Chapter 3: Death and Destruction in Georgia
by Gene Estensen
The year was 1863 and he was famous in America and Norway. There was no end to what he could accomplish if this war would just end. His name was Hans Christian Heg and he was the commander of the 15th Wisconsin Regiment, the "Norwegian Regiment" of the American Civil War. At home in Wisconsin, his wife Gunhild Jacobsdatter Einung, born Tinn, Telemark, eagerly awaited his letters from the front. On September 18, 1863 Hans wrote to Gunhild that "The Rebels are in our front and we may have to fight him a Battle - if we do it will be apt to be a big one". "I am well and in good spirits - and trusting to my usual good luck. I shall use all the caution and courage I am capable of and leave the rest to take care of itself". Referring to himself, as he was expecting to become a Brigadier General in the near future, he wrote to Gunhild that "The Gen. will call and see you the first thing you know - probably surprise you". It was not to be. This was to be his last letter.
While Colonel Heg was enthusiastic going into Georgia, others were worn out, and homesick. John Johnson Thoe, born 1837 in Telemark, wrote often to Levor Levorsen and his sister Margit Johnson Thoe. On April 21, 1862 he wrote "For a long time I have waited for a letter from you, in vain. The rest of the regiment get letters often, but I see nor hear from anybody". Later, he wrote "Everyone in the company receives letters except me, and I have often wondered about it".
Chickamauga, River of Death
Atlanta was the economic, political, and transportation center of the remaining southernmost states in the Confederacy, and it had to be destroyed to bring the war to a successful conclusion. General U. S. Grant selected General William T. Sherman to bring his Union forces into Georgia. The long struggle for Atlanta was about to begin and the Norwegian Regiment would pay dearly.
On the 19th and 20th of September, 1863 came the battle at Chickamauga, Georgia that would change everything for the 15th. The word Chickamauga is said to mean "River of Death" in Cherokee. Indeed, in this great battle the Union side lost 16,971 men, the Confederates 18,454.
Chickamauga has been described as a bloody battle marked by savage fighting at close quarters, full exposure to enemy fire, advance and withdrawal through underbrush and in the open, repeated attacks and counterattacks, tremendous losses. Ambrose Bierce described the horror of this battle. "Before our weary and virtually disarmed men had actually reached the guns the line in front gave way, fell back behind the guns and went on, the Lord knows whither. A moment later the field was grey with Confederates in pursuit. Then the guns opened fire with grape and cannister and for perhaps five minutes - it seemed an hour - nothing could be heard but the infernal din of their discharge and nothing seen through the smoke but a great ascension of dust from the smitten soil. When all was over, and the dust cloud had lifted, the spectacle was too dreadful to describe".
Colonel Heg was in the thick of the first days fighting. His coolness and ability to spur men on to hard effort did not desert him in the stress of battle. A correspondent of a Cincinnati newspaper watched the fighting and left a report of it: "The firing at this time was terrible, and the stream of wounded to the rear was unprecedently large. Bullets tore through the ranks; grape and cannister flew whistling among the brave men, but they stood their ground, not yielding an inch". One of Heg's captains wrote "Throughout all those hours of severe danger and exposure Colonel Heg was ever prompt at his post, always courageous and self-possessed". "Not once did he falter or swerve from his duty...His comrades fell at right and left, still he rallied on. From noon until sundown he was constantly exposed to the fearful fire of the enemy. It was at this hour, when his day's work was so nigh done, that a ball from a sharpshooter's rifle pierced his bowels, causing him a mortal wound. He did not stagger or fall, but even when death stared him in the face, full of life and ambition and true to his manliness, he once more rallied his men, and rode for about a quarter of a mile. Loss of blood enfeebled him, and he was obliged to give up his command. He was taken to a hospital where he passed the weary night in suffering".
Several officers of the Fifteenth visited their fallen chief on the night of September 19, 1863. To Lt. Col. Johnson, born Telemark, Heg said that "he was glad the Fifteenth had held their places like men and had done their duty to the last". His own life, he said, was given for a just cause. On the following day, September 20, 1863, shortly before noon, Colonel Heg died.
Colonel Heg's body was returned to Muskego in Wisconsin and he is buried there. His state mourned his loss. The Wisconsin State Journal echoed scores of newspapers when it said "The valorous blood of the old Vikings ran in his veins, united with the gentler virtues of a Christian and a gentleman".
Today, at Chickamauga battlefield stands a pyramid of cannon balls to mark the spot where Hans Christian Heg fell at Vineyard farm. There also is a monument to his regiment, the 15th Wisconsin. In Madison, on the grounds of the State Capitol, stands a heroic statue of Col. Heg looking into some far distance. Replicas of this statue stand at Lier, Norway and at the old Muskego community of Wisconsin.
