Two mercenaries of the Karrer Regiment, 1763. Hand-drawing, after 1850.
Two mercenaries of the Karrer Regiment, 1763. Hand-drawing, after 1850. Swiss National Museum

Swiss mercenaries in North America

Although not officially permitted, Swiss mercenaries were active in North America during the late Baroque period. Swiss fighters of the Karrer Infantry Regiment lost their lives in Mississippi during the war between France and the Native American tribes.

Adrian Baschung

Adrian Baschung

Adrian Baschung is historian and director of the Museum Altes Zeughaus in Solothurn.

Louisbourg is a French former fortified town at the eastern tip of the Canadian province of Nova Scotia. In 2017, archaeologists digging in an associated cemetery found among the graves the skeleton of a 30 to 34-year-old man. That’s nothing out of the ordinary, in an 18th century cemetery. However, tin buttons found with the skeleton suggest the deceased had a military connection. Based on forensic methods and research into the history of the fort, the researchers believe this individual was a soldier who came from what is now Switzerland or southern Germany. The young man was most likely a mercenary in a regiment raised in Switzerland and deployed in what is now Canada during the first half of the 18th century: the Karrer Marine Infantry Regiment.
Map of Nova Scotia circa 1749. The Fortress of Louisbourg is located on the southern coast of Cape Breton Island.
Map of Nova Scotia circa 1749. The Fortress of Louisbourg is located on the southern coast of Cape Breton Island. Library of Congress
The mercenary trade had been a lucrative business in the Swiss Confederation since at least the 16th century, and Swiss fighters were highly sought-after among Europe’s warring powers. So a lot of money flowed into the region that is now Switzerland, primarily into the pockets of the upper classes who organised the trade in soldiers, raised the troops and also acted as officers in the service of the various paying powers. At the beginning of the 16th century, even an ordinary man could make money. Since military campaigns in those days were still short-term ventures which were terminated once the mission was completed, more wealth could be amassed rapidly with military pay and plunder than with a day-to-day job. This explains why mercenary service could also be attractive for men of the lower social strata.
Allegory of mercenary life, circa 1625.
Allegory of mercenary life, circa 1625. The mercenary on the left, in his characteristic black and red clothes, has a bulging bag of money at his side, but at the same time he is bound in chains. A number of kings and even the Pope are courting his services. Swiss National Museum
However, this changed in the 17th and 18th centuries as European powers developed standing armies. Mercenary service was set at several years in a body of armed men. Garrison duties, and long and unnecessary campaigns in conflicts all over Europe became the norm for men serving in foreign armies. This sort of commitment also increased the risk of suffering physical, mental and financial detriment. Enthusiasm for foreign service was thus dampened. The Swiss Confederacy’s most influential partner in the mercenary trade was undoubtedly the Kingdom of France. From the 17th century onwards, regiments of Swiss fighters were recruited for the French king and his standing army in the territory of present-day Switzerland. By means of mercenary contracts, also known as capitulations, arrangements were made between the French Crown and the Confederate estates (cantons) stipulating the size, composition, leadership and deployment of these regiments. It was particularly important to the Confederates that these officially raised Swiss military forces were not deployed in conflicts outside Europe, that as far as possible no Swiss regiments would be required to line up against one another, and that these regiments could be repatriated quickly. But the Karrer Regiment was somewhat out of the ordinary. The founder and first owner of the regiment was Franz Adam Karrer (1672-1741), born in Röschenz in Basel-Landschaft and residing in the canton of Solothurn from 1711. At the age of 14 he began his military career in the service of the French, gradually rising to the rank of officer. In 1719 he succeeded in establishing his own regiment through a private capitulation with France’s Secretary of State of the Navy, Joseph Fleuriau d’Armenonville (1661-1728). This venture was not consistent with the official capitulations of the Swiss estates, but was tolerated by them. Accordingly, this Freiregiment was eligible for deployment at sea and in the French colonies.
Disembarkation of the Karrer Regiment at Louisbourg, circa 1730.
Disembarkation of the Karrer Regiment at Louisbourg, circa 1730. flintlockandtomahawk.blogspot.com
