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Norwegian Genealogy

Politics and the Call to Arms

from "The Immigrant Takes His Stand" by Arlow William Anderson

as published in 1953 by and with the permission of the Norwegian-American Historical Association for educational purposes only. 


Lincoln and the Union

The decade preceding the Civil War saw the forces of compromise weakening and the strength of extremists gaining. The spirit of sectionalism prevailed in every major political and social development. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, intended to be a boon to slaveholders, was all but nullified in effect by the enactment of personal liberty laws in Northern States, by moral resentment on the part of many who were not out-and-out abolitionists, and by active countermeasures well exemplified in the mysterious workings of the Underground Railroad. Adding considerably to the growing sectional tension was the financial crisis of 1857, when the industrial North bemoaned Buchanan’s unhelpful Democratic administration while the Cotton Kingdom congratulated itself upon its economic stability. Yet the South, despite its vaunted soundness, suffered constant emotional disturbance throughout the decade. The election of 1860 was to determine not only the future of slavery in the United States but the very existence of the nation. In its deeper implications the contest was to decide whether the promised land of the immigrants would break with the progress of the rest of the western world and the trend of the age. With Germany and Italy approaching national unification and with Great Britain on the verge of making further concessions to democracy by extending the franchise at home and granting dominion status to Canada abroad, a dissolution of the American Union
would have run contrary to the prevailing western principle of national consolidation. Nationalism and democracy were on the march. Thus the government at Washington could not accept the founding of an independent nation on its southern border. The election campaign of 1860 found four presidential aspirants in the field. The Democratic party, unable to agree, suffered a disastrous split. John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky carried the hopes of the Southern wing, which was committed to the view that slavery must be protected even at the cost of secession. Stephen A. Douglas retained the support of Northern Democrats, who trusted that popular sovereignty would prevent national disruption. A third candidate was John Bell of Tennessee, representing the Constitutional Union party, which feared war and advocated conciliation. The choice of the Republican party fell judiciously upon Abraham Lincoln. His "house divided" speech was no less prophetic of bloodshed than Seward’s earlier prediction of an "irrepressible conflict," but Lincoln was less known and had created fewer political enemies. In the critical campaign days of 1860, when the fate of the nation hung in the balance, Emigranten, then the only secular Norwegian-American newspaper being published, continued to give itself to the Republican cause. {1}

Solberg’s support of Lincoln was announced immediately after the meeting of the national Republican convention in Chicago, in Lincoln’s home state. Of special importance to the immigrant editor, who incidentally disclaimed any intention of filling his columns with politics, were certain Republican promises. He appreciated an early prospect of freedom for all in the territories, with no further dependence upon the uncertain doctrine of popular sovereignty. He approved of a homestead act and wasted no affection on Buchanan, who had vetoed such a bill. Similarly, Solberg feared annexation of Cuba, a potential slave territory, and favored the Republican proposal to reject this plan. The promise of a moderate protective tariff, benefiting the North and the West, also insured that Emigranten would take an active part in behalf of Lincoln. This stand was reaffirmed in several issues of the four-page weekly, so widely read by Norwegians in the Northwest. {2}

One who thumbs the musty pages of Emigranten finds no enthusiasm expressed for Lincoln personally in the campaign of 1860, despite the fact that the Illinois Rail Splitter had identified himself sufficientlymwith immigrant interests. Notable was his objection in 1859 to the proposal of the Republican legislature of Massachusetts that naturalized citizens be prohibited from voting until two years after obtaining citizenship. When unthinking followers suggested the adoption of such a measure in Illinois, Lincoln flatly rejected the idea. {3}

Lincoln’s defense of the immigrant notwithstanding, Solberg’s loyalty was more to the party than to the man. James D. Reymert, Danish-born Democratic candidate for Congress, was given the opportunity to explain his aversion for slavery and his confidence in Douglas’ plan for popular sovereignty. But Solberg cautioned the voters against splitting the ticket to favor Scandinavian candidates of rival parties. Norwegians should place party principles above the national origin of the candidate. Reymert’s record as first editor of the Free-Soil Nordlyset, pioneer of Norwegian papers in America, was not enough to soften Solberg’s partisan judgment, and he was no doubt pleased to see Reymert defeated by Wisconsin voters. {4}

Indications of a greater degree of loyalty to the president-elect himself first appeared when Lincoln was assured of a majority of the electoral votes. "A thousand hurrahs for Lincoln and Hamlin!" was the jubilant front-page comment of Emigranten. From then until the inauguration several brief allusions reveal Solberg’s quickened interest in the man who was to carry the burdens of state through the most trying years. The secession of South Carolina in December and of six additional Southern States in January went unmentioned. Lincoln’s nobility of character was stressed. Lincoln gave politicians and office seekers to understand that he did not wish any calls from them while he remained in Springfield, Illinois. His sincerity and depth of feeling were sympathetically described. And editorial concern was expressed over the rumor that five hundred men had sworn to prevent Lincoln’s inauguration by crowding around him and shielding a chosen assassin from view. But no assassination was attempted. {5}

