Lee, Sherman Side by Side at Swiss Embassy

Article excerpt

In the fall of 1869, Robert E. Lee was living a peaceful life as president of Washington College. The greatest soldier of the Confederacy had only one more year to live.

During the last days of September, a 41-year-old Swiss painter named Frank Buchser arrived in the small Virginia college town of Lexington.

Buchser had led a colorful life as a piano maker, a soldier in the pope's Swiss Guards in Rome, a volunteer fighter in Garibaldi's army in 1849 and, most important, a painter traveling through Europe, the Mediterranean and Morocco. By the time the Civil War ended, Buchser was an admired artist of the realistic school in his native Switzerland.

Switzerland was at that time the only country in Europe with a democratic and republican form of government. Her institutions were dominated by the progressive Radical-Liberal Party, and its followers admired the Union, which had just won the Civil War. They had themselves been victorious less than 20 years earlier - in 1847 - in a brief civil war against Swiss conservatives.

As in the United States, a root cause for this war had been the issue of states' rights vs. federal control. The Swiss liberals, therefore, often employed the metaphor of "sister republics" when talking about Switzerland and the United States.


Quite a few Swiss citizens had served in Union armies. The 15th Missouri Regiment had had so many Swiss soldiers that it had been commonly called the "Swiss Rifles." The regiment's banner was a combination of the Swiss and American flags. Company A of the 1st United States Sharpshooters, the famous Berdan Sharpshooters, was almost exclusively Swiss. Gen. Hermann Lieb had organized one of the first black regiments, the 5th U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery, and commanded all of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's artillery west of the Mississippi toward the end of the war.

Another Swiss officer, Maj. Emil Frey, had served in the 82nd Illinois Regiment and been captured by the Confederates at Gettysburg. He had been confined in Libby prison in Richmond, to be exchanged for a Confederate officer who had been sentenced to death on the Northern side. Frey survived the war and became the Swiss minister to the United States, a corps commander in the Swiss army and later president of Switzerland.

There were fewer Swiss fighting on the Confederate side, mostly descendants of Swiss families who had lived for generations in the states of the Confederacy. Their most famous representative was Brig. Gen. John D. Imboden of Virginia, who commanded a brigade of cavalry at Gettysburg, organized the difficult retreat of the Army of Northern Virginia over the Potomac after that decisive battle and, a year later, in May 1864, played an important role at New Market.

Brig. Gen. Felix K. Zollicoffer of Tennessee, a former congressman, was killed early in the war at the battle of Mill Springs in Kentucky on Jan. 18, 1862.


The enthusiastic response of many Swiss to Union victory was enhanced by sympathy toward the great "sister republic" after the assassination of President Lincoln. Practically at the same time, the Swiss parliament in Bern considered proposals for decoration of the federal government building, the Swiss Capitol. A group of Radical-Liberal Party leaders had the idea of commissioning one or several monumental paintings by a Swiss artist depicting Lincoln; his successor, Andrew Johnson; Secretary of State William H. Seward; Grant; and Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman.

The initiators of the painting project chose Frank Buchser, who was not only a popular painter, but also a follower of their party. Money was raised through public subscription. Buchser accepted the commission and arrived in New York on May 22, 1866, and he was received in Washington a few days later by President Johnson, Seward, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, Grant and other dignitaries. …