This is the third part of a five part series on the Revolt of the Fifth of July, 1922, at the end of which a small group of rebelling troops made a suicidal attack on a much larger force. In the previous sections we told how Epitácio Pessoa, the President of Brazil, imprisoned Marshal Hermes da Fonseca, Head of the Army. In response, a group of young Army officers, lead by Captain Euclides Hermes da Fonseca, son of the Marshal, have plotted a rebellion.
The center of the revolt is the Fort of Copacabana, which Euclides commands. The Marshal has fled house arrest and is in hiding in Rio. Army units and some individuals have defected to the rebels, but the Vila Militar, a military base, and the cadets of Escola Militar are still in doubt. At the Fort, the revolutionaries plan to begin violent hostilities at 1 AM of July 5th.
JULY FIFTH: RIO UNDER FIRE
As of midnight, July 5th, despite some close calls, no blood had yet been spilled. President Epitácio Pessoa and his civilian Minister of War, Pandiá Calógeras, were waiting at Catete Palace. They knew a revolt was in progress, yet they evidently made no effective plans to suppress it. They didn’t, for example, appoint a military professional to lead an attack force. Surrounded by nervous subordinates, Epitácio fed his little dog Ninon and projected a confident attitude.
At Copacabana Fort, a small group of young officers were waiting for 1 AM to arrive, the moment they had resolved to unleash hostilities. They had in theory already accepted death – the fort was mined and they were ready to blow it skyward – but later events will attest that this did little to calm their nerves.
Marshal Hermes was with friends somewhere in Rio, marking time. The educated minority of Cariocas knew even less about events than he did. But they had to know something big was afoot, and in the outdoor cafés rumors must have passed rapidly over glasses of cold chope (draft beer), even with the waiters who kept replenishing them.
What were the reflections of the uneducated majority of Cariocas on the doings of their superiors, their benefactors for whom they dutifully voted and carried out the garbage? It must have been: “I just hope they don’t blow me up.” We will see how compassionately the leadership heeded this eternal plaint of humble humanity.
At the Vila Militar, the revolt seemed squelched before it could begin, but the authorities cautioned the troops to remain vigilant. The room where officers normally played cards became an unofficial nerve center for the exchange of information and gossip. On this night, the card room was full of excited but confident brass. Among them was a second lieutenant, Frederico Buiz.
A little before 1 AM, Lt. Buiz left his colleagues and woke the company under his command. He ordered his men to arm and munition themselves. Then, forming them into ranks, he marched them toward the card room. On the way they encountered a couple of officers whom Lt. Buiz arrested.
His men surrounded the card room. The lieutenant, pistol in hand, gathered a few armed troops around him and burst through the door. “The Revolution arrives! I am with the Revolution!” he shouted. A captain among the surprised troops tried to rally his men -“My soldiers!” – and fell dead in a hail of bullets. But the commanding colonel grappled with Lt. Buiz, torn the pistol from his hand, pushed him to the ground, and ordered him not to move. Their leader down, the other revolting soldiers were quickly disarmed. Vila Militar was out of the rebellion.
Rio Wakes Up
At exactly 1:20 AM a formidable detonation shook Catete Palace and woke the city. Epitácio took out his watch, checked the time, and said “they are 20 minutes late.” The commanders of the forts ringing the waterways – Sao Luis, Imbuí, Santa Cruz, and Leme – recognized the sound of heavy artillery. But in spite of employing every resource available, they could not obtain official confirmation of the truth: the guns of the Fort of Copacabana were announcing the revolution.
The first and second shots were directed toward the uninhabited island of Contunduba; the third was aimed at the rock at the base of the Leme. These were warning shots, intended to oblige the population to flee from the beaches. A fourth shell burst on the hill over the Old Tunnel, where troops were stationed. No one was injured.
It appears that at this critical moment when his guns held Rio hostage, Captain Euclides Hermes did not try to win any concessions from the government. Favorable (mostly false) rumors had been filtering into the Fort of Copacabana: the cadets at the Escola Militar and the officers at Vila Militar had imprisoned their respective commanders; Marshal Hermes was waiting at a home of a friend somewhere Rio to take command of the youths of the School and the garrison at Vila and march victoriously to Catete. An unnecessary bombardment, with the inevitable civilian deaths, would not be honorable.
At dawn, in the internal plaza of the fort, officers and men formed ranks, singing the Hymn of the Battery. Later, during the morning, the rebellious troops patrolled the nearby streets and hills while attempting to gather more supplies and conserve those they had.
Colonel Nepomuceno da Costa had been a commander in the local district for several years, and had perfect knowledge of the fort. But he had received no notice of the uprising so was a little shocked to read about it in the morning papers. Immediately he got in his roadster and headed for the Fort of Copacabana.