Lincoln’s first inaugural address merited, as presidential addresses usually did, a place in the columns of Emigranten. Solberg pronounced it both firm and kindly, and "as good as 10,000 men" in calming the country. While "misled Southerners" learned that their actual rights were in no danger, they found also that the new administration was not to be trifled with. The speech also proved to other parties, said Solberg, that Republicans were not fanatical. On one point, however, he differed with the President; namely, on enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law. Lincoln, hoping to pacify the rebellious South, approved of the spirit of the law, though he must have known how ineffective was its enforcement; and with this attitude Solberg took no issue. But when Lincoln declared that it made no difference whether an escaped slave was delivered up by authority of a state or by authority of the Union, Solberg defended the right of the state to deliver. The tendency of the national government to increase its powers should be checked, he said. Considering the delicate nature of the subject, it is remarkable that Solberg did not differ more sharply with Lincoln. Like all Northerners of antislavery leanings, he could hardly stomach the Fugitive Slave Law, which had been designed to protect slaveowners as a part of the Compromise of 1850. {6}

A few words concerning the role of the Norwegian voters in the fateful election of 1860 are in order. In view of the closeness of the election in the northwestern states, it has sometimes been argued that the immigrant vote swung the victory to Lincoln. An American scholar, William E. Dodd, published that conclusion in 1911 in an essay entitled, "The Fight for the Northwest." A later scholar, Joseph Schafer, believes that Lincoln’s vote-getting appeal was no stronger among the immigrants than among native Americans. He attributes the Illinois Rail Splitter’s victory to "an upsurge of moral enthusiasm and determination on the part of the distinctly American folk" and contends that the vote of the foreign born was not determinative. {7}

Strenuous campaign efforts of a "foreign department" headed by Carl Schurz were directed primarily toward winning the German vote, but it is unlikely that Schurz, as an intellectual, was able to sway the opinions of stolid German farmers. Swedish immigrants, who had been admonished and guided by Hasselquist in the Republican Hemlandet, needed no further encouragement. There were few Swedish Democrats. Dodd’s conclusion on the decisive role of the foreign-born voters — no longer so widely held — rests primarily on the balloting of the Germans. Norwegians, though more numerous than the Swedes, carried too small a political weight to swing the election. And even in Wisconsin, where their numbers were greatest, some Democrats were found among them. A minority were influenced by certain pastors who had adopted the Democratic views of the German Missouri Synod. Only if it is assumed that the election turned on the results in Wisconsin, which went for Lincoln, can it possibly be true that Norwegian voters determined the outcome. But they were all too few, and, as Solberg well knew, even the few lacked political unanimity. {8}

Now at the opening of the Civil War the ministerial brethren of the Missouri Synod continued to side with the South. Norwegians had a part in electing Lincoln, but scarcely more than that, since even without Wisconsin’s electoral votes, his victory would have been assured. {9}

Lincoln’s election virtually nullified all possibility of further compromise. Secessionist leaders, fearing that national affairs would henceforth be run by the Republican North, organized the Confederate States of America. Congress lacked a Republican majority, and the Supreme Court enjoyed its customary Democratic preponderance. Nevertheless a new Confederate constitution came to public attention on March 11, 1861. Solberg expressed concern over the new "Montgomery government." Either the Lincoln administration must recognize Confederate independence, or immediate steps must be taken to suppress the rebellion, he said. {10}

War or no war, the future of the United States was not at all unpromising to Solberg. Replying to Johannes W. C. Dietrichson, a pastor who had returned to Norway in 1850 disappointed in American conditions, Solberg admitted that politics was rotten. But he wondered why Dietrichson, who had occupied a beautiful parsonage in Wisconsin, could find nothing good to say. Solberg’s sense of loyalty to his adopted country was again offended by the attitude of two influential newspapers of Christiania, Norway. The one, Morgenbladet, had reported poor economic conditions in America, suggesting that Norwegian emigration should be curtailed or suspended. Solberg denied that opportunities would be affected by the war. Men with a will to work could not fail, he said. Western lands still beckoned. He conceded, however, that the banking system might suffer temporarily because of its dependence upon the financial obligations of
the slave states. Solberg charged that the second Christiania paper, Aftenbladet, was gradually yielding to British propaganda as matters appeared to progress favorably for the Confederacy. It was bad enough, he complained, to find in the leading morning paper of the capital of Norway an enemy of the Union without also discovering the unfriendly attitude of England reflected in the evening paper. {11}

