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Chapter 2: The Norwegian Regiment in the Civil War

 by Gene Estensen

 

They were old men now, and as these Civil War veterans were brought up to the speaker's platform terrific rounds of applause rose through the hall. As they unfurled the old regimental flag, the cheers and applause of 20,000 sounded like a hurricane over the gathering. The old warriors seemed very much moved by the ovation, although they had well earned it. These veterans were the last of "The Norwegian Regiment", the 15th Wisconsin Regiment, that was shattered 50 years earlier on the fields of Tennessee and Georgia.

They held their last major reunion May 17, 1914, celebrating Norwegian Independence Day. The location was the exhibition hall at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds. Twenty-seven of the veterans of Det Femtende Wisconsin Frivillige (the 15th Wisconsin Regiment) registered. The old regimental flag was never lost in battle, and the 15th served in 26 battles all together. As they listened to the speakers, including the Honorable James Peterson, their thoughts had to turn back to places like Stones River, Chickamauga, Missionary Ridge, Resaca, Picketts Mill, New Hope Church, Kennesaw Mountain, Atlanta, and the infamous prison camp called Andersonville.

 

A Civil War Regiment of Norwegians is Recruited

The idea of a Norse, then called a "Scandinavian" regiment, had developed early in the war as there were so many new-comers to America with no knowledge of English. Many of these newcomers would be interested in the $100 bounty and $13 a month with free clothes and food. After all, land could be had for $1.25 an acre. On September 15, 1861 some Norsemen gathered in Madison, Wisconsin and began to organize a Norwegian regiment. At the start it was intended that only Norwegians join; but there were several who joined who were not Norse. Captain Mathiesen was Danish. Lt. Col. Jones was American but his wife was Norwegian and he could speak the language.

Colonel Hans Christian HegAs Colonel of the regiment a Norwegian named Hans Christian Heg was chosen. He was the son of Evan Hansen Heg and was born December 21, 1829 in Lier near Drammen and came to America with his parents at the age of eleven. As early as 1824 a local Drammen newspaper had published a series of descriptive articles on America, a land "for the present and the future". The Hegs were among the early pioneers at Muskego, Wisconsin having left Norway in 1840. Evan Heg published the first Norwegian newspaper in America called "Nordlyset", or Northern Light. The Heg barn served many a Norwegian family from Telemark, and elsewhere, that was new to America. It served also as a social and religious center for the Muskego community. Muskego became the 'mother colony' to numerous other settlements and the Heg residence became the center of intellectual activities in Muskego. It was at Muskego that perhaps the most famous of all Norwegian-American documents was drafted and signed, the Muskego Manifesto. Hans Heg grew up politically astute and was well known throughout the region. He would become the most well-known of all Norwegian-Americans during his short life of 34 years.

The selection of Heg as Colonel was greeted with approval by both the Norwegian and English newspapers of Wisconsin. A typical editorial reads "Young, powerful, and attractive, honorable, un-impeachably honest, to a high degree considerate of the welfare of his subordinates, with a splendid fund of practical, sound sense, and with the increased knowledge of men and things which his work as a state official has given him, he is known to lead such an undertaking. Our countrymen can gather about him as their chief with unqualified trust".

Hans Christian Heg was married to Gunild Jacobsdatter Einong, born Tinn, Telemark, Norway. Her parents were Jacob Olsen and Anne Johnsdatter Såheim and the family came to America in 1842 on the ship Ellida (with members of this authors family). Many died on this journey of thirteen weeks including Gunhild's mother. Hans Heg wrote his war-time letters to Gunhild in English and they make for interesting reading. He wrote "I never fail in courage. You will not hear that I have ever played the coward" He frets over the affairs of his children Edmund and Hilda, and writes; "When I come home I want to see Edmund ride on his new saddle, and his pony". As the war wore on, his letters grew more somber. "I could not help but think how little the people at home know of the suffering of the soldier".

 

Camp Randall (Madison Wisconsin)

Recruiting officers were chosen and promptly began their work in the Norwegian settlements of Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, and Minnesota. Colonel Heg asked for a thousand men, Norwegians, Swedes, and Danes. "The government of our adopted country is in danger." he wrote. "That which we learned to love as freemen in our old Fatherland - our freedom - our government - our independence - is threatened with destruction". Heg himself had visited certain Norwegian settlements in all four states. In October of 1861 he visited Decorah, Iowa and it was from here that a young immigrant from Tinn, Telemark joined the 15th. He was Per Torgiersen Såheimsmogen (Peter Thompson). His nephew, Kittil Tovsen Bömogen (Charles Thompson), also born in Tinn, Telemark joined the Union army too. Born Norwegian, they both died in the war, as Americans.

The Fifteenth Wisconsin Regiment was organized at Camp Randall, Madison, Wisconsin in December 1861 and mustered into service of the United States on the 14th of February 1862. There were five Ole Olsens in Company F. In the regiment as a whole there were no less than 128 men whose first name was Ole. Bersven Nelson of Company I told of the thin walls of their sleeping and eating quarters. Even with a large stove, he said, they could not compete with the terrible cold.

By March 1st, 1862 the regiment was ready for war. They marched off in a snowstorm. "At the station was a great crowd of Norwegians to wish farewell to relatives, sons, brothers, and sweethearts". A train took them to Chicago where a Norwegian association "Nora" RHK made them a beautiful silk flag. It had the American and Norwegian coat of arms side by side and the moto "For Gud og Vort Land" (For God and our Country) in Norwegian.

Then it was off to Alton, Illinois where the regiment boarded a steamer, the "Alton". The next morning, March 4, 1862, they set off down the Mississippi and arrived at St. Louis the next morning. Then it was off to Cairo, Illinois where they arrived March 6, 1862. On the 15th of March, the regiment started down the Mississippi.

Thus far, it had been a lot of marching and preparation, but now they were to face the enemy. They would become famous in Norway and America. By the end of its service the Fifteenth Wisconsin would lose by death nearly a third of its original enrollment. The Norse Regiment participated in 26 battles, displaying great strength and heroism.

We should never forget the sacrifice of the old war veterans of the Norwegian Regiment and it's many heroes of Telemark.

 

Heg Memorial

Click here for photos of the

memorial for Colonel Heg

 


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