Heinz K. MeierThe Period of the Civil War

2.13 Heinz K. Meier, The Period of the Civil War, excerpt, in The United States and Switzerland in the Nineteenth Century, The Hague, 1963, p.70-91

a) Background

The Anthology applies a process oriented selection criteria to observe and understand the Americanization of Swiss law and legal culture and the respective cultural exchanges and encounters (for a related perspective see Peter Burke, What is Cultural History, Cambridge, UK, 2004) . As regards to this broader perspective we note a lack of a coherent analysis of the legal relationships between Switzerland and the United States by lawyers or legal historians. Such analysis and description of the process exists in the discipline of history, in two books by Heinz K. Meier – a Swiss historian working in the United States. The relationship between the two countries from a historian perspective in general are described in the books The United States and Switzerland in the 19th century (1963) and in the book Friendship under Stress, U.S. – Swiss relations 1900 – 1970 (1970).

The text at hand is a chapter from Heinz K. Meier’s book The United States and Switzerland in the 19th century. It addresses the period of the Civil War. The chapter is largely is based on unpublished and unexplored sources. Heinz K. Meier traces the development of the cultural, diplomatic, economic and political relations between the two countries from the early years of the century to the eve of World War I. It shows that from the very beginning of official intercourse between governments there was an atmosphere of mutual respect and esteem based largely on common political ideas. It shows as well that this esteem induced the United States to show in many instances a greater generosity towards the small “Sister Republic” than is usual in international relations. The book not only analyses the various treaties and treaty negotiations. It also throws light on such themes as Swiss attitudes towards the United States, Swiss emigrants and their contributions to the life of America, Swiss participation in the Civil War– and United States trade with Switzerland and viceversa.

The text at hand deals with the time period of the Civil War. It has to be read with conjunction with the text of James Hutson, Swiss and the American Civil War (2.12). At the time of the Civil War Switzerland has become a nation state in 1848 only a few years earlier partially based upon the American constitutional model. In 1850 the United States and Switzerland had concluded the “Convention of Friendship, Reciprocal Establishments, Commerce and for the Surrender of Fugitive Criminals”. It was a time, in which both of the countries perceived themselves as the only republics in the Western world and had developed a substantial mutual respect for eachother. Natural law based thinking inspired by the Swiss authors De Vattel and Burlamaqui had waned. The mutual knowledge about the two countries had increased. American writers such as James Fenimore Cooper and later Mark Twain travelled in Switzerland and wrote about the country in popular manner. With the exception of the Alabama Arbitration, which originated during the time of the Civil War and which was carried out in Geneva at a later point of time no obvious and direct major influences on the legal relationships between the countries maybe decerned. Times of war have fundamental influences on the structure and nature of national legal systems including their international relations in the context. With respects to the Civil War, we have not found any indepth analysis of that topic. The hidden sentence in the preface of second volume of the seminal book of Morton J. Horwitz on the Transformation of American Law, f 1870 to 1960 “the reader will notice, that I have begun this book in 1870, not in 1860. Though I make many references to the influence of the Civil War, I believe that only a separate book can do justice to the profound significance of the Civil War in American legal history. I hope to write that book some day.” leaves the reader with apprehension.

The author Dr. Heinz K. Meier was born in Switzerland in 1929. He has been educated at the University of Zurich, at the Alliance Francaise of Paris and at Emory University, Atlanta, where he obtained his PhD degree in history. He spent all his professional life in the United States. From 1960 to 1975 he was a professor and than department chair in the History Department and from 1975 to 1985 as Dean of the College of Arts and of the Old Dominian University Norfolk, Virginia. As indicated in the books, he did extensive research in libraries and archives of Switzerland and the United States.

b) Summary

The text at hand is a chapter of the book of Heinz K. Meier The United States and Switzerland in the 19th century. It covers the period of the Civil War. It traces the development of cultural, diplomatic, economic and political relations between two countries in that period. It is written as a narrative and in a facts based and bottom up approach. It compliments the American perspective of James Hutson in text 2.12, which is a perspective of an American historian.

