Not Exactly Neutral: Ferdinand Lecomte Observes the Federal Army

By Ryan Nadeau ’16

Quick—think of the name of a European country. I’ll give you a second to decide.


Picked one? How many of you named France, Germany, Britain, Russia, or perhaps Spain or Italy? The vast majority, I would bet, given their historical and cultural significance. Perhaps there was a sprinkling of smaller, though certainly notably nations such as the Netherlands or Poland. Perhaps a select amount of clever individuals went with Luxembourg, Lichtenstein, or Monaco. How many people, I wonder, would think of Switzerland—unaided, that is, by the very title of this article, which I expect has served to skew the results of my hypothetical experiment.

When I’ve spoken of Switzerland with my peers and friends, a fair number often confuse the small, alpine nation with Sweden—perhaps understandable, despite the vast gulf in geography, given the generalization of a neutral, prosperous European nation with a cross on their flag and whose name begins with “Sw.” Those who could identify Switzerland correctly could generally only list off a few stereotypes regarding what typically comes from there: cheese, chocolate, clocks, banks, army knives, neutrality, the Red Cross—and so forth. While, all things considered, that’s a reasonably assortment of things from a nation so often seemingly overlooked, these exports are more traits than concrete, historical facts, and truly, aside from a few vague notions of the Protestant Reformation in Zurich and an invasion by the French in the revolutionary era, I could not come up with many historical details on Switzerland myself.

Perhaps that is what made my discovery of the account of a Swiss observer to the Civil War so surprising.

The nations you likely thought of before—France, Germany, Britain, and so forth—were obviously the likely candidates for official military observations of the war. After all, the Great Powers needed to keep an eye out on the happenings of the world. But Switzerland? My deepest and most profound apologies to any Swiss person who may happen to be reading this (also, hello hypothetical international readership!), but Switzerland has hardly been an emblem of international power in world history. Furthermore, by 1861 Swiss neutrality had already been international recognized (being a product of the Congress of Vienna in 1815). If officially neutral, what would Switzerland have to gain by observing the United States’ military engagement?

Obviously, I needed to find out.

The War in the United States is the product of one Lieutenant Colonel Ferdinand Lecomte, who was dispatched to the United States in the closing days of 1861 by the Swiss Federal Council to observe the military conflict then raging between the states. Rather than recounting chapter upon chapter of minute details that he himself witnessed, as many other observers did, Lecomte’s account instead serves as a basic primer to the background and development of the Civil War in many parts explaining, with noted clarity, the causes of the war and disagreements between the two sides, the history of slavery in the United States, the cultural differences between North and South, the political background to the 1860 presidential election, and the opening battles and engagements of the war that had occurred thus far. Furthermore, Lecomte spends a good amount of time detailing the differences in terrain between the North and South and its impact on the fighting, as well as the composition of the armies, uniforms, weapons, and leadership of the belligerents. He additionally takes a special interest in new technologies utilized in the war—especially the USS Monitor, which he spends a good section of his book writing extensively on.

These are all details that one would today find in most U.S. history textbooks, or very general studies of the war itself. And this makes sense—while nations such as Britain and France interacted with the United States with great frequency in the early nineteenth century, it is doubtful that there was high traffic of information and people between the States and Switzerland. It thus seems doubtful that the government and leaders of Switzerland fully understood the conflict at hand, and thus, rather than solely seeking military knowledge, that they also would have sought to understand why the conflict was occurring at all. This is not to assume that the Swiss government as a whole would have been fully ignorant to the conditions in the United States, but even in today’s world of mass media and instantly available knowledge, deep cultural rifts still often require first-hand investigation to truly understand and appreciate. Surely it is reasonable to suspect that that which occurred here would have been similar in that regard.

It could thus be argued that Lecomte’s observations and writings on the Civil War show a level of sophistication not seen in other first-hand European accounts, such as those by the Prussian Justus Scheibert and the Frenchman Charles Girard that I have already examined. Both seem directly concerned with utilizing their observations to a purpose and therefore build their narratives around this purpose: Scheibert views everything he sees through the lens of military strategy and innovation, where Girard writes as a blatant propagandist. Each believes that his nation has a stake in this fight and seeks to capitalize on the opportunities the war provides, to make the most of their possible gains. Lecomte, however, seems to be more concerned with uncovering the truth of the details behind the war’s origins and progression thus far. He himself concretely makes note of this fact in the opening discourse of his text, stating his gratification “to have this opportunity of rectifying some errors which have been current in Europe, in regard to these transactions [of the war].”

Lecomte’s discourse lays his northern sympathies bare. He brands the southern branch of the Democratic Party an “Oligarchic” Party in all but name, whose “social state resembles a little that of the old feudal lords, or the patriarchs of the East.” He believes that secession is “an illegality,” “contrary to the letter and the spirit of the Federal Constitution, to the spirit of every constitution, and every organization of political society whatever.” As if he needed to make his opinion on the matter clearer, he further adds that the “doctrine of secession leads straight to anarchy, and is only, at bottom, a subtle theory of the right of force and of barbarism.” Unlike observers sympathetic to the South, such as Scheibert and Girard, Lecomte considers slavery to be the primary cause of the war, proclaiming that “it is for the defense, it is for the great glory of this abominable institution, which shames the civilization and the Christian sentiments of our age, that she [the South] has put herself at war with her brethren.”

Reading the body of Lecomte’s text, however, one is hard-pressed to accuse him of a blatant northern bias. While he naturally observed the war from the Northern perspective as an aide-de-camp to General McClellan, his reporting is generally free from ideological proclamations. In fact, a good deal of time is spent in his work criticizing the North and especially its bureaucratic and highly politicized system of leadership and tepid success in battle thus far. Lecomte concludes his text with a list of ways in which the Union Army could be improved, generally along the lines of de-politicizing the officer corps and leadership and further professionalizing the armor with new military decoration, larger regiments, and fewer superfluous baggage trains (being deeply critical of many top officers’ need to drag armchairs along with their armies). Furthermore, Lecomte advocated for a conscription policy of recruitment, rather than the policy of volunteering upon which the Union heavily relied. Conscription, Lecomte argued, would engage the entirety of the population in support of the war, where placing the burden of volunteers disproportionally engaged the lower classes, who, in his words, essentially became mercenaries only serving for the pay rather than out of any kind of patriotic duty.

This is not to say that Lecomte found the army to be without merit; directly following his list of criticisms is a list of practices he believed the Swiss army could itself stand to adopt. Generally, they focus on points involving technology and modern army practices: ‘we should use the guns they’re using,’ ‘we should give all our soldiers tents and better rations like they did,’ ‘we should get rid of epaulets and have multicolored uniforms’ (apparently to make individual divisions stand out more from each other), and so forth.

After all this, however, the question remains: why did the Swiss care about the Civil War? Based on Lecomte’s conclusions, it could easily be said that they were generally seeking new military knowledge, as Scheibert did for Prussia. By taking a look into Switzerland’s history contemporary to the war, one may notice that they had plenty of reasons to sympathize with the Union—perhaps even more so than any other European state. This background, as well as the level of Lecomte’s antipathy for the South, are worth investigating—and will be, next time.


Lecomte, Ferdinand. The War in the United States: Report to the Swiss Military Department. New York: D. Van Nostrand, 1863.

Luck, James Murrary. A History of Switzerland: The First 100,000 Years: Before the Beginnings to the Days of the Present. Palo Alto, California: Society for the Promotion of Science and Scholarship, Inc., 1985.

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