- The Washington Times - Friday, January 19, 2007

In fall 1869, Robert E. Lee, the former commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, was living a peaceful life as president of Washington College — renamed Washington and Lee University in his honor after his death — in the small town of Lexington, Va. 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 Lexington. He was quite a character, even in his appearance. A 12-inch waxed mustache was his most striking feature. He had led a very colorful life as a piano maker, a Swiss Guard protecting the pope in Rome, and a volunteer fighter in Italian Gen. Giuseppe Garibaldi’s army in 1849. By the time the American Civil War had ended, Buchser was a widely admired artist of the realist school in his native Switzerland.

The enthusiastic response of many Swiss to the Union victory was enhanced by popular sympathy toward the great “Sister Republic” after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Hundreds of Swiss political groups and workers clubs sent messages with their members’ signatures to the American government expressing congratulations on the victory and grief over the president’s death.

At almost the same time, the Swiss Parliament in Bern considered proposals for decorating the Swiss Capitol. Switzerland at that time was the only country in Europe with a democratic and republican form of government.

A group of prominent leaders of the majority Radical-Liberal Party wanted to commission one or several monumental paintings by a Swiss artist depicting President Lincoln; his successor, Andrew Johnson; Secretary of State William H. Seward; and Gens. Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman. These men were widely admired in Switzerland, though little was known about them.

The initiators of the painting project chose Buchser, who was not only a very popular painter but also a known follower of their party. He landed in New York in May 1866 and arrived a few days later in Washington. He contacted Grant and other dignitaries, who responded well to his project. His original concept was to paint Grant reporting to Lincoln near the end of the war. That project was never realized.

However, Buchser did become friends with Sherman, and in January and February 1869, Sherman sat for him in St. Louis. The result is a portrait showing the general dictating to his adjutant, Col. L.M. Dayton, in camp during the Georgia campaign toward the end of the war.

Grant had been elected president and had no time to sit for a painting, so Buchser shelved his idea of a monumental painting of the Union leaders. Also, his travels through Virginia gave him a more balanced view of the Civil War. His constant contact with politicians caused him to write, “Had the American statesmen of the last 15 years been half as intelligent and only half as honest and capable as the soldiers, that is the Generals Grant, Lee, Sherman, etc. then the war would never have been started.”

Hoping that Grant would agree to sit for him if his old opponent had done likewise, the Swiss painter decided to try his luck with Robert E. Lee. On Sept. 25, 1869, he arrived in Lexington. There must have been an immediate liking between the two men, who were totally different in character and personal history. Lee not only accepted Buchser’s proposal to sit every day for his portrait, but even invited the painter to stay at the college president’s house, which had just been completed.

Buchser’s original idea was to have Lee stand in his full uniform on one side of a table, leaving the other side open so he could paint Grant, also in uniform. Lee refused to wear the uniform of an army that no longer existed. This was consistent with the man’s careful effort during those years to avoid anything on his part that could stir up old passions and prevent the healing of the nation. Lee wore his black broadcloth suit, but at the artist’s insistence, he agreed to have the sword, belt, sash and uniform coat he had worn at Appomattox, as well as binoculars and a hat from the war, on a table next to him.

As he had agreed, Lee devoted some time every day to the Swiss painter until the project was done. The younger man fell completely under the general’s spell. “What a gentle, noble soul, good and lovable, the old white-haired warrior is,” he noted in his diary on Oct. 3, and two days later: “One cannot see and know this great soldier without loving him.”

Buchser left Lexington on Oct. 22, making his way to Washington, where Grant again refused to sit for him. He took his paintings back to Switzerland, where Lee and Sherman hung side by side in the office of the head of military affairs. Both paintings now hang together in the residence of the Swiss ambassador in Washington.

William S. Connery is a freelance writer and speaker living in Alexandria. He wishes to thank the Swiss Embassy for its help in preparing this article.

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