Last Tuesday, I posted a jeremiad. It was my first response to the destruction of a venerable statue here in Madison, Wisconsin.
Friends who saw this lament commented, “Well, at least now, from your blog post, I have learned about Colonel Hans Christian Heg.” Meaning, they now know the name of the man whose statue was destroyed.
But if that’s all you know of Heg, then you need to know quite a bit more before you can begin to understand just why his story happens to be especially important right at this moment.
So here goes:
Hans Christian Heg’s father, Even Hansen Heg, was an enterprising man who owned and operated a hotel in Drammen, Norway. In 1840, encouraged by letters from two acquaintances, Sören Backe and Johannes Johanneson, Heg took his wife and four children to join Backe and Johanneson at Wind Lake in the new Muskego Settlement in Racine County, Wisconsin.
Heg built a huge barn. It became a social and religious center and a place of first haven for Norwegian families arriving at Muskego. With its burgeoning population of Norsemen, Muskego was a place where new arrivals could adjust to America bit by bit, learning the new language and customs at an unhurried pace, because almost the whole community spoke Norsk. In 1847, Even Heg joined with Backe and editor James D. Reymert to start America’s first Norwegian-language newspaper, Nordlyset (The Northern Light).
But by then, Even’s eldest son, Hans Christian, had already mastered the language and customs of America. In 1848, at nineteen, he became an active worker for the Free Soil Party, which opposed extension of slavery into the new states west of the Mississippi. The Nordlyset meanwhile had also become the party’s house organ in the Norwegian community.
At age twenty, Heg answered the siren song of gold and joined the army of Forty-Niners headed for California. After two years there, and just when his prospecting was starting to pay, he received word of his father’s death. Since his mother was already dead, duty to his younger siblings called him home.
He took over the family farm at Wind Lake, married, and immersed himself in Free Soil politics. When the party merged into the new Republican Party, Heg became a Republican. In 1859, he was elected state prison commissioner, a post in which he worked to promote vocational training for prisoners. Two years later, with Republican Abraham Lincoln elected president, the states of the South seceded. The Civil War began. Heg resigned his prisons post and started recruiting fellow immigrants into the Union Army. His “thousand Norsemen” were mustered into service as the 15th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry, under Heg’s command.
After leading the 15th through major battles at Perryville, Kentucky, and Stones River, Tennessee, Heg was shot through the gut at Chickamauga, Georgia. He died the next day. His body was shipped back to Wisconsin and buried in the Lutheran churchyard near Wind Lake. In 1925, the Norwegian Society of America commisioned Norwegian-American sculptor Paul Fjelde to create a nine-foot bronze statue of Heg in uniform. The society gave it to the state of Wisconsin and it was installed on the capitol grounds. There it stood, honoring Heg and his regiment for 95 years, until a mob—ostensibly seeking racial justice—tore it down, dismembered it, and threw it into Lake Monona on June 23, 2020.
But Wait—There’s More
If the information just given is all you know about Colonel Heg, you’re still missing the point. For context is everything.
As stirring and sad as Heg’s story is, it’s far from unusual. The reasons why it’s not unusual form the heart of the story. The statue destroyed last week was not so much a tribute to Heg as to the spirit shared by Heg and his comrades-in-arms.
Heg was one of at least 360,000 Americans who gave their lives wearing Union blue and who therefore can be said to have died in the fight against slavery. They were mostly white men, but increasingly as the war went on, many black soldiers also served and died.
Heg commanded the only all-Norwegian regiment in the war. But the 15th Wisconsin was hardly the only ethnic regiment.
Many Germans had come to America as political refugees after the Revolutions of 1848-49 in the German states. They and other German-Americans populated all-German units such as the 8th and 68th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiments, the 52nd New York German Rangers, the 9th Ohio, 74th Pennsylvania, 32nd Indiana, and 9th Wisconsin infantry regiments. Each Northern regiment had approximately one thousand men. Counting all who served in these ethnic units, and many more who served in ordinary regiments from the states where they lived, some 200,000 of the Americans who fought for the Union had begun life in Germany.
The Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s and 1850s brought a million and a half Irish people to America. Recent Irish immigrants serving in the Union Army numbered 150,000. Some served in all-Irish regiments like the 37th New York Volunteers and the 90th Illinois Volunteers. The 63rd, 69th, and 88th Infantry Regiments of New York formed the core of what was called the Irish Brigade. The brigade was shredded at the Battle of Fredericksburg, its effective force reduced from 1,600 to 256 men. In the whole course of the war, the Irish Brigade suffered the third greatest number of combat dead of all brigades in the Union Army.
New York’s 79th Infantry Regiment was made up of recently-arrived Scots, who wore tartan kilts as part of their uniforms.
Other ethnic units had soldiers who had come to America from Italy, Switzerland, Hungary, Poland, France, and Spain.
Many immigrant soldiers joined the fight in mixed units of ordinary Americans.
My great-great-grandfather, Anders Gunstensen—a second son of a second son who came from Norway in 1853 because he could not inherit the farm—settled in central Illinois, where Norwegians were scarce. There was no local Norwegian regiment to join. The unit he did join—Company K, 106th Illinois Volunteer Infantry—was an outfit from Menard County whose other soldiers all had Anglo-American names, except for a handful of Germans and Irishmen.
I wrote a novel, Freedom’s Purchase, a fictional account based on the lives of Anders Gunstensen and his wife, Maria. In making up the plot, except for a few dry, statistical facts—such as Anders’ membership in the 106th Illinois—I had no information about Anders’ and Maria’s lives in America. No letters, no diaries, no heirlooms. So I was free to speculate that a large part of Anders’ motive in serving was a strong opposition to slavery in his adopted land. I dare anyone to prove otherwise.
But the assumption is not far-fetched. It was demonstrably true of many immigrant soldiers in the Civil War, like Hans Christian Heg.
Most or all of the African Americans who volunteered as soldiers had fighting slavery as a prime motive. They joined regiments such as the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry—the unit celebrated in the film Glory—and various federal units known as United States Colored Troops.
What’s the point of all this?
I said when you knew more about Colonel Hans Christian Heg and understood why he was not unusual, you would know the point of the story. What does that mean?
Here it is: Millions of men, women, and children braved long, perilous voyages in sailing ships from Europe to America in the years before the Civil War. Whether they fled famine, political persecution, or simple economic hardship, they came to America hoping for a better life.
They sought not only the material wealth of this blessed country. They hungered also for the democratic, republican political system of the new nation that had electrified the world with its revolution of 1776 and its constitution of 1789.
Upon arrival, they found themselves part of a dynamic nation, strongly swayed by recent immigrants like themselves. When that nation was threatened with extinction, they came together to save it.
In 1862, Abraham Lincoln told all Americans, “We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.” And they believed him.
These immigrants, whether they ate lefse, potatoes, or sauerkraut, came together in a joint cause. People who grew up in autocratic monarchies like that of Sweden/Norway (joined as a single country at the time) and those who came from German states jockeying for prominence in post-Napoleonic Europe came together for a complex of reasons. It was imperative to save the Union and high time to end the system of slavery.
They joined forces with Anglo-Americans whose ancestors arrived on the Mayflower, with recent immigrants from other lands, and with undaunted, agitated African Americans whose friends and families still wore chains.
They did something special for themselves, for black people in America, and for all of us descendants. What they did, they did at the cost of their lives. Or they left arms or legs or facial parts on bloody fields and lived out their days hobbled.
What they achieved was noble in conception but turned out to be a far cry from perfect when put through the wringer of a racist society. Their battlefield success was only one phase of a longer war—a struggle for freedom, understanding, and decency that is still being waged today.
Those immigrant soldiers of the Civil War, men like Hans Christian Heg, did not solve all the big problems they inherited from America’s slavemasters. But they came together; and what they did, they did together. They kept the Union together to face the internal struggles of later times.
We have a gigantic task ahead of us—the formation of a better society—a task which can only be accomplished bit by bit.
The only way it can possibly be done is together.
That is why we should remember Hans Christian Heg and his many brothers in arms. That is why they are important.
Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer