When Colonel Hans Christian Heg took time during the early stages of the Battle of Chickamauga to write to his wife Gunhild on September 18, 1863, he already knew that the fight the next day was going to be perilous. “The Rebels are in our front,” he wrote, and if they decided to fight a battle it was apt to be “a big one.” He told his wife not to feel “uneasy for me.” He wrote that he was “well and in good spirits and trusting to my usual good luck.” Then he made contradictory claims about how he hoped to behave the next day, saying; “I shall use all the caution and courage I am capable of… .”1
Colonel Heg was a Norwegian immigrant who had arrived in the United States as a boy of eleven, and settled in a Norwegian colony in the frontier state of Wisconsin. Heg’s family became involved in publishing one of the first Norwegian-language newspapers in the country when he was eighteen. The paper adopted the radically anti-slavery motto of “Free Land, Free Speech, Free Labor, and Free Men.”2
After a stint as a gold prospector in California, Heg became a young community leader and anti-slavery activist back in Wisconsin. He joined the new anti-slavery Republican Party in the late 1850s. Although many Norwegians were mistrustful of the Know Nothing backgrounds of some leading members of the party, the Wisconsin branch adopted a strict anti-nativist platform and Heg was nominated by the Republicans for statewide office. Heg believed that he received the nomination because the Republicans hoped to court the growing Scandinavian vote and he campaigned aggressively in Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish communities. In his appearances he took on the issue of secret Know Nothingism in the Republican Party and he assured his fellow immigrants that they were welcome within it. Two years before the Civil War began, Heg became the first Norwegian immigrant elected to statewide office in the United States.3
When the Civil War broke out, Heg led the effort to recruit the Norwegian regiment which became the 15th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry. Heg appealed to “Norsemen” to come to the aid of their “adopted country,” while being able to speak their native language and maintain their old customs, in a regiment that was both fully American and distinctly Norwegian. He warned that Scandinavians could not fall behind other immigrant groups, particularly the Germans, who were already organizing their own regiments.4
As the 15th Wisconsin Regiment was organized, its companies adopted Scandinavian names like the St. Olaf Rifles, the Wergeland Guards, Odin’s Rifles, the Norway Bear Hunters, and the Scandinavian Mountaineers. The regiment’s flag contained a motto in Norwegian, “For Gud og Vort Land,” meaning “For God and Our Country’” The unit had 115 men whose first name was Ole.5Flag of the 15th Wisconsin
The immigrant Heg had done well as a soldier and at the age of 33 he was commanding a brigade in the Chickamauga Campaign. He had led the crossing of the Tennessee River on August 29th, 1863, skillfully hiding his men and slipping his boats into the water before the Confederates were aware he was there. He established the beachhead that the rest of his division crossed at.6
Now, three weeks after the crossing, he ended his letter to his wife with the words of a lonely husband longing for home, of a young man wanting to be with his wife. After fantasizing about being allowed to go back to Wisconsin after this impending battle at Chickamauga Creek, he wrote “Good Bye my Darling — write often.”7
A collection of 210 letters home sent by Hans Heg are available here at the web site of the Wisconsin Historical Society.
1. This Terrible Sound: The Battle of Chickamauga by Peter Cozzens published by University of Illinois Press (1992) p. 117; Bushwhacking on a Grand Scale: The Battle of Chickamauga, September 18-20, 1863 (Emerging Civil War Series) by White, William Lee (Oct 6, 2013); The Chickamauga Campaign (Civil War Campaigns in the Heartland) by Steven Woodworth (2010); Guide to the Battle of Chickamauga (The U.S. Army War College Guides to Civil War Battles) by Matt Spruill Army War College (1993); The Maps of Chickamauga: An Atlas of the Chickamauga Campaign, Including the Tullahoma Operations, June 22 – September 23, 1863 Paperback by David Powell published by Savas Beattie (2009); Chickamauga: Bloody Battle in the West by Glenn Tucker and Dorothy Thomas Tucker (1995); General James Longstreet: The Confederacy’s Most Controversial Soldier: A Biography by Jeff Wert, published by Simon & Schuster (1993); The Civil War in the West: Victory and Defeat from the Appalachians to the Mississippi (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era) by Earl J. Hess published by University of North Carolina Press (2012); The Maps of Chickamauga by David Powell published by Savas Beatie (2009); Six Armies in Tennessee: The Chickamauga and Chattanooga Campaigns (Great Campaigns of the Civil War) by Steven E. Woodworth published by University of Nebraska Press (2009) August Willich’s Gallant Dutchmen translated and edited by Joseph Reinhart published by Kent State University Press (2006); The Civil War Letters of Colonel Hans Christian Heg by Hans Heg and Theodore Blegen, published by Norwegian-American Historical Association (1936) p. 246.