Since Lincoln had determined to preserve the Union at whatever cost, the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor on April 12, 1861, meant war. The fact that he chose to limit himself to the single aim of preserving national unity, in deference to the slavery interests of the border states, seemed not to deter Norwegian Americans from getting behind the new President. Emigranten promptly supported the war declaration of Congress, which was predominantly Republican after the withdrawal of the Southern representatives. "To arms!" was Solberg’s cry. This was not to be just another war, he explained. Affairs of great moment were hanging in the balance. Union forbearance had failed to reconcile the "rebels," who now had struck the first blow and were bent on destroying the nation, come what would. In this most significant struggle, not party power was at stake but civil and religious freedom. Norwegians whose blood did not run hotter when their new fatherland was in danger should be ashamed. Let the young unmarried men volunteer for military service at once. Married men must be ready to join up later. "Fear not that the cause is not good and righteous," wrote Solberg. "God is with the American soldier." {12}

The military participation of the Norwegian immigrants in the war cannot be considered of major importance to the Union, in view of their small numbers. The important fact is that Norwegian Americans, then and later, were stimulated to a higher level of patriotism and to a more active role in American public affairs. They contributed proportionately as many fighting men as did the native Americans and probably more than their share. Several Norwegian-American writers believe that one Norwegian in every six volunteered, while only one native American in eight did so. The exact contribution of the Norwegians cannot be ascertained, but an estimate of 4,500 men seems reasonable. Waldemar Ager estimates between 6,000 and 7,000, including 4,000 in Wisconsin alone. {13}

Letters from the field, published in Emigranten, indicate the presence of Norwegians in every Wisconsin regiment and in many units from other states. Apart from the Fifteenth Wisconsin Regiment, Company H of the Twenty-seventh Wisconsin was the only Norwegian unit in the Union Army; it included 94 of the 146 Norwegians of the regiment. Unofficial reports by regimental correspondents to Emigranten reveal that there were 323 Norwegians in eight Wisconsin regiments; 46 in the Twelfth Iowa; an
unspecified number in the Eighth, Tenth, and Thirteenth Kansas; 14 Scandinavians, probably mainly Norwegians, in the Forty-fifth Wisconsin; and 8o Scandinavians in the First Regiment of the New York National Guard. That not all of them were reliable is suggested by General John Pope’s announcement of the desertion of three Norwegians from the Thirty-fourth Wisconsin Regiment. Pope stated that they might return by a certain date with no other punishment than loss of pay, surely generous
terms in time of war. {14}

It appears that Solberg never maintained that the percentage of Norwegian enlistments exceeded that of native Americans. This claim was left to Færdrelandet, a new arrival first published on January 14, 1864. Joint founders and editors of this "Independent Union Paper" of La Crosse, Wisconsin, were Johan Schrøder and Frederick Fleischer, cousin of Knud J. Fleischer, who once edited Emigranten. It was the Rochester (Minnesota) City Post that aroused the ire of the editors of Færdrelandet with the statement that 300 Scandinavians had been drafted from Houston and Fillmore counties because "this peculiar people" had failed to provide soldiers commensurate with their numbers, either as volunteers or by paying bounties for others. Said Fleischer, who took the lead in defending Norwegian immigrant interests, "The Rochester Post should remember that the Norwegian people of this country are the Union’s most loyal citizens, and that no nationality in America has, in proportion to its numbers, provided as many volunteers as the Norwegian." {15}

Norwegian immigrants usually joined the Union Army without deliberate choice of regiment or company, and their individual contributions are hidden in the numerous histories of military units. The story of their participation is more easily traced in the experiences of a regiment almost wholly Norwegian, the Fifteenth Wisconsin. John A. Johnson of Madison announced in 1861 in Emigranten that a "Scandinavian company" of volunteers would soon be organized. A strong appeal for enlistments in the new unit, now a "Scandinavian regiment," appeared over the signatures of ten distinguished Norwegian Americans. Among the ten were Knud Langeland, once editor of the pioneer Nordlyset and of Democraten, Hans Christian Heg, who was to be commissioned colonel of the regiment, and Solberg himself. Norwegian pride was piqued by the suggestion from these gentlemen that Scandinavian enlistments were not what they should be. Moreover, it was known that the Germans had organized the Ninth Wisconsin and the Irish the Eleventh Wisconsin. It behooved the Norwegians to match those achievements. In October a small-sized extra edition of Emigranten
renewed the appeal and made it known, with obvious satisfaction, that Governor Randall had appointed Heg commander of the regiment, effective October 1, 1861. {16}

