The American Civil War (1861–1865) was a civil war that took place in the United States of America opposing two fronts. Eleven Southern states, in which slavery was legal, formed the Confederate States of America (Confederacy). These states aspired to become independent from the rest of the United States, and Jefferson Davis (1808-1809) was chosen as a new President of this Confederacy.
The US government and the rest of the states, which remained loyal to the original concept, were called the Union. Every state where slavery was illegal supported the Union. Most of these states were in the North. But, five states where slavery was legal also supported the Union. They were called the “border states”.
The war began on 12 April, 1861, when the Confederate forces attacked the Fort Sumter which was held by a garrison of the Union. The conflict lasted four years and devastated completely the South. When the Union won the war in 1865, slavery was definitely abolished everywhere in the United States.
Till nowadays, there is no comprehensive study that puts emphasis on the participation of the Swiss people coming from the Canton Ticino and/or the Insubrica region who were actively involved in this conflict. During the Civil War there were about 55’000 Swiss in the United States. More than 50’000 lived in the North, with only about 5’000 living in the states of the Confederacy. The Swiss General Consul in Washington DC estimated that about 6’000 mens participated in the conflict with the Union. Hundreds of the Swiss mens should have fought for the Confederacy. Surely, the Swiss soldiers had a small presence compared to approx. 2.1 Mio soldiers fighting for the Union. Nevertheless, they managed to produced some fine examples of military skills and glory both in the North as well as in the South.
We would like to mention just few names of Swiss soldiers combating for the Union side: Captain Emil Frey (Arlesheim 1838 – id. 1922) was taken as a prisoner at the battle of Gettysburg, but he managed, after the Civil War, to embrace a political career in Berne, becoming in 1894, the President of the Swiss Confederation. General John Eugene Smith (Bern 1816 – Chicago 1897) served as a Union general during the American Civil War. General Hermann Lieb (Ermatingen/TG 1826 – Chicago 1908) was a commander of the Union forces at the Battle of Milliken’s Bend in 1863.
We also wish to put in light one Swiss citizen who supported the Confederacy: Captain Henri Wirz (Zürich 1823 – Washington 1865). Wirz was best known as the Commandant of the Camp Sumter which was a Confederate prisoner-of-war camp near Andersonville, Georgia. This place was infamous for its terrible conditions and the high mortality rate of Union detainees. After the Civil War, Wirz was executed for conspiracy and murders related to his command of the camp. He became one of two people who were convicted for the war crimes after the Civil War.
So, how many soldiers from the Insubrica region fought in the American Civil War? As stated above, there is no comprehensive study on this subject, but we can suppose the following: if 6’500 Swiss soldiers fought during the Civil War, approx. 5% were from the Canton Ticino. Consequently, the overall number could be approximately 300-350 soldiers from Ticino, but it is a pure estimation and, most likely, the reality counted just a few hundred of them from the Insubrica region.
Yet, there are two personalities from the Canton Ticino who took part in the Civil War and are worth writing. The first person is Alexander (Alessandro) Repetti (Genova 1822 – Rome 1890).
Originally from Italy, he came to Switzerland in 1847 and became quickly the owner of the Tipografia Elvetica in Capolago (southern tip of Lago di Lugano), which under his guidance had a considerable development, publishing subversive political works, clearly supporting the Italian unification. Forced to stop his publishing activities by the neutral Swiss government, Repetti emigrated, in 1859, to the United States. He fought passionately during the Civil War as a Lt-Col. and commander of Garibaldi Guard. It was a unit formed in NY composed from Italians and Swiss-Germans.
Repetti returned to Switzerland, in 1862, because of health problems. His life experience in the US allowed him, in 1863, to be promoted to the rank of major by the General Staff of the Swiss Army.
The same year, from March to November 1863, he returned to the United States as a staff working for Swiss Colonel Augusto Fogliardi, whose mission was to observe the military operations. Having returned, in 1867, in Milan, he opened a small print shop as a publisher.
The second personality was Colonel Augusto Fogliardi (Marseille 1818 – around 1890 probably in modern Instanbul). He studied law at the University of Zurich (1846-47) and embraced later a military career in the Swiss Army, reaching the rank of colonel in 1855. In 1863, he took an official military assignment in behalf of the Swiss Federal Council and spent, together with Alessandro Repetti, a lot of time in 1863, inspecting the Union troops, visiting the battle fronts.
Fogliardi was the second Swiss observer, following Captain Ferdinand Lecomte (Lausanne 1826 – id. 1899), who studied the Union Army from 1861 till the beginning of 1862. For the sake of the record, Switzerland was the first nation in the American Civil War that sent military observers for the Union side. Fogliardi returned to Switzerland where he was engaged in a local political career.