And the French crown was dependent on troops in its colonies in North America. In the late Baroque period, the territories claimed by France in America extended from present-day Canada to the Mississippi Delta and New Orleans. This vast area had to be not only controlled, but also defended against indigenous tribes and the British expansions from the east. From 1721 the Karrer Regiment was placed directly under France’s Ministry of the Marine, the French Navy, and two companies were despatched to “New France”. There, the Swiss mercenaries were required to do service at a number of French strongholds along the Mississippi and the St Lawrence River, but also in what is now Louisbourg, Canada.
Flag of Switzerland’s Karrer Regiment.
Flag of Switzerland’s Karrer Regiment. Swiss National Museum
The deployments were tough, in large part due to the poor supply situation. In addition, the Swiss were often difficult to manage because, due to special contractual conditions, they enjoyed a number of privileges that were not always guaranteed by the officers in charge. In 1744, the Karrer troops stationed in Louisbourg mutinied.
View of Louisbourg around 1778.
View of Louisbourg around 1778. Library of Congress
When war broke out between Britain and France, there was fighting in the North American colonies as well. Since the British Navy controlled the sea routes, the supply situation in Louisbourg became precarious. Personal enmities between leading officers within the fortress town also led to simmering discontent and distrust among the soldiers. Shortly after Christmas 1744, these grievances culminated in the Swiss fighters staging a mutiny. The soldiers assembled without their officers and, to the beating of drums, marched from their quarters, bayonets on rifles and sabres in hand. Officers who stepped in and tried to get the mutinous troops to see reason were given a beating. French Regulars also joined the rebellious mob. The town was on the verge of revolt. Only an assurance by the garrison commanders that they would hear and officially discuss the soldiers’ grievances was finally able to appease the mutineers. The poor food supply situation was among their complaints. Fish played an important role in this. In a successful action against a British fortified town in the spring of the same year, a large quantity of cod had been looted and the soldiers were promised it would be distributed among them. However, the insurgents contended that the officers had claimed most of this booty for themselves. The uprising was finally resolved without bloodshed, with the mutineers being paid a sum of seven to eight thousand “livres” from the royal treasury – a sum that today would be equivalent to around 35,000 to 40,000 Swiss francs. The insurgents then laid down their arms and returned to their winter quarters. The commanders refrained from imposing any sort of punishment, so as not to reignite the discontent.
In the 1960s, the Canadian government began rebuilding parts of historic Fort Louisbourg.
In the 1960s, the Canadian government began rebuilding parts of historic Fort Louisbourg. The barracks where the Swiss Karrer Regiment was stationed in 1744 are now part of a museum. Dennis Jarvis
The Karrer Regiment was also deployed in military conflicts with indigenous peoples of New France. On 26 May 1736 Swiss mercenaries, along with French Regulars, volunteers and allies of the Choctaw tribe, stormed a Chickasaw village near present-day Tupelo, Mississippi, later the birthplace of Elvis Presley. Led by Governor Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville (1680-1767), a joint founder of the city of New Orleans, an uncoordinated attack on the village was launched. The assault would go down in US history as the Battle of Ackia. The attack was skilfully repelled by the Chickasaw, forcing the French to retreat with losses. The wounded and dead included mercenaries from the Karrer Regiment.
Map detailing the attack by Swiss mercenaries and French troops on the Chickasaw village. From the perspective of the attackers, the campaign was a failure; mercenaries from the Swiss regiment were among those who lost their lives.
Map detailing the attack by Swiss mercenaries and French troops on the Chickasaw village. From the perspective of the attackers, the campaign was a failure; mercenaries from the Swiss regiment were among those who lost their lives. Wikimedia

Baroque. Age of Contrasts

16.09.2022 15.01.2023 / National Museum Zurich
As a cultural epoch, the Baroque was a time of contrasts: opulence and innovation on the one hand, death and crises on the other. The exhibition presents beautiful objects from Baroque architecture, garden culture, fashion and art, focusing on the historical context of these items in order to illuminate this creative epoch in all its glorious ambiguity.

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