Pen & ink drawing of Colonel Hans Christian Heg in his Civil War officer's uniform Image courtesy of his great grandson, Captain James E. Heg, US Navy (ret.)


1829-63

Norwegian American

Commander of the Union Army's
Scandinavian Regiment


    Born December 21, 1829, at Lier, near Drammen, Kingdom of Norway
    Parents were Even Hansen Heg (1790-1850) and Sigrid Kallerud (1799-1842)
    Immigrated with his family to America in 1840, on the sailing ship Emilie
    Married December 10, 1851, to Gunild Jacobsdatter Einong
    Married at Muskego, Milwaukee County, Wisconsin
    Died September 20, 1863, 1st Division Field Hospital, Crawfish Springs, Georgia
    Buried Norway Lutheran Church Cemetery, Racine County, Wisconsin

Hans C. Heg was a Major in the 4th Wisconsin Militia, the State Prison Commissioner (the first Norwegian elected to a Wisconsin state-wide office), and an out-spoken anti-slavery activist when he was appointed by Wisconsin Governor Alexander Randall to be the Colonel (commander) of the 15th Wisconsin. Both men were members of the recently formed Republican party and the ancient order of Freemasons. Heg's appointment was dated December 21, 1861, to rank from September 30, 1861, for a 3 year term of service. At that time he was 32 years old, married, and the father of 3 children: Hilda, James Edmund, and Elmer E. His residence was listed as the Town of Waterford, Racine County, Wisconsin, though he had been working at the State Prison in the Town of Waupun, Fond Du Lac County, Wisconsin.

Colonel Heg was heavily involved in recruiting many of the Scandinavian immigrants who became soldiers in the 15th Wisconsin. The following is an appeal he had printed in a late September, 1861, issue of Emigranten, the Norwegian language newspaper published in Wisconsin.

    Scandinavians! Let us understand the situation, our duty and our responsibility. Shall the future ask, where were the Scandinavians when the Fatherland was saved?

His efforts were very successful, spurring enlistments by Norwegians, Danes, and Swedes living in the States of Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota. Colonel Heg was mustered into Federal service at Camp Randall near the City of Madison, Dane County, Wisconsin, on February 28, 1862, to date from February 13, 1862. He wrote the following in a letter from Camp Randall to his wife.

    I am well and getting along first rate, the men are doing well, and they all seem to think a great deal of their Col. We have not many sick....We have in all 810 privates and about 40 officers, our regiment is now full to the 850 men....

The officers who initially served with Colonel Heg in the regiment's Field & Staff included: the second-in-command, Lieutenant Colonel Kiler K. Jones (an native-born American who was married to a Norwegian); the third-in-command, Major Charles M. Reese (a Dane); the Adjutant, 1st Lieutenant Hans Borchsenius (a Dane); the Quartermaster, Lieutenant Ole Heg (the Colonel's brother); and the 15th's Surgeon, Dr. Stephen O. Himoe (a Norwegian who was the Colonel's brother-in-law). Within 9 months all of them except Colonel Heg and Surgeon Himoe had either resigned or been discharged from the Army.

On March 2, 1862, Colonel Heg led his regiment out of Camp Randall and away to the war. They traveled down the Mississippi River to take part in the Federal siege of Island No. 10, Tennessee, in the latter half of March and early April, 1862. He also led the 15th on the successful Federal raid on the Town of Union City in Obion County, Tennessee. About the latter he wrote home the following.

    We left after burning everything on the ground, Tents, Barracks, etc. provisions & powder and started for [the Town of] Hickman [in Fulton County, State of Kentucky] again about 10 o'clock, with what mules, Horses & waggons we had, loaded with plunder....Although this was no fight, as only a very few Rebels were killed, and they ran away before hardly a shot, still it was a splendid victory, as the Rebels lost at least 40 or 50 Thousand Dollars worth of property....

Beginning May 15, 1862, Colonel Heg was granted a 30 day leave of absence to return to Wisconsin. On June 11, 1862, he led 8 of his regiment's 10 companies away from Island No. 10 on a summer campaign through Tennessee and the states of Mississippi and Alabama (Company G and Company I were left on extended guard duty at Island No. 10). During August and September Colonel Heg led the 15th during U.S. General Don Carlos Buell's grueling 400 mile retreat north to the City of Louisville, Kentucky, the last 2 weeks of which was conducted on half rations and with little water. From Louisville, Heg wrote his wife this description of their arrival there. 

