One hundred and fifty years ago the United States erupted in civil war, a pivotal conflict that put some Swiss immigrants on opposite ends of the battlefield.
As the commemorations unfold across the United States, a Swiss-American historian has highlighted the role that Swiss immigrants played during this decisive period of US history.
Leo Schelbert, a retired Swiss-American history professor from the University of Illinois, says some 6,000 Swiss immigrants fought for the north, or Union, adding that figures on how many Swiss fought for the south are hard to come by.
But the most famous—or infamous—of them was a southern Confederate named Heinrich “Henry” Wirz, a Swiss whose fate became the subject of two TV films, one starring William Shatner of Star Trek fame.
“Immigrants were very crucial, like they are today, for armies in recruiting whoever is willing to do the job,” Schelbert told swissinfo.ch. “Swiss certainly fought at the big battles.”
The course of the war that began on April 12, 1861 and ended four years later is now routinely taught in US schools. The Union prevailed, the south was rebuilt, and the nation—despite enduring disparities and tensions—emerged the stronger for it.
But things could not have turned out more differently for Wirz and his fellow Swiss compatriot Emil Frey, an agronomist from Basel who fought with the Union and was captured at the Battle of Gettysburg. Frey’s American war experience was to lead him into a political career in Switzerland as cabinet minister and the first Swiss ambassador to the United States.
The war ended darkly for Wirz. The doctor from Zurich ran a prison camp of starving Union soldiers and, after a controversial trial, was executed as a murderer.
“Hang me, be done with it”
Norbert Bärlocher, head of cultural affairs at the Swiss embassy in Washington, says it is not surprising Swiss immigrants were caught up in the vicious fight, given the millions of immigrants from all over Europe who had made their way to America in the mid-1800s.
Wirz left Zurich in 1849, eventually settling in Louisiana to practise medicine. When war broke out, he joined a southern battalion and was wounded early on.
At first the war went well for the south but by 1863 Union troops had cut off southern supply routes, won key victories and were closing in fast on the south’s remaining forces. Confederate officers in 1864 made Wirz commander of an undersupplied prisoner of war camp near Andersonville, Georgia, where nearly 13,000 of the 45,000 Union prisoners held there died of starvation and disease.
When the war ended Wirz was taken to Washington, where he was tried and hanged on conspiracy and murder charges. Historians today question the trial’s integrity.
“I personally think he became a scapegoat,” Schelbert said.
Wirz felt the same.
“What a mockery is this trial,” he wrote in October 1865. “I feel at times as if I ought to speak out loud and tell them, ‘Why do you worry yourself and me too; why not end the farce at once, take me and hang me, be done with it.’”
Gettysburg to government
If Wirz had become disillusioned with what America had to offer its immigrants, Frey may have remained sceptical all along. As a centre-right politician and fervent believer in Swiss-style direct democracy, Frey didn’t care much for the US’s republic system, Schelbert said.
“I do not like America and I shall never like it,” Frey wrote in February 1861, just months before fighting broke out.
Frey had come to Illinois in 1860 from canton Basel Country to further his work in agronomy. Schelbert says Frey ended up in Highland, Illinois, a settlement originally known as New Switzerland that was founded by Lucerne liberals.
When the war broke out, Frey joined the Illinois infantry fighting for the north. “What I needed was work,” he wrote in July 1861. Later on he would say defeating slavery motivated him the most, Schelbert said.
But the pivotal point came on July 1, 1863, when Frey was captured at the infamous Battle of Gettysburg, when some 51,000 soldiers were killed or wounded. The conditions as a prisoner of the south were horrendous.
“He was allowed to catch rats and cook them,” Schelbert said.
After the war, Frey returned to Switzerland as a “hero”, according to a New York Times obituary published in 1922. He was elected to Basel Country’s cantonal government, then the federal parliament, and eventually appointed Switzerland’s first ambassador to the US in 1882.
By 1890 he was defence minister, fortifying the Gotthard and unknowingly preparing Switzerland for the First World War.
“If you think of the ordeal he went through, it’s no wonder he never talks about going back to the US,” Schelbert said.
“Yet Frey is certainly one of the unique Swiss who was involved in crucial moments in the making of it.”
US Civil War
The first battle of the Civil War took place in South Carolina when southern Confederate troops attacked Fort Sumter, a Union (north) army outpost.
The war was fought between some 25 northern states (the Union) and 11 southern states (the Confederacy) which had sought to form their own nation, the Confederate States of America. Abraham Lincoln was the president of the Union while Jefferson Davis led the south.
The north, which was more populated and industrious, sought to outlaw slavery throughout the nation. The rural south, which relied heavily on slave labour for its cotton export industry, wanted an independent confederation of states with limited federal power.
Southern states had already begun seceding before the first shots were fired. Kentucky, generally thought of as a more southern state, remained neutral until southern forces entered the state in 1861, pushing Kentucky to join the north.End of insertion
Emil Frey Key Dates
1838 Born in Arlesheim, canton Basel Country
1860 Arrives in the US
1861 Joins Illinois infantry
1863 Captured at Battle of Gettysburg
1865 War ends, returns to Basel
1866 Elected to Basel Country government
1872 Editor in chief of Basel Nachrichten newspaper, elected to parliament.
1875 Becomes Speaker of the House
1879 and 1881 Bids fail to become cabinet minister
1882-88 First Swiss ambassador to the US
1890 Elected to Swiss cabinet. Assumes defence portfolio.
1893 Uses federal troops to put down factory riot in Bern
1894 Swiss president
1897 Leaves government after Swiss reject his plan to reorganise the army
1897-1921 Becomes director of the International Telegraph Union.
1922 DiesEnd of insertion
In compliance with the JTI standards