Norsemen, Vikings ... this group of adventuresome explorers and warriors struck fear in the British Isles and elsewhere in Europe for centuries.
Hans Christian Heg
“A furore normannorum libera nos domine” (“From the fury of the Northmen deliver us, O Lord!”) went a prayer attributed to monks in English monasteries, which were a favorite target for raiders from Scandinavia.
During the mid-1800s, Scandinavian immigrants were still relatively rare in the United States. During that century the great mass migration began due to political upheaval, corruption and agricultural disasters that made thousands of Scandinavians to seek a better life elsewhere.
Most of those immigrants, after arriving in East Coast port cities, quickly made their way to the new, open lands of the Midwest. Minnesota and Wisconsin were common destination for those pioneers.
Hans Christian Heg was a Norwegian immigrant who settled in Wisconsin in 1840. In 1849, with several companions, Heg set out for California to search for gold. Two years later his father died and the son returned to Wisconsin to take charge of the homestead. He became an avid Republican and was very much anti-slavery. He was the first Scandinavian elected to statewide public office in that state.
Gov. Alexander Randall, who raised 18 regiments of Wisconsin troops during his term in office, appointed Heg to be colonel of the 15th Wisconsin Volunteers infantry regiment. The 15th would become the only all-Scandinavian unit in the Union or Confederate army.
The 15th, called the Scandinavian Regiment, was organized Oct. 1, 1861, and arrived “down South” in time for the action at Island No. 10. The 15th, headquartered on federal troop transports, was first ordered to attack Confederate forces at Union City, Tenn. on April 1, 1862. The regiment surprised a camp of some 1,500 Rebels, capturing horses, mules and equipment without the loss of a single man.
The Scandinavians were first regiment to land on Island No. 10 on April 8, 1862.
After that engagement, which the Union won, the 15th Wisconsin marched to Corinth, Miss., and was attached to Col. William P. Carlin’s brigade. The combined units marched from Iuka, Miss. to Florence, Ala. and onto Murfreesboro where it joined Gen. Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio on Sept. 1, 1862. Outspoken, Heg was among those to criticize Buell’s later actions.
It endured the forced March from Murfreesboro to Louisville, Ky. Leaving that river city on Oct. 1, the Carlin’s brigade fought at the Battle of Perryville, Ky. Deployed as skirmishers, the Scandinavian Regiment was the first to move into the town of Perryville.
The unit was unique in that many of the enlisted men spoke their native language, Norwegian or Swedish, while the officers were expected to be fluent in both English and their native tongue. Other troops, both Union and Confederate, often mistook them for Germans.
At Perryville, despite driving the Rebel army back, the 15th had few injuries. Col. Heg was slightly injured when his horse fell. The long march back to Tennessee followed where Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans was selected to replace Buell. Rosecrans reorganized the army into The Army of the Cumberland (14th Army Corps). As part of his plan, the 15th Wisconsin (and Carlin’s Brigade) was transferred to the 2nd Brigade of the 1st Division, commanded by Brig. Gen. Jefferson C. Davis.
On their way to Murfreesboro via the Nolensville Pike, the troops of the Scandinavia Regiment had a sharp encounter at Knob’s Gap.
“We left our camp near Nashville on the second day of Christmas to drive the Rebels from Murfreesboro. We marched a long distance through rain and mud that reached almost to our knees. In the evening we met in combat and had a sharp set-to. We took a cannon and 5 Rebel prisoner,” wrote Private Lars O. Dokken.
Davis’ division was part of the Union’s right wing at Stones River. Maj. Gen. Alexander McCook was corps commander.
As students of the battle know, the Union right wing was the focus of the Confederate’s early morning attack on the first day of Stones River.
Heg and his regiment were placed early on Dec. 31 in support of Hotchkiss’ 2nd Minnesota battery on high ground near the Gresham house. The initial Confederate attack was against Davis’ first brigade, which was pushed back. The Minnesota volunteers could hear the sounds of fighting to their far right.
