Union officer, President of the Swiss Confederation
Emil Frey was born on October 24, 1838 in Arlesheim, Switzerland. His family provided sactuary for the German revolutionary Friederick Hecker after the failure of the 1848 revolution in Germany.
Frey emigrated to the United States, settling in Belleville, Illinois along with Hecker, for whom he worked for a time.
With the coming of the war Frey enlisted in Hecker’s 24th Illinois Infantry. Disagreements arose between Hecker and some of his officers, and Hecker and his supporters resigned, including Frey. Frey’s entusiasm for the war was at a low point at this time. He wrote his family back in Switzerland “I am sick and tired of this war,” “Lincoln is a dunderhead and a traitor” and “We don’t get along so well with our Irish and Yankee colleagues.”
His father convinced him to not return to Switzerland, though, and In October of 1862 Hecker formed a second regiment, the 82nd Illinos Infantry. Frey recruited and became Captain of Company H.
At Gettysburg the 82nd took part in the 11th Corps defense north of town, and was one of the last regiments to fall back to Cemetery Hill. Captain Frey was captured in the chaotic retreat through the city.
Frey spent eighteen months in Libby Prison in Richmond before being exchanged on January 14, 1865. He was awarded the brevet rank of major.
His health wrecked by his time in prison and the starvation diet there, Frey returned to Switzerland in 1866 for what he intended to be a brief rest before returning to a business career in Illinois. But he arrived in the middle of a deadlocked campaign for the Basel-Landschaft cantonal government. His status as a war hero earned him unanimous election to the office.
He married Emma Kloss in 1870, and together they had five children. In 1872 he became editor of theBasle Nachrichten newspaper. At the same time he was elected to the Swiss National Council, and was its president in 1875-76. From 1882 until 1888 he served as Switzerland’s first minister to the United States.
He was elected to the Swiss Federal Council in 1890, serving until 1897. During his time on the Council he held the Military Department, and served as President of the Confederation (the presiding member of the Council) in 1894.
After leaving government service in 1897 he became director of the International Telegraph Union until 1921. He died on December 24, 1922.
Frey’s letters to his family during the war were published in 1986 as “An American Apprenticeship: The Letters of Emil Frey 1860-1865“, edited and translated by Hedwig Rappolt.