These days, I try to stretch my legs. Long walks are good exercise. You don’t even need a face mask, if you stay six feet from everyone you meet.
My walk took me so far yesterday that I stumbled into Milo Bung’s neighborhood. Milo was out in the corner of his yard, working on something. I stood and ogled the object of his labors. It was a large, shapeless mass. A canvas sheet, I guessed, draped over . . . aha!
Milo had thrown a grayish tarpaulin over his Holy Mother grotto.
The item in question is an imitation rock face, five feet high, with a niche scooped out of its front. In the cave-like niche stands a plaster Virgin Mary in blue and white robes, arms outspread to the faithful. It’s a familiar lawn manifesto in our part of the country, where dwell many devout Roman Catholics.
Milo is not one of those.
I do not know what religion he professes, if any. But the house’s previous owner had installed the little shrine. Milo, being Milo, had left it alone. Now it was covered with a tarp—a house-painter’s dropcloth, yet without spot or stain.
“What are you doing?” I cried.
“Does that look like a rock to you?”
“It looks like a dropcloth hung over your Virgin Mary.”
“I mean, if you didn’t know she was under there—would you think it was a boulder? A natural rock outcropping?”
“No. I’d think it was a tarp covering something.”
Milo frowned. He switched on a noisy air compressor at his feet, picked up a hose nozzle, and sprayed the canvas with something wet and gray and pulpy.
After a few minutes he shut off the racket, set down the hose, and inspected his work. “That’s more like it. Should set up pretty quick.”
“Milo,” I asked, “why do you want to make your Holy Mother shrine into a featureless rock?”
“I heard they’re tearing down statues these days, and I didn’t want mine to be one of them. The rock is temporary camouflage. You know, till the fad passes.”
I sighed. Conversations with Milo always include a sigh.
“Nobody,” I pointed out, “is going to come around and tear down your statue of Jesus’s mother.”
Milo waggled the inactive hose nozzle at me. “But then, I wouldn’t have thought they’d mess with General Grant, either. Or Francis Scott Key. I’m taking no chances. I kinda like the old gal, smiling there on my lawn. She makes me feel peaceful.”
The notion of Milo Bung, pacified, brings to mind a hibernating armadillo. He is not exactly a cauldron of pent-up mayhem in his normal state.
He resumed spraying.
I had to concede, as he worked at it, that the agglomerated mess looked less and less like a piece of canvas. It began to assume the gnarled gravitas of the Areopagus in Athens.
“You think making your shrine into a big rock is the answer?” I asked. “How do you know the Visigoths won’t came along one day and demolish your boulder?”
“Nah.” Milo gave the nearly-finished promontory an extra squirt of sauce. “I’ve been studying these folks. They only tear down representational art.
“They are iconoclasts.”
This conversational pièce de résistance left me staring at Milo, all flumberbusted.
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.
For this reason he became a leader of Wisconsin’s Wide Awakes, an anti-slave catcher militia. He sheltered Sherman Booth, who was made a federal fugitive after inciting a mob to rescue an escaped slave. He joined the Free Soil Party, which opposed the expansion of slavery into the western states.
When the Free Soil Party merged into the new Republican Party, which also opposed the expansion of slavery, Heg became a Republican. When the Republican candidate became president and the slave-holding states of the South seceded, he went to work raising an army unit from his fellow Norwegians. His “thousand Norsemen” were mustered into service as the 15th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment, the only all-Scandinavian regiment in the Union Army, with Heg at their head as colonel.
He led the 15th in battle at Perrysville, Kentucky, and Stones River, Tennessee. In September 1863, at Chickamauga, Georgia, he “was shot through the bowels and died the next day.” Heg’s body was returned to Wisconsin and buried in the Norwegian Lutheran cemetery near Wind Lake.
In 1925, in conjunction with the centennial of Norwegian immigration to America, a bronze statue of Heg was installed at the state capitol in Madison. The bronze colonel has stood in silent witness to Norwegian-Americans’ contributions to freedom ever since.
But a few nights ago—June 23, 2020—a mob of citizens toppled Heg’s statue, dismembered it, and threw the pieces in Lake Monona. They had begun by protesting the disorderly-conduct arrest of a black man named Devonere Johnson and ended by destroying the statue of Colonel Hans Christian Heg.
Many have pointed out the apparent incongruity of Black Lives Matter protesters destroying the statue of a leading abolitionist and Civil War hero. “These people must not know history,” they have said.
But surely the point here is that in the current uproar, historical judgments are irrelevant. History itself is the enemy. The bond between past and present sometimes becomes more visceral than philosophical. At suchtimes, the strident present ransacks the mute past, seeking out victims. Ask any Bosnian.
There can be no distinction between a Hans Christian Heg and a Nathan Bedford Forrest when a noisy claque regards the whole past as merely a bogus excuse for a deplorable status quo.
It is bad enough they killed him at Chickamauga. Killing him all over again, by effigy, assasinates his memory. It cannot injure Hans Christian Heg beyond the grave. But it is dispiriting to those of us who would like to suppose that Americans express themselves in rational ways. Obviously, that is not always so.
The people destroying things now for racial harmony, like those destroying things fifty years ago for peace, may think they are igniting The Revolution. Their Marxist utopia did not come into being in those days. But our nation’s troubling racial divide is a more fertile ground for deep-seated conflict.
It’s unlikely there will be a revolution, but it’s easy to believe we are in for a long, hard time. It would be nice if some good came out of it all, but I don’t have that kind of faith.