Soon the fight reached the 2nd brigade and Carlin ordered the men to drop back to the Wilkinson Pike, along with the artillery. Heg asked for permission to rejoin the rest of the brigade, which was under heavy fire. Moving forward again, the 15th Wisconsin held the line at a split rail fence while the 38th Illinois infantry fell back.
The regiment sustained heavy losses at this point, but was one of the few of Davis’s units that didn’t break and run during the opening of the battle. The 15th Wisconsin, with remnants of the 38th, held Confederate forces at bay for 30 all-important minutes.
“We were lucky at Knob Gap, for we did not have any casualties, but Murfreesboro was a different story. There the enemy stormed toward us by the thousands and showered us with bullets like we were in a hailstorm. It was a miracle of God that we all were not shot down or taken prisoner,” wrote Sergeant Thor P. Sloan.
Heg, himself, wrote bitterly about the fight at Stones River,
“We have fought a terrible Battle, and lost a great many men. My noble Regiment is badly cut up ... There is no use denying the fact that we were badly whipped the first day – for the same reason as usual – an infernal fool of a General allowing himself to be surprised...
“The Rebels had it all their own way till about 12 o’clock when old Rosy met them himself – and routed them terribly. There has been two or three severe Battles since Wednesday in which the rebels have been badly whipped. We have not got Murfreesboro yet, but they will be beaten out of there before many days. Thousands have been killed and wounded on both sides,” Heg wrote in a Jan. 4 letter.
Heg won high praise from General Rosecrans (old Rosy) as well as other officers of the Army of the Cumberland.
Brigade commander Carlin officially praised him in his report to Rosecrans:
“I deem it my duty to call the special attention of the general commanding the Fourteenth Army Corps to Col. John W. S. Alexander, Twenty-first Illinois Volunteers, and Col. Hans C. Heg, Fifteenth Wisconsin Volunteers. While every field officer under my command did his duty faithfully, Colonels Alexander and Heg, in my opinion, proved themselves the bravest of the brave. Had such men as these been in command of some of our brigades, we should have been spared the shame of witnessing the rout of our troops and the disgraceful panic, encouraged, at least, by the example and advice of officers high in command.”
Rosecrans took Carlin’s recommendation to heart and promoted Heg in charge of the 3rd Brigade of the First Division of the Army of the Cumberland, but failed to give him a brigadier general’s star.
When Rosecrans finally moved on Chattanooga in August 1863, he ordered Heg and his brigade to take on a key mission of crossing the Tennessee River on a pontoon bridge and flanking the Confederate Army of Tennessee.
At Chickamauga, Heg and the Scandinavians were again in the thick of the action.
On the afternoon of Sept. 19, 1863, north of the Viniard farm, Heg led the men of his brigade to once again support the sagging lines of Jefferson C. Davis’ corps. The fighting was horrible, but the Norwegian tried to rally his troops and keep them from leaving the field of battle. Carlin was actually shot at by his own men as he tried to halt them.
Heg, just west of the La Fayette Road, was mortally wounded in the abdomen. He suffered long hours in a Federal field hospital at the Gordon-Lee mansion before dying the next morning. By his side was Stephen Himoe, surgeon of the 15th Wisconsin. Himoe was his tent mate and close friend besides being his brother-in-law.
Several officers of the 15th Wisconsin visited their fallen chief on the night of Sept. 19. One of them told the colonel that he had heard of his gallantry during the battle and that boys of the 15th would have been glad to see him. “Tell my boys of the 15th,” Heg replied, “that I kept myself where I was needed and that I knew they did not need me.” To Lt. Col. Johnson he said, “He was glad that the 15th 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.
In the fight at Viniard Field, Heg’s brigade lost 696 killed or wounded.
Heg was the highest-ranking Wisconsin officer to die in the Civil War. He was mourned as a hero both in Wisconsin and in Norway. A statue bearing his likeness guards the main entrance to the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison. Other statutes stand in the town of Norway, Wisc. and Lierbyen i Lier, Norway, Heg’s birthplace
For more information:
“Annals of the Army of the Cumberland,” John Fitch, 1864 edition.
The Wisconsin Historic Society
“Days of Glory,” Larry J. Daniel