2. The Civil War Letters of Colonel Hans Christian Heg by Hans Heg and Theodore Blegen, published by Norwegian-American Historical Association (1936) p. 1-12.
3 .The Civil War Letters of Colonel Hans Christian Heg by Hans Heg and Theodore Blegen, published by Norwegian-American Historical Association (1936) p. 12-21.
4. This Terrible Sound: The Battle of Chickamauga by Peter Cozzens published by University of Illinois Press (1992) p. 41; The Civil War Letters of Colonel Hans Christian Heg by Hans Heg and Theodore Blegen, published by Norwegian-American Historical Association (1936) pp. 20-25.
5. This Terrible Sound: The Battle of Chickamauga by Peter Cozzens published by University of Illinois Press (1992) p. 41; The Civil War Letters of Colonel Hans Christian Heg by Hans Heg and Theodore Blegen, published by Norwegian-American Historical Association (1936) pp. 25-27.
6. This Terrible Sound: The Battle of Chickamauga by Peter Cozzens published by University of Illinois Press (1992) p. 41.
7. The Civil War Letters of Colonel Hans Christian Heg by Hans Heg and Theodore Blegen, published by Norwegian-American Historical Association (1936) p. 246.
The Immigrants’ Civil War is a series that examines the role of immigrants in our bloodiest war. Articles will appear twice monthly between 2011 and 2017. Here are the articles we have published so far:
1. Immigrant America on the Eve of the Civil War – Take a swing around the United States and see where immigrants were coming from and where they were living in 1861.
2. 1848: The Year that Created Immigrant America – Revolutions in Europe, famine and oppression in Ireland, and the end of the Mexican War made 1848 a key year in American immigration history.
3. Carl Schurz: From German Radical to American Abolitionist– A teenaged revolutionary of 1848, Carl Schurz brought his passion for equality with him to America.
5. …And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants
10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.
12. Immigrants Rush to Join the Union Army-Why?– The reasons immigrants gave for enlisting early in the war.
17. Immigrant Regiments on Opposite Banks of Bull Run -The Fighting 69th and the Louisiana Tigers
39. A German Regiment Fights for “Freedom and Justice” at Shiloh-The 32nd Indiana under Col. August Willich.
40. The Know Nothing Colonel and the Irish Soldier Confronting slavery and bigotry.
43. Union Leader Ben Butler Seeks Support in New Orleans-When General Ben Butler took command in New Orleans in 1862, it was a Union outpost surrounded by Confederates. Butler drew on his experience as a pro-immigrant politician to win over the city’s Irish and Germans.
49. The Irish Brigade Moves Towards Richmond-The Irish brigade in the Peninsula Campaign from March 17 to June 2, 1862.
50. Peninsula Emancipation: Irish Soldiers Take Steps on the Road to Freedom-The Irish Brigade and Irish soldiers from Boston free slaves along the march to Richmond.
54. Making Immigrant Soldiers into Citizens-Congress changed the immigration laws to meet the needs of a nation at war.
60. Emancipation 150: “All men are created equal, black and white”– A German immigrant reacts to the Emancipation Proclamation
106. The Draft Riots End in a Sea of Blood-July 14-15, 1863.
Immigration Vacation -Civil War Sites