On the way he encountered Captain Alvaro Niemeyer, who joined him in his auto. The pair found government troops in the mouth of the New Tunnel and spoke briefly with their commander. They drove on without seeing any other forces, until, near the fort, they ran across a lone sentry of the rebellious forces, who knew nothing.
On the next corner they confronted three sentries who invited them to “visit” the fort. Wisely refusing this hospitality, Col. Nepomuceno drove back to offer his services to the government. At 9 AM he was named commander of the forces of attack. He chose Cap. Niemeyer to be his Chief of Staff and immediately took a few military measures, such as sending men and munitions to the Fort of Leme.
The Schoolboy Revolt
Marshal Hermes needed Vila Militar and Escola Militar to join the uprising, and Vila was definitely out by the early morning of the 5th. There was a chance the School would also be lost to the revolution. Earlier, an officer, Captain Santos had bravely avoided capture by rebels and notified the director of the school, General Monteiro de Barros, of his escape.
But the whole clan of the Monteiro de Barros, including his mother, lived in his household near the School. The General first made energetic efforts to make sure they were safe. Then, after some desultory efforts to mount a resistance, he retired to his home and stayed there for the duration of the uprising. Cap. Santos tried to make it to the government forces, but was arrested by cadets and confined to the School.
With their director absent, the great majority of the School’s officers joined the revolt. They gave the students the option to join or not. The students were told that if they did not join, no harm would come to them – they would simply be confined to quarters. Six hundred thirty-seven cadets joined and one did not.
The command of the School forces fell to Colonel Xavier de Brito. His play was obvious: Vila Militar was only about three kilometers to the west-northwest. The great hope of the rebels was that Vila would join the revolt. The Colonel divided the cadets into three groups, each commanded by their former School leaders and began to march toward Vila Militar.
Before we recount the fate of the schoolboy revolt, a few reflections on martyrdom and the stages of life. It would seem that old men would be the first to sacrifice themselves for a cause, since they have they least to lose. Yet we hear of few suicide bombers over sixty.
We have seen that the effective agents, the “spark plugs,” of the Fifth of July were the idealistic and hotheaded junior officers. The titular heads, however, of the uprising and its opponents were crafty men, wise in the ways of power; men restrained by prudent self-interest, recognition of what is possible in the real world, and the sense of responsibility the comes with old age.
The schoolboy revolt, on the other hand, was lead by officers between these extremes, and the “troops” in this case were mere boys. The result was somehow unreal, like kids playing cowboys and Indians.
Around 6 AM Col. Xavier de Brito ordered the students, who had been patrolling the streets, to take a position on the heights of Monte Alegre about 1700 meters northeast of the School. Soon after, the Colonel observed a team of about one hundred troops from Vila Militar approaching. He saw that they were completely unaware that they were in the range of his student’s guns. He hesitated, however, to fire on them, because he hoped that at least some Vila Militar troops would join the revolution.
But when the detachment had almost reached the line of students, the rebel commander resolved to arrest them. At his orders, the students fired into the air. About half the approaching team dropped for cover and dug in, while the other half fled pell-mell to the rear. The troops remaining on the field soon raised a white flag, and Xavier de Brito agreed to a cease-fire.
Once safe, some of the government troops crept into better positions where they had the students in their gun sights. Then they opened fire and a student fell dead. The firing on both sides resumed and continued for some four hours, but there were few casualties in either camp. Though his side had a great advantage in numbers, the Colonel never ordered an all-out attack.
Finally, additional government troops began to arrive, including cavalry and artillery. Xavier de Brito realized that he could expect no help from revolting troops from Vila Militar and ordered the students to retreat to barracks. There the students bathed, changed uniforms, and went to lunch in good order, as if nothing had happened. When Col. Xavier de Brito arrived on the scene he was greeted with wild cheers. Soon officers from the government forces arrived and took command of the School. (Some of them had sons among the mutineers.) The revolt at Escola Militar was over.
Failed Diplomacy and the Bombardment of Rio
A little after 3 PM of the 5th, about the time of final “mopping up” operations at the School, Col. Nepomuceno issued his first order of operations. A large detachment of troops was sent to the hill of Cantagalo, which towered over the Fort of Copacabana. He doubled resistance on the Ipanema side of the fort, and also on the Copacabana side, hoping to cut off communications between rebel troops in those neighborhoods and the fort. He ordered artillery to the New and Old tunnels and cavalry to be in reserve as needed; he cut off telephone communications to the fort and its supply of power and water. Then the Colonel sent to the fort the following message:
I advise you that Escola Militar, which had been in revolt, has surrendered. The Fort of Copacabana is the only unit that remains to deliver itself. I hope you surrender immediately to avoid the great evils incident to the intense attack I will be forced to launch.
