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Chapter 1: John Johnson, Private, 15th Wisconsin Regiment

By Gene Estensen

 

They sailed out of Norway for America in their youth. They passed through the settled areas of America, heading west, to a place where they could own their land. OnJohn Johnson Thoe, Private, 15th Wisconsin the very frontier of the great Northwest; Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota, their journeys ended and the hard work of the pioneer began. When a great Civil War divided their new country, they enlisted in large numbers to preserve the government of their adopted land. A great regiment was formed in the state of Wisconsin, composed of Scandinavians, primarily Norwegian immigrants, the 15th Wisconsin Regiment (Det Femtende Wisconsin Frivillige). Much of what we know about the regiment comes from the letters sent by the soldiers to their families in the Midwest, and Norway. One such soldier was Johannes Johnson Thoe, Company K, 15th Wisconsin Regiment .

 

Pickett's Mill, Georgia

Private John Johnson leaned against a tree and caught his breath. He knew from experience that his regiment would soon be sent into the battle. He reached inside his blue coat and his fingers found the tag and the pin that held it in place. In his mind he pictured the words that he had written on the tag: John Johnson, Company K, 15th Wisconsin Regiment. If he were killed in this battle, he would want his family in Worth County, Iowa to learn of his fate. Many of the soldiers carried such tags. He shuddered at the thought of being thrown into a hole with other dead Union soldiers, and so far from home.

They had marched into Georgia under General William T. Sherman. The goal was to capture Atlanta, the breadbasket of the South. All through the spring of 1864 they had pressed southward toward Atlanta. It was hot, wet, muddy, and seldom did a day pass without fighting. Yesterday, they had passed by New Hope Church and crossed Pumpkin Vine Creek at Pickett's Mill only to find the enemy dug in with their backs to Atlanta. The roar of battle began in the late afternoon as Ohio regiments went up the ravine at 4:30 p.m. The action was heavy. Bullets tore through the treetops and the roar of cannon was a sound he did not want to hear. The enemy had cannon, and they had the high ground at the end of the ravine. Surely, his Regiment would go into action next.

Private Johnson glanced to the left and to the right and noted the flags and those brave men that carried them. The life expectancy of a flag bearer in battle was not long. It was considered a great honor to carry the flag. The 89th Illinois stretched to the right, and the 32nd Indiana to the left. Before them was the deep ravine that sloped up to high ground occupied by the enemy. Private Johnson tried to remain calm as he listened to the sounds of battle before him. He glanced at the regimental flag and noted the holes accumulated from over 20 battles. He had followed that flag into battle many times. He thought to himself, "it is by the grace of God that I am still among the living".

There was another regimental flag that had even more meaning to this young soldier, one that was generally kept out of harms way. The Scandinavians of Chicago, members of the "Society Nora" , had presented this flag to the regiment as they passed through the city on the way to the South. On it were the Norwegian words "For Gud og Vort Land" - for God and your Country.

The 15th Wisconsin Regiment had been recruited in the Midwest. It all began in Wisconsin where the most famous Norwegian-American of his time, Hans Christian Heg, recruited a regiment for the Union cause. The officers were required to speak Norwegian because the recruits would be immigrants from Scandinavia, primarily Norway. The selection of Heg as Colonel was greeted with approval by both the Norwegian and English newspapers of Wisconsin. A typical editorial read "Young, powerful, and attractive, honorable, unimpeachably 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".

When recruiting, Heg appealed to the Viking heritage of the young men when he wrote, "The government of our adopted country is in danger. 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 recruited at certain Norwegian settlements in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa in the Fall of 1861. His appeal generally closed with these words, "Come then, young Norsemen, and take part in defending our country's cause, and thus fulfill a pressing duty which everyone who is able to do so owes to the land in which he lives. Let us band together and deliver untarnished to posterity the old honorable name of Norsemen".

Private Johnson listened to the rattle of gunfire as he waited for the order to charge. His thoughts turned to his youth in the mountains of Hjartdal, Norway. His parents had died young leaving five orphans. He remembered the day they buried his mother. That very day the children were divided into two groups. Johannes (John) and Margit went to farm Thoe, and Aslaug, Mari, and Anne went to farm Flatland. It had been a long journey from those beloved mountains of Hjartdal to this place in the South of the United States.

