The Sonderbund War – the last armed conflict on Swiss soil

The Sonderbund War – the last armed conflict on Swiss soil

by Dr phil. René Roca, Research Institute for Direct Democracy (

Exactly 170 years ago, the last armed conflict on Swiss territory occurred. Switzerland experienced turbulent times with the French occupation in 1798, the subsequent mediation and restauration (as of 1815). Roughly spoken, as of 1830, the Liberals and the Conservatives blew up various conflicts to a dangerous degree. In 1847, civil war could no longer be avoided, but thanks to far-sighted personalities it was merely a “fraternal conflict”. In 1848, the Sonderbund (separate alliance) War resulted in the modern Swiss federal state.

As of 1830, regeneration marked an important phase of renewal for Switzerland. In eleven cantons (at that time half of all cantons!) fundamental transformations took place. In these cantons these resulted in the adoption of a liberal-representative constitution and that they thus were ready to give an answer to the evolving industrialisation. The cantons of Switzerland at that time were basically divided into liberal and conservative ones. Both wanted to protect their achievements or traditions and therefore forged alliances. This stirred up mutual distrust. When subsequently, in the canton of Aargau in the wake of the monastary dispute (1841–1843), the monasteries were closed, the Catholic Conservatives had enough, and they decided countermeasures. In the canton of Lucerne, the new Conservative government engaged the Jesuits for the secondary schools, which led to two unsuccessful liberal-radical volunteer wars against Lucerne. These developments further fuelled the conflict.
With the foundation of the “Schutzvereinigung” (Protection Alliance) on 11 December 1845 by seven Catholic-conservative cantons, namely Uri, Schwyz, Obwalden and Nidwalden, Lucerne, Zug, Freiburg and Valais, the crisis of regeneration reached its peak. Above all, the supporters of this alliance wanted to “protect” the Catholic religion and the cantonal sovereignty against encroachment. The liberal opponents only spoke of the illegal Sonderbund.
Although the Sonderbund had a defensive character, it, however, impinged on the then applicable Federal Treaty of 1815 by the extraordinary powers of its war council. For “safeguarding the Catholic-conservative interests”, the Sonderbund even began negotiations with foreign countries.

The way to civil war

After the existence of the Sonderbund had become known in June 1846, the Liberal radicals strove even more intensively for a majority in the “Tagsatzung” (Federal Diet), a kind of “parliament” in the Confederation at that time. In Geneva in October 1846, the Liberal radicals under James Fazy took power by force. The elections in St. Gallen in May 1847 were now decisive and became actual “fateful elections”. The result was narrowly in favour of the Liberal radicals, who now gained majority they longed-for at the Federal Diet. The “Tagsatzung” decided to make the expulsion of the Jesuits and the dissolution of the Sonderbund a Federal issue.
The Berne summer meeting of 1847 brought the decision. The prospect of an understanding was low from the start. The liberal-radical ambassadors were able to quickly agree on a motion for dissolving the Sonderbund. A majority of twelve votes in her eyes was sufficient to establish the unlawfulness of the Sonderbund. In doing so, they relied on various articles of the Federal Treaty, which they interpreted in their favour. The Federal Diet finally decided to dissolve the Sonderbund and to prohibit the Jesuit order in Switzerland; if necessary, they wanted to enforce these decisions by force of arms. In a protest note, the Catholic conservative cantons repudiated it. Then the Sonderbund war council mobilised its militias, and also the majority of the Federal Diet now prepared for war.
In the European context, the political situation in Switzerland was analysed in detail. The major European powers felt themselves to be guarantors of the Swiss federal treaty of 1815 and, like the Sonderbund, wanted to permit an revision only with the unanimity of the cantons. The Sonderbund conducted its search for foreign aid quite openly. But it flinched from the demand for direct military intervention by foreign powers. Most of the leaders of the Sonderbund were aware of the consequence of a foreign occupation with unforeseeable impacts. Many remembered the chaotic Helvetic period. The major European powers such as Prussia, Austria and France were concerned that a victory of the liberal radicals in Switzerland could also have consequences in their countries. They were therefore prepared to provide the Sonderbund with weapons and money.

The Sonderbund War

On 25 October 1847, the Geneva Protestant Guillaume Henri Dufour, who was considered a moderate conservative, was appointed general of the troops of the “Tagsatzung” (Swiss confederate legislative assembly). Both parties had now mobilised. Although some envoys of the Sonderbund advised to strike out immediately, the commander-in-chief of the Sonderbund, Johann Ulrich von Salis-Soglio hesitated. The General of the Sonderbund, a conservative Protestant from Grisons, was decisively opposed to an offensive.
However, the seven-pronged war council then decided to take action against Ticino and opened hostilities on 3 November. The aim of the offensive was to defeat the radicals in Ticino and to keep the supply lines for food and military equipment from the Austrian Northern Italy open. The advance to Ticino, which discredited the reputation of the Sonderbund as a defence alliance, brought initial successes, but soon collapsed again.
On 4 November, the majority of the “Tagsatzung” passed a resolution to forcefully dissolve the Sonderbund. Dufour was anxious to prevent feelings of hatred against the Sonderbund wherever they arose. His primary objective was to preserve the cohesion of the cantons. He pursued a strategy characterised by rapidity of action and avoiding victims. The mere presence of a large army should serve to make the enemy unmaneuverable. Dufour first wanted to strike a blow against the isolated city of Freiburg, secondly to force the decision against Lucerne and thirdly, if necessary, to persuade the Valais to surrender.
After the advance to Ticino had not brought the hoped-for success, the Sonderbund planned an attack against Freiamt in Argovia (Aargau). But the offensive failed due to poor coordination. However, Dufour’s strategy proved its worth. The first offensive against Freiburg was successful. Freiburg surrendered on 14 November. On 21 November, envoys of the Canton of Zug signed a capitulation document without even having seen an army.
With a second offensive, the troops of the “Tagsatzung” directed their attention to Lucerne. It was planned to enclose the city as quickly as possible in order to persuade it to surrender as Freiburg did. The battles of Meierskappel and Gisikon finally brought the decision in favour of the troops of the “Tagsatzung”.