In response, the rebels ended offensive operations and sent Cap. Renato Pinto Aleixo to the forward command post of government at the New Tunnel to seek a truce. Col. Nepomuceno would later write that the message from Cap. Aleixo was that
… they would obey only Marshall Hermes, that it was from this chief would come the direction they would follow, and only if it came to the extreme case of not having communication from him would they pursue their own deliberations. They proposed to negotiate under the following conditions: 1: The Fort cease firing on the city; 2: The legal forces not pass the Plaza Serzedelo Correia. The understanding, nevertheless, was not approved by the government.
From this, there is the implication that the civilian authorities rather than Nepomuceno refused the truce offer. Later events reinforce this suspicion.
The Ministry of War did not fear bombardment of their headquarters. The officials knew that tables were needed to direct artillery fire. Within the Fort of Copacabana the tables had been computed only for shots directed towards the ocean and bay. But they didn’t know about o Formiguinha, the Little Ant.
This gentleman was also known as Xavier de Oliveira, professor of ballistics at Escola Militar. One day he was approached by some of his former students, led by Siqueira Campos. They had a large map of Rio with points marked on it, and wanted to know how to calculate the tables needed to hit them. The Little Ant, touched by the interest of his old students in ballistics, fell to the work with enthusiasm. Siqueira did not tell him he was planning a revolution and wanted to know how to blast Rio to smithereens.
Now, furnished with the new tables, Lt. Delso Mendes de Fonseca took his seat in the revolving dome of the 190 mm cannon. He would make the first shot and was so excited he forgot to close the hatch of the cupola. With the explosion, his hat flew outside, never to be found.
Euclides decided the youth needed some rest and took charge. He had made precise calculations – he would hit Headquarters, exactly in the left wing where the orders to imprison his father were signed. When all was ready, a soldier should brake the turret just before Euclides pressed the electric detonator.
The shot flew. But instead of Headquarters the shell destroyed a home in the depths of the power and light company. Killed were Maria da Graça Monteiro, age 24, her son Manoel, 2, and an employee of that company, Alberto Álvares Gomes.
The telephone rang. It was Minister of War Calógeras himself, protesting the bombardment. Without thinking, Calógeras gave Euclides the information he needed to correct his shot. The captain realized his error: the soldier must have failed to brake the cannon. His next shot hit the left wing of the Palace of War and the following two shells caused panic. They fell in the patio on the opposite side. Three enlisted men lay dead and one wounded.
The authorities relocated their headquarters to a safer part of the city; then, not feeling that was safe, they moved it again. The rebels had shown they could shoot over the hills around Copacabana. The city was at their mercy.
But for reasons not clear, no more shells fell on the Palace of War. Instead an inconclusive duel now ensued between the various fortresses around the city and Copacabana. For some reason, the Fort of Sao Luis never fired a shot, though a couple of suspected rebel officers were arrested there. At the Fort of Imbuí the hydraulic mechanism would not operate. In any case, no civilian injuries were registered as a result of the duel. When night fell, again, over the sea and the fortresses, the order to cease-fire was given. Copacabana also fell silent. The civilian populace of Rio was safe for the moment.
At 7 PM Col. Nepomuceno sent the following message to Cap. Euclides:
I inform you of the order of the Government of the Republic that it is not possible to concede to the elements of the National Army that find themselves in revolt in the Fort of Copacabana, and under your command, the armistice that was solicited by Cap. Renato Aleixo. You must in consequence order the surrender of this Fort under pain of being attacked by land and sea, and the defenders subject to severe penalties of law.
No answer to this advisement is recorded. Instead, the rebels got ready. Next to the fort was a small hill where they had installed spotlights that now were not working. If attacked by sea, the mutineers needed these spotlights to locate hostile ships so they bent every effort to fix them, and eventually succeeded.
About two kilometers along the beach north of the Fort of Copacabana, the present Siqueira Campos St. begins at the ocean and ends at the Old Tunnel. The next street north is Hilário de Gouveia, and between these two streets, a long block from the beach, is the Plaza Serzedelo Correia. To this Plaza, at 11 PM of the 5th, Col. Nepomuceno dispatched many troops and moved his forward command post to Hilário de Gouveia. From there he sent flanking patrols towards the fort.
The author cautions that the reader should not assume everything in the article is historically accurate, though most things are. He welcomes any factual corrections, additional facts, or alternative interpretations of events.
The main source for this article was 1922 – Sangue na Areia de Copacabana (1922 – Blood on the Sands of Copacabana), by Hélio Silva, published by Editora Civilização Brasileira S.A., Rio de Janeiro, 1971.
Dr. Addison Jump is a retired mathematician living in Rio. Of Native American descent, he worked at a college for American Indians and later for the U.S. Department of Defense. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is the third of five articles on the Fifth of July Revolt.