Chickamauga was a devastating loss for the Union. So many good men were killed and wounded. On the first day the Fifteenth Wisconsin, serving in Heg's brigade lost seven officers and fifty-nine enlisted men; on the second day the losses brought the total to one hundred and eleven.
Ole Steen of Company K was captured at Chickamauga. Later, at Andersonville Prison in south Georgia, suffering from hunger and sickness, he would wish he had been killed outright on the field.
John Johnson Thoe survived the battle and on November 15 wrote a letter to Levor Levorson. "I received a bullet that went through my trousers below the knee, without harming me. Yes it is a great favor of God our father, who delivers us in such dark moments, when bullets rain over us like a hailstorm, and we have a mighty army to fight against".
On September 17-19, 1999 some 9,000 reenactors from the Midwest, South, and Norway gathered at Chickamauga, Georgia to re-create the famous battle that took the life of Hans Christian Heg, Commander of the Norwegian Regiment. After the battle re-enactors from North and South shook hands in unity, for today they fight a common battle to preserve the battlefields upon which their ancestors fought. Many of us gathered around a small regimental flag bearing the words "For Gud og Vort Land". Mr. Erik Bye, author and broadcast journalist from Norway gave, brought tears to the eyes of those of us who had ancestors in the Norwegian Regiment. Near the monument to the 15th Wiwconsin, he recited his poem, "Gudmund Gudmundson". "… At Chickamauga he's asleep, so leave the gentle winds to weep".
A couple of months after Chickamauga, the 15th distinguished itself again when it stormed Missionary Ridge. The regiment was in the front line with the 2nd Minnesota. Bersven Nelson of Company C described the action, "Now came our turn. We marched up, fell in line and stormed up Missionary Ridge and put the Confederates between double fire, as we came from behind two defense posts, which were erected, and we took the men and cannon stationed there. There were three cannons at each barricade and six men at each. The remaining took flight, so we had an even exchange. Here many of our men fell and many were wounded. I was wounded by a shell splinter and had to go to the hospital, but returned two weeks later."
Rocky Face Mountain, Georgia
In May of 1864, the regiment was again in the forefront. The Brigadeer General was Augustus Willich and the 15th was in Wood's Division of George Thomas' Corp. On the ninth of May, the regiment reached a high mountain called Rocky Face. The Rebels could be seen on the heights, behind large rocks. Sharpshooters fired down upon the 15th. On the 13th of May, the regiment got their orders to attack. With the storming of Rocky Face Mountain, three Norsemen were the first to the top. John Wrolstad was the first man. "They arrived too early as one was killed and another was captured, and the third fell into a crevice. He was the only one to return. He was John O. Wraslstad from Krageros, who later became a prosperous businessman in Scandinavia, Wisconsin."
At dawn, May 15, 1864, the battle for Resaca began with tremendous cannonade and gunfire. "We had a poor position here", wrote Bersven Nelson. "The enemy had its barricades up on a rise, so no advance seemed possible. Many of our men fell and many were wounded. In the afternoon we were ordered to attack. We stormed the heights, took the bulwarks and drove the enemy over the field; but on the other side of this field they had another barricade, so now we had to retreat to the bulwark behind us which we had just taken". General Willich was wounded in the side, but recovered in three weeks. Soren Johnson of Company I was killed and three others wounded. "As we had been at he front fighting all day, our brigade got orders n the afternoon to retire back into the valley. Just as we had dropped loose came a thunderclap of fusillade of cannon and guns. The rain of bullets sounded like a hailstorm".
The Rebels attacked three times before leaving the field. Fifteen thousand prisoners were taken as the Rebels retreated towards Atlanta.
John Johnson Thoe of Company K wrote to his friend Levor Levorson on May 22. "I must let you know that in this battle I was struck by an enemy bullet in the shoulder, but it did not do much damage. I am almost good as new, which I must surely thank the good God for."
Pickett's Mill, near New Hope Church, Georgia
On Friday morning, May 27, 1864 war came to Malachi Pickett's farm and mill near Marietta, Georgia. Almost 25,000 men fought the terrain, the heat, the fear, and each other. The Norwegian Regiment was shattered at this place. The regiment carried their flag with the Norwegian words "For Gud og Vort Land", for God and your Country. The flag was carried into 26 battles and never lost, but it was a close call at Pickett's Mill. The regiment led a charge up a long ravine into entrenched Confederate troops and suffered heavy losses. Later, after reviewing accounts of the battle, Confederate General Joseph E. Johnson wrote of this brave regiment that attacked his forces. "The leading regiment in the storm columns came so close to the barricades as 20 feet, while the flag bearer broke rank and planted the regiment's flag in the ground 10 feet from the entrenchment and was shot. First one man, then two more crept forward to rescue the flag and were shot one after the other until the forth man succeeded in carrying it away". Those Norwegians that fell were buried in Marietta at a place that came to be known as Marietta National Cemetery, the final resting place for 10,132 Union soldiers who died in the Atlanta Campaign. Those Norwegians that were wounded were sent to a place called Andersonville where most of them died. Waldamer Ager wrote that "one has to go back a thousand years in Norway's history to find a similar evidence of war-glory or gallantry, such as this little episode that the Battle of Pickett's Mill witnessed".