The chapter starts with communications of the American representative to his government that it need not have to worry about Switzerland. It could hardly be any doubt about the ideological position -comparing the Civil War in the United States with the Sonderbundskrieg, which had threatened to tear apart Switzerland fourteen years ago. The fact that the United States was asured of the benevolant neutrality of Switzerland, made it a country to which not much attention was given, although Secretary of State Seward was well informed about the relationship. The fact, that the Confederate government had at no time during the war attempted to open negotiations with the Federal Council alleviated the United States of basic worries. The Swiss public, according to Meier, followed the events of the war closely and attentively. It’s opinion was not quite as anonymous as it was described in the dispatches of the American representative, Minister Fogg. The Neue Zürcher Zeitung and the catholic conservative press of central Switzerland were in sympathy with the goals of the Southern States. Business and Commercial circles felt, that the war was an obstruction of their business and not a threat to liberal ideological positions. A general discussion of the slavery questions apparently was avoided (see text 2.23). The rest of Switzerland even emotionally took sides for the cause of the Union. In 1865 Florian Gängel, editor of the Berne newspaper Der Bund wrote an address of congratulation to the president of the United States, which was signed by all members of the Federal Council, and many members of the Bernese legislate assembly. After the sad news of president Lincolns assassination 300 adresses of mourning with over 20’000 signatures were collected in Switzerland and presented to the American representative. The Federal Council, according to Meier, had maintained a neutral position to the greater part of the war. It did not yield to the demands of the radicals to take side of the North officially. The efforts to forge doser ties with the United States failed. President Jakob Dubs wanted to add to the treaty of 1850 an article according to which Swiss citizens have to be placed under the protection of the United States in those countries where Switzerland had no representatives, a matter of fact, all diplomatic overtures made by Switzerland during 1864 were rejected.

The text at hand describes in some detail the part played by Swiss in the actual fighting of the war. In no other war since Napoleons campaigns were there so many Swiss participating as in the Civil War. The majority was involved in the war militating for the cause of the Union. Meier argues, that there can be no doubt that a high percentage of Swiss, who had emigrated to the United States fought in the Civil War. The text mentiones, that the United States government refrained from officially recruiting people in Switzerland. The unit called “Swiss Riffles” and Hermann Lieb, reached the rank of general are described; his remarkable military ability was recognized by General Grant, who commissioned him to organize a “Negro regiment” (!). The most prominent Swiss was Emil Frey in the rank of a major, who was captured as a member of the Illinois Regiment at Gettysburg, where he spent 18 months in the famed Libby Prison. After his release he went back to Switzerland, where his American majors brevet was readily recognised. The story made news when Frey returned to the United States in 1882 as the first Swiss diplomat to be accredited in Washington and even more so when later in his career he became Federal Councillor and the President of the Swiss Confederation in 1894. The fate of major Henri Wirz, the Swiss head of Anderson prison, an Institution of the Confederate army, is described. Henri Wirz was tried after the war for being responsible for the death of the prisoners and was found guilty and executed in November 1886 (text of Alan Dershowitz, 2.14). The text of Heinz K. Meier ends with the description of the mission of Frank Buchser, which had been sent to Washington DC to paint the leading American personalities of the heroic period of the Civil War. Frank Buchser should assemble material for a large mural in the Federal palace at Berne. A companion peace featuring eminent man of Swiss history was planned as well.. As regards to Frank Buchser the editor mentions, that immediatelly after his arrival in Washington he painted a famous portrait of the then already present Johann August Sutter as well, who was petitioning for years to get an indemnification from the Congress of the United States (see texts 2.8, 2.9, 2.11 and 2.12). Frank Buchser stayed in the United States for five years; he frequently travelled to the South and was one of the first painters painting black women. Buchsers paintings can nowadays be found in American museums (see Frank Buchser 1828 – 1890, Kunstmuseum Solothurn, Einsiedeln, 1990).

The editor notes that the issue of the Swiss attitudes and the involvements in slavery in the United States is not addressed in the text at hand of Heinz K. Meier, nor is it addressed in the text of James Hutson (see text 2.12). Louis Agassiz’s theory of races already was part of the general debates on slavery in the United States (see text 2.21 and 2.22). New research around the turn of the millennium made this issue public in Switzerland (see text 2.23). (See in that context Bernard Bailyn, Atlantic History, Concept and Counters, p. 61 ff)

c) Text

You can find a (pdf) scan of the text here: A_2.13_MEIER_Period of the Civil War

© Prof. Jens Drolshammer, office@drolshammer.com,  www.drolshammer.net

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