slopes, they had not caught a glimpse of a single man. There was no telling how many of them there were.
The soldiers could not continue to sit still and be decimated; they had to take action, retreat or attack. Savaget chose to attack. A wild bayonet charge straight up the slopes followed. The sertanejos were surprised and fell back. The soldiers overran some of their trenches. These are empty but the spent rifle casings in them were still warm. The troops continued to charge up the mountain, the sertanejos continued to pick them off. But the government troops persist and eventually force the sertanejos from their trenches and rifle pits. The soldiers catch their first glimpse of the enemy as the sertanejos abandon their positions.
Government casualties at this point are 178 including General Savaget, who is wounded but continues to command the force. The next day the column fights its way down the road. By nightfall, they have travelled another mile. The following day, the 27th, Savaget’s column is supposed to link up with Oscar’s at Canudos. They push forward under fire. Now they are in the outskirts of Canudos and houses begin to form part of the battleground. The terrain is composed of small hillocks and sertanejo sharpshooters command these little guntowers. Savaget’s troops charge up one hill after another, sometimes finding and killing the enemy, sometimes finding the objective deserted. Then they push on to the next hill. It is exhausting fighting in enormous heat but, by the end of the day, Savaget’s force has reached its goal. Below them they can see the town of Canudos with the new church’s twin steeples glowing white in the sun. As night falls they hear the cannonfire from Oscar’s column which has reached the top of Mount Favella.
The morning of the 28th, Savaget’s group turns its guns on Canudos and watches Mount Favella, expecting to see General Oscar’s troops pouring down the mountainside on the town. Instead, a scout from Oscar’s forces arrives telling Savaget that they are trapped on the mountain and desperately need ammunition and food. Savaget decides that instead of sending a detachment with supplies, he will attack Mount Favella with his entire force. Fairly quickly, he drives away the sertanejos and then sends a group back to rescue Oscar’s supply train. Some of the mules and supplies are recovered and, by the end of the 28th, the entire expedition is ensconced on Mount Favella, overlooking Canudos. Out of a beginning force of almost 5000, there are more than 900 casualties. That night, the sertanejos once again begin firing on the camp.
On the 29th, Oscar’s artillery fires on Canudos. Once again, the result is a massive return fire from the sertanejos. Units scour the hills, trying to root out the riflemen. The sertanejos withdraw, await their chance, and attack or reclaim their rifle pits.
There was here a certain inversion of roles. On the one hand were men equipped for war by all the resources of modern industry, materially strong and brutal, as from the mouths of their cannon they hurled tons of steel at the rebels; and on the other hand, were these rude warriors who opposed to all this the masterly and unfathomable stratagems of the backwoodsman.
That pretty well sums up many guerrilla campaigns throughout history.
The government troops on Mount Favella had to stick it out; a retreat would be a disaster worse than that of the Moreira Cesar expedition. But they were very short on supplies. The rations rescued from the supply train plus what Savaget had left combined for three days’ supply for the entire group. Oscar pinned his hopes on a relief supply train coming to them, but there was none. The oxen that had pulled the great Whitworth up the mountain were slaughtered. The soldiers began spending more time hunting than fighting. A soldier would make his way among the rocks and brush, following the sound of goat bells, only to discover a waiting sertanejo jingling a bell, drawing him in for the kill. The cavalry, on weary, underfed horses — there is no grass atop Mount Favella, only thorns and rocks — the cavalry began rounding up what few cattle they could locate. Through all this came the incessant sniper fire and, suddenly, an all-out attack that would explode in fury for an hour or two, then melt back into cover. Soon the government troops ran low on water. With no relief in sight, by early July, soldiers began to desert.
The situation was desperate when, on the 11th of July, a scout rode into camp to announce that a brigade of reinforcements, more than a thousand men, and a large supply train was two days away. This good news was dampened when the leader of the relief expedition told General Oscar that the base at Monte Santo was more or less nonexistent, no one had bothered to organize it properly, and that this was all the relief that there was. They must attack Canudos or starve where they sit. The generals hashed out a plan. On July 18th, the troops assaulted the town. The plans disintegrated as the troops tried to move into Canudos. Units were broken up by the maze of alleyways between the houses where they tried to take cover. The sertanejos were quite aware that the mud walls would not stop a bullet and fired through them at the huddled troops. At day’s end Oscar’s expedition had suffered a further thousand casualties and was clinging to its hold on the edge of Canudos. Once again, the army was faced with a no retreat/no advance situation.
During the assault, Lieutenant Wanderly, charging forward, was shot and his leaping horse wound up wedged in a rock crevice. Wanderly’s body was recovered but the horse’s corpse remained frozen in a charge, its mane blowing in the breeze, muzzle pointed at Canudos, as it mummified under the sun. Continue reading