The decisive battle at Gisikon

The bridgehead in Gisikon was militarily significant. As early as 1653, during the Peasants’ War and the following Vill­merger Wars, Gisikon Bridge was the scene of important battles in Swiss history. One last time this was the case in the Sonderbund War. The Sonderbund troops had fortified the bridge entrances. North of the customs house (today Hotel Tell) above the country road there were two artillery entrenchments, south of it there was one. Four divisions of the “Tagsatzungstruppen” (legislative assembly’s troops) marched against it under the command of General Dufour.
The Ziegler Division attacked in the morning of 23 November. A brigade moved forward on the left side along the river Reuss for a frontal attack on Gisikon, the others moved to the right bank via the pontoon bridge in Sins and a second one, built at night. The Honau area was taken almost without a fight. The gun crews withdrew to Gisikon after a short duel, only the snipers from Obwalden and Nidwalden at the height of Mount Rooterberg didn’t give up until Ziegler with his tambour at the head of his unit marched against them. The brigades attacking in Gisikon had to place their cannons very close to the bridge because of a maximum range of 1000 meters. For the time being, Lucerne was able to repel the attackers. After a two-hour cannonade, during which Salis-Soglio, the general of the Sonderbund, was hit by a shrapnel at the temple, Lucerne’s troops had to retreat to Ebikon. Gisikon had to be abandoned by the Sonderbund troops. With the fall of the “key site” of Gisikon and then Meierskappel, the road to Lucerne was clear. The fate of the Sonderbund government in Lucerne was thus sealed.
Already in the early morning of 23 November, when the enemy was already very close to Lucerne, the council of the Sonderbund army and the Lucerne government decided to retreat to the canton of Uri. On 23 November, in his order of the day, Dufour demanded mercy toward the defeated troops, the civilian population and the churches and banned looting. Colonel Eduard Ziegler, appointed commander in Lucerne, succeeded in enforcing the order of Dufours. As a token of gratitude, the Zurich resident received the helmet stolen from Kappel and Ulrich Zwingli’s sword (both objects are now in the National Museum in Zurich, but the authenticity is not proven beyond doubt).


On 26 November 1847, the Sonderbund’s council of war was hastily disbanded without any formal vote in Flüelen (UR). From 25 to 29 November the subjugation of the Waldstätte and the Valais took place without a fight and this was the end of the Sonderbund. On the whole, the Sonderbund troops largely lacked discipline and a serious preparation for war. The people’s enthusiasm was about the defense of faith and the cantonal sovereignty and not about offensive warfare. In addition, the armament was insufficient, which could not be compensated by the foreign support. On 18 January 1848, Austria, France, Prussia and Russia were able to agree on a note that threatened with intervention. The European major powers demanded that the “Tagsatzung” should come back to the Sonderbund and Jesuit questions. On 15 February 1848, the victorious “Tagsatzung”’s majority responded with great self-confidence and rose objections against any attack on their sovereignty. Further action against Switzerland was prevented by the outbreak of the February revolution (1848) in France and its consequences, especially for Austria. Fortunately, the short Sonderbund War had cost only a few casualties. The most recent investigations assume that there were 60 dead and 386 wounded in the troops of the “Tagsatzung”, compared to 33 dead and 124 wounded of the Sonderbund, which means a total of 93 fallen and 510 wounded soldiers of 25 days duration of the war. This was the highest human losses that a political-military event in Switzerland had caused in the 19th and 20th century, although there were few casualties as a result of the war.
In February 1848, a Revision Commission of the “Tagsatzung” began to implement the liberal-radical program of a federal revision. A majority of the cantons adopted the new federal constitution by referendums (July/August), being sufficient, in the eyes of the “Tagsatzungs”’s majority, to suspend the federal treaty of 1815. Since the federal treaty did not include a revision clause – so an amendment would have required unanimity – this step must be described as revolutionary.
However, the new state was a compromise solution. The victorious majority took into consideration the concerns of the losers, especially their desire for sovereignty of the cantons, also being widespread in the moderate liberal camp. The prohibition of the Jesuits must not obscure the fact that the Federal State set clear federalist accents with the determination of cantonal sovereignty of school and church as well as the introduction of the Council of States and the Council of Cantons. In the following decades, the focus was on the losers’ equalization and integration and not on winner’s dictate and exclusion.     •

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