 Levor and Mari

Worth County, Iowa

Levor Levorson Rueslatten entered the kitchen and waved a letter so that his wife could see it. Mari knew immediately that it was a letter from her brother Johannes, or John as the Americans called him. He was a good writer and she treasured his letters. She kept them all in order that they were received. Levor was good at writing too. His brother Nils was with the 15th Wisconsin too, and Johannes passed along messages from Nils. Mari Johnsdatter sat down with the new letter and began to read. I was dated November 15, 1863:

 

Good Friend Levor Levorson:

Regarding the Battle of Chickamauga on Saturday and Sunday September 19 and 20, I presume you saw in the papers a long time ago, how it went, so there is no need to repeat it. Yes, dear friend, it was a hard battle while it lasted. I have now been in three large battles and this was really the hardest. But God be praised and thanked. He held his hand over me, as He has always done, so I came out of it unscratched. If God does not hold his hand over us, we are nothing; as we are unable to do anything by ourselves. I received a visit from 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…Johs. Johnson Thoe

 

Mari fingered the early letters from her brother Johannes. She remembered the day he enlisted in the infantry, December 23, 1861. He had built his cabin up to the eaves on land just to the east, and then sold it to Aslak Lien. It was like he was not going to return. Mari remembered how her son, little Levor, admired his uncle's cap. With a heavy heart, Mari had bid him goodbye with a "God be with you wherever you are."

Mari thought about her sister Margit and how she had kept house for the Clausen family . The Reverend Clausen became the chaplain of Company K, and it was only natural that Johannes join the company. Mari worried about her brother. How many battles could he survive? Mari slowly opened an early letter and read it again. The first letters home were from a lonely Johannes Johnson. Dated April 21, 1862, the letter read:

 

Dear Friend Levor Levorsen and Family
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…
Johs. Johnson Thoe

 

Shortly thereafter, Johannes wrote

 

Everyone in the company receives letters except me, and I have often wondered about it…

Johs. Johnson Thoe

 

Mari did not know it, but another letter was on the way to Iowa. On May 22, 1864 at a place in Georgia near the battlefield at Resaca Johannes wrote,

 

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 surely I must thank the good God for.

Johs. Johnson Thoe

 

Pickett's Mill, Georgia

As the sun set on the afternoon of May 27, 1864, Private Johnson leaped to his feet as the 15th regiment led a charge up the long ravine into entrenched Confederate troops. The regiment suffered heavy losses and the little creek in the ravine ran red with blood. Who better to describe the fighting and gallantry of Norwegian Regiment that day than the enemy? 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 entrenchments 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". Waldemar Ager later 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".

As the sun rose on the morning of May 28, 1864, a group of men dressed in the blue of the Union army walked among the wounded and fallen soldiers. One man was writing in a ledger as the others searched. An arm reached out, folded back the lapel on the blue jacket, and called out the words on the patch: John Johnson, Company K, 15th Wisconsin Regiment.

 

Remembering the Fallen

Marietta National Cemetery is the final resting place for 10,132 Union soldiers who died in the Atlanta Campaign of the American Civil War. The numbers are staggering and there are so many headstones that it is easy to forget that there is a story behind every one of them. Grave A-118 is the final resting place of John Johnson Thoe, born Hjartdal, Norway, died at Pickett's mill near New Hope Church, Georgia.

Some 50 years after the Civil War was over, in 1914, Norwegian-American author Waldemar Ager and others brought the regimental flag of the 15th Wisconsin to Norway for the Jubilee Exposition in Christiania (now Oslo). Placed in a glass case, it was described as "half in rags, and marked with rifle bullets and cannon shells". The newspaper, Morgenbladet, wrote "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" .

 

Click for a larger image in a new window

Epilogue:

Margit Johnson Thoe never married. She joined Mari in Iowa after the war. Nils Levorson died in the South with the 15th Wisconsin. Levor Levorsen died shortly after the war and his wife Mari was left to run the farm and raise eight children. It seems her entire life was hard. Today, the old farm, first settled in 1857, is still in the family. The author wishes to thank Albin and his wife for the material on the pioneers to whom Johannes Johnson Thoe wrote his civil war letters. To honor his Norwegian ancestors, and especially Mari, Albin and his family named the farm  Mariland.   Read more about the Leverson family's story on the Hjartdal Historielag website, under the emigration history tab.

Much of what is known about the 15th Wisconsin comes from the letters of Hans Christian Heg to his wife Gunhild Jacobsdatter Einung. Gunhild was born in Tinn, Telemark and came to America on the brig Ellida in 1842. Her mother, Anne Såheim died on the journey, as did one sister. Hans and Gunhild grew up at the Muskego Colony in Wisconsin. They were married in 1851.

Albin and his familyAlbin and his family
Margit Johnson Thoe

 

Author:
Gene Estensen (
GEstensen@aol.com) was born at Morris, Minnesota. Two sets of great grandparents came to America from Vestfjorddalen, Tinn, Telemark. They were pioneers in Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, and South Dakota. Gene now lives in Marietta, Georgia on the battlefield of Kennesaw Mountain and is a frequent visitor to the Pickett's Mill battlefield. This account is dedicated to the memory of his family members Peder Torgiersen Såheimsmogen (Peter Thompson) and Kjitil Tovsen Bömogen (Charles Thompson). Both were born in Vestfjorddalen, Tinn, Telemark and pioneered at Decorah, Iowa, and died for their new country with Company K of the 15th Wisconsin, the Norwegian Regiment. Fjellene mines, the mountains remember.

   

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