    We marched through the city to day, as dusty and ragged as any one could be but the cheers and hurrahs they gave us showed that we were not thought any less of for being dirty. The girls came out and distributed water, cakes and other articles to the boys all along the streets. My Regiment went through, singing Norwegian Songs, and attracted more attention than any other Regt. that passed....I am as fine as a fiddle, but very tired.

On October 8, 1862, Colonel Heg led his regiment into its first big battle, at the Town of Perryville, Boyle County, Kentucky, which was also called the Battle of Chaplin Hills. Despite being under fire while driving the enemy back several miles, the 15th suffered few casualties and no fatalities. One of those hurt was Colonel Heg, who was injured when his horse fell. A few days later he wrote a letter home with this view of the fighting.

    On top of a hill we formed in line. From here I could see the whole Battle field at a time when it was raging the hardest. It was a sight I shall never forget. During the time we were waiting there, the enemy were having the advantage, and were gaining ground on our men. The smoke and dust filed the air a great deal and a constant rattle of cannon and muskets, and now and then came a ball whistling by me so near that I would sometimes bow my head down without hardly knowing it....

On November 3, 1862, U.S. Major General Rosecrans granted Colonel Heg a 30 day leave of absence to recover from his injury at Perryville. The 15th's Chaplain, Claus L. Clausen, spent part of that time with him. Colonel Heg was back with the 15th well before December 26, 1862, when he led it on a desperate charge to capture a Confederate artillery battery at Knob Gap, Tennessee, south of Nashville, Tennessee. There Heg is said to have ridden out ahead of the regiment and helped captured a brass cannon and several prisoners. Colonel Heg then commanded the 15th during the long, cold, wet, and bloody Battle of Stone River, Tennessee, also known as the Battle of Murfreesboro, which started December 30, 1862, and lasted into early January, 1863. He wrote this home from the battlefield.

    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 [General Rosecrans] met them himself and routed then terribly. There has been two or three severe Battles since Wednesday in which the rebels have been badly whipped. We have not got Murfreesborro yet, but they will be beaten out of there before many days. Thousands have been killed and wounded on both sides.

Stone River was where the 15th first suffered serious casualties, and the first time Colonel Heg's leadership was tested during a battle crisis. Colonel Heg acquitted himself well during the fighting, earning the following citation from his brigade commander, Colonel Carlin, which brought Heg to the attention of General 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.

Colonel Heg's experience at Stone River hardened his attitudes and determination to see the war through to a total Union victory. These sentiments were expressed in letters he wrote home in the months following.

    The whole country from here to Nashville is completly ruined. Every house is burned and not a fence rail to be seen. What has become of the poor wemen and children I do not know....It makes a man pretty hard hearted to be a soldier long. I have almost got so I feel indifferent as to how rebels suffer, although many of them no doubt have been forced and fooled into this war....I can see no daylight in any other direction than a suppression of the rebels by us. It is nothing else than simply this. Death and destruction to us, and our government, or their subjugation. The latter must be accomplished, no matter what the sacrifice may be life, property, or anything else.

In response to his conduct at Stone River, General Rosecrans placed Colonel Heg in command of the newly formed 3rd Brigade of the 1st Division, 20th Army Corps (Army of the Cumberland) on May 1, 1863. The 15th's Lieutenant Colonel, Ole C. Johnson (Shipness), assumed command of the regiment. Two days later Heg wrote this to his wife.

    I have taken command of the Brigade and fixed up my Head Quarters in grand style. Dr. [Stephen] Himoe is my Brigade Surgeon [Captain Henry] Hauff is my Adjt. [Adjutant] General [Captain] Albert Skofstad is my Inspector General....Everything is quiet here again no fighting. I have a good deal to do in organizing my new command. The fact is I have been put in command of this Brigade for the purpose of making it more efficient and I am going to try my best to do it....

General Rosecran's confidence in Heg was further demonstrated when he assigned him the critical task of conducting a daring early morning assault across the Tennessee River. Rosecran's plans for flanking the Confederates out of Chattanooga, Tennessee, depended on the success of this assault. On August 29, 1863, Heg's Brigade crossed over without a single casualty, becoming the first Union troops south of the river. The next day he described what happened in a letter home.

    Friday afternoon I rec'd orders to move imidiately. My Brigade was to have the honor of crossing the Tennessee River in advance of the Army and to lay the Pontoons. We marched to the River that night 4 miles I was up all night and made preparations for the mornings work. The Rebel Pickets being in sight on the other side of the River, and near enough so we could talk to them. At 7 oclock in the Morning all was ready