Col. Hans Christian Heg
The Norwegian soldiers had a reputation for never retreating in battle, and their courage resulted in their regiment being among those regiments suffering the greatest losses in the American Civil War. (Translation mine.)
When I’m manning a bookselling table for hours on end at a Sons of Norway convention, my greatest concern is generally to have sufficient reading material. Although I do almost all my reading on my Kindle Fire nowadays, one has to consider battery life. Also, I have a few “dead tree” books I’ve been accumulating. The convention seemed a good opportunity to read one of those. And if it’s in Norwegian, it has the advantage of allowing me to show off, and who knows, maybe somebody will walk past looking for a translator.
So I chose a book called Rogalendinger i den Amerikanske Borgerkrigen (Rogalanders in the American Civil War. Rogaland is a county in Norway, from which my dad’s father’s family came). It was written by Arne Halvorsen and Mari Anne Næsheim Hall. Mari Anne is a friend of mine – she was the person who first put me in touch with Prof. Titlestad, author of Viking Legacy. She sent me a copy, and I was keen to read it.
The most renowned “Norwegian” regiment during the Civil War was the 15th Wisconsin, commanded by Col. Hans C. Heg, who was killed at Chickamauga. Wisconsin was more or less the center of Norwegian-American settlement at that point in time, but a number of other soldiers came from Illinois, Minnesota, Iowa, and (in lesser numbers) from other places, serving in various units. The reasons for signing up varied – many simply needed the enlistment bonuses. But many also felt honor-bound to demonstrate their loyalty to their new country – a loyalty sometimes doubted by their neighbors. And Norwegians in general were sincerely appalled by the institution of slavery (though there were some Norwegians on the other side – especially from the Norwegian settlements in Texas).
It was interesting – and often melancholy – to contemplate the soldiers’ fates. As was the case with all soldiers in the war, the chances of dying because of sickness or accident were greater than those of falling in battle. A distressing number of soldiers became prisoners of war, which – later in the war, after the prisoner exchanges were ended – generally meant a lingering death by starvation (at least one accepted the offer of release in exchange for fighting for the south – and ended up being captured once again by Union forces). One man – Johannes G. Johnson from Årdal — deserves his own movie. Imprisoned at Andersonville, the famous death camp, he escaped and was recaptured multiple times, finally making his way back to Union lines, starved, wild-bearded, and nearly naked. He survived the war, returned to his home in Minnesota, and became a state legislator.
To add insult to injury, we are informed that many of those lucky enough to survive the war suffered chronic diarrhea the rest of their lives.
I was a huge Civil War buff as a boy. As an adult, the more I learn, the more the romance wears thin. Nevertheless, I was happy to read this enlightening account of one small part of the great American trial by fire.