Colonel Hans Christian Heg of the Fifteenth Wisconsin was born in Lier in southeastern Norway in 1829 and came to the United States in 1840 with his parents. The family settled in Muskego, Wisconsin Territory, where the father, Even Heg, supplied a large part of the funds for Nordlyset. In the offices of that journal young Heg first became familiar with American politics. As early as 1848 he was active in the Free-Soil party. In 1849 he rode and trudged, like many others, to California in search of gold. Upon his return in 1851 he learned that his father had died in the previous year. {17}

In 1859 Heg was elected state prison commissioner, perhaps the first Scandinavian-born American to be chosen for state office. His administration was marked by several reforms. Prisoners were provided with a workhouse where they manufactured furniture for state institutions. Sanitation was improved, discipline became more humane, and economy measures were inaugurated. Solberg, who knew Heg personally, recommended his re-election, complimenting him upon his reforms and declaring that no Norwegian was better qualified. From Solberg, who knew the Wisconsin Norwegians as well as any man, this was high praise. Before the expiration of Heg’s term, Solberg visited the state prison and published a very favorable report of his inspection in Emigranten. {18}


<1> Færdrelandet, the second paper of the war period, appeared in 1864. Two religious journals, Kirkelig maanedstidende and Norsk luthersk kirke-tidende, are not included in this study, though they are not
without significance as organs of opinion on American public affairs. The first represented the Norwegian Synod, while the second, less clerical, opposed the state church tradition. Both were founded in 1851. See
Hansen, in Festskrift, 14; Blegen, American Transition, 302.
<2> Emigranten, May 21, June 11, 1860.
<3> See ante, p. 28.
<4> Emigranten, September 17, October 29, 1860.
<5> Emigranten, November 12, 1860, February 4, 18, March 4, 1861.
<6> Emigranten, March 11, 1861.
<7> American Historical Review, 16:774—778 (July, 1911); Donnal V. Smith, "The Influence of the Foreign-born of the Northwest in the Election of 1860," in Mississippi Valley Historical Review, 19:192—204 (September, 1932); Joseph Schafer, "Who Elected Lincoln?" in American Historical Review, 47:51—63 (October, 1941).
<8> Andreas Dorpalen, "The German Element and the Issues of the Civil War," in Mississippi Valley Historical Review, 29:72 (June, 1942). On the influence of the pastors, see ante, 71—73. The federal census of 1860 reported 29,557 Norwegians in Wisconsin.
<9> Though Lincoln received only 40 per cent of the popular vote, he polled 170 electoral votes. Breckinridge drew 72, Bell and Douglas 12.
<10> Emigranten, March 25, 1861.
<11> Emigranten, April 8, May 27, 1861, November 17, 1862. On Dietrichson’s orthodox missionary work, see Blegen, American Transition, 141—144. Dietrichson’s insistence upon form annoyed his own parishioners, as well as the followers of Hans Nielsen Hauge, mid-century pietistic leader who had clashed with the church in Norway.
<12> Emigranten, April 23, 1861.
<13> Olof N. Nelson, ed., History of the Scandinavians and Successful Scandinavians in the United States, 1:303, 304, 2:66—68, 119—121 (Minneapolis, 1893—97); Hansen, in Festskrift, 39; Julius E. Olson,
"Literature and the Press," in Harry Sundby-Hansen, ed., Norwegian Immigrant Contributions to America’s Making, 127 (New York, 1921); Waldemar Ager, "Nordmænd i den amerikanske borgerkrig," in Nordahl Rolfsen, ed., Norge i Amerika, 399—403 (Christiania, 1915). Adjutant generals’ reports from Minnesota and Iowa give approximately 800 and 400 Norwegians in the armed forces, respectively, for those states. Nelson bases an estimate of 3,000 for Wisconsin upon unpublished records of the adjutant general.
<14> Waldemar Ager, Oberst Heg og bans gutter, 320 (Eau Claire, Wisconsin, 1916); Emigranten, intermittently from August 12, 1861, to March 30, 1863.
<15> Færdrelandet, July 21, 1864.
<16> Emigranten, September 2, 30, 1861. The remaining seven signers of the appeal were Adolph Sorensen, John A. Johnson, Knud J. Fleischer, Christian Winge, S. Samuelsen, Ole Torgersen, and Christian Colding. Three accounts of the Fifteenth Wisconsin have been published: J. A. Johnson,
Det skandinaviske regiments historie (La Crosse, Wisconsin, 1869); O. A. Buslett, Det femtende regiment Wisconsin frivillige (Decorah, Iowa, n.d.); and Ager, Oberst Heg. See also Theodore C. Blegen, ed., The Civil War Letters of Colonel Hans Christian Heg (Northfield, 1936).
<17> See Blegen, "Colonel Hans Christian Heg," in Wisconsin Magazine of History, vol. 4, no. 2, p. 140—165 (December, 1920).
<18> Emigranten, April 1, August 12, 19, 1861.


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