At Marietta National Cemetery, grave A-118 is the final resting place of John Johnson Thoe, killed at Pickett's Mill. He is one of a dozen soldiers from the Norwegian Regiment buried there. His letters to Levor Levorson and his sister Margit Johnson ended five days before Pickett's Mill. They were all gone now, the friends from Company K that included this authors family members Per Torgiersen Såheimsmogen (Peter Thompson) and his nephew Kittil Tovsen Bömogen (Charles Thompson).
At Pickett's Mill the regiment lost over half of its men attacking a fortified position that is now preserved in a 765 acre park. Today, the Pickett's Mill Battlefield looks much like it did in 1864. This author prefers to visit the Battlefield Park during the week, when all is quiet. In the quiet woods, one can only imagine what it was like in the ravine, the roar of cannons, bullets flying through the trees, and the screams of the wounded.
Kennesaw Mountain, Georgia
To protect Atlanta, the Rebels dug in at Kennesaw Mountain. The mountain bristled with cannon and the men of the Norwegian Regiment assumed that General Sherman would flank right as they had done so often in past weeks. However, gloom set in when the men saw the surgical tents being set up. Near the end of June 1864, General Sherman lined his troops up over six miles and a general assault was begun.
To the right of the Norwegian Regiment, Col. Dan McCook assembled his men and recited Horatio at the Bridge:
"Then out spoke brave Horatius,
McCook turned and led his men across a field and up toward a place now called Cheatham's Hill. The cannon of Confederate General Benjamin Cheatham's men poured round after round of cannister (chains and nails) into the Union ranks. Four hundred and eighty men were killed or wounded in this one spot.
Sherman's men had to retreat with great loss. All told, nine hundred men were lost and 2,100 more wounded. The 15th was lucky that day, only six were wounded but the Illinois regiment to their right was decimated. Dan McCook led his men up Cheatham's Hill. He nearly reached the summit before he was mortally wounded. Fifty years later, the soldiers who fought at Kennesaw Mountain purchased land at Cheatham's Hill and erected what is now called the Illinois Monument. From this humble beginning, initially 60 acres, grew the great battlefield park that now stretches for eight miles.
By July of 1864, Sherman's forces had driven to the outskirts of Atlanta. After crossing the Chattahoochee River, which took several days, the Rebels were attacked in well-fortified positions. The brigade lost 237 men killed and wounded.
On July 15, 1864 near the Chattahoochee River John Olson Wrolstad wrote to his mother. "Our regiment is pitifully small. We do not have over 70 men strong enough to carry weapons. It looks as if they are really trying to destroy the Norwegian Regiment". The Norwegian Regiment, used up, was to perform guard duty for the rest of the war.
Ole Svendsen survived the war and mustered out to return to Iowa County, Wisconsin. Then, in a bitter irony, he was killed by a tornado on May 23, 1878. His wife died too leaving a family of ten children, the youngest only three years old. We have become accustomed to hearing how our Norwegian ancestors adjusted to adversity, and this case is no different. One of the sons stepped forward to raise the children with the assistance of his 16 year old sister.
The Jubilee Exposition of 1914 in Christiania (Oslo), Norway
Long after the Civil War was over, Waldemar Ager arranged the section from the State of Wisconsin at the Jubilee Exposition in Christiania, Norway in 1914. The most outstanding thing in the collection was said to be the old flag of the 15th. It was so badly damaged, that before hanging it had to be tacked to a piece of gauze. "It is half in rags, and marked with rifle bullets and cannon shells". But it had taken part in 26 battles and onsets. There was always a large crowd around the section, with showcase, that pertained to the 15th Wisconsin Regiment. Newspapers brought out long columns of descriptions about the showcase and its contents. Morgenbladet stated "It contains relics and mementos of that gallant 15th Wisconsin Regiment which received itself so much acclaim in the numerous and bloody battles in which they took part during the great American Civil War". "Here at home we have not had a war for a hundred years. But it was no more than 50 years ago that a Norwegian regiment fought along in a long and hard war. And they fought with honor. That little glass case in Wisconsin's room, with the flags, under which our country's sons fought and gave their blood, let us approach it in deference, and let its contents fill us with pride - and with faith. Fifty years ago Norsemen gave their lives for an ideal. We must believe they would do the same today, if the "Ideal" would mean our fatherland's freedom. There are signs that indicate that perhaps it is not long before we have to prove it".
Mabel Wraalstad was supervising the Wisconsin exhibit. She was the daughter of John Wraalstad, hero of the attack on Rocky Face Mountain. She knew then, what we know now, that this story of the Norwegian Regiment must be told, and retold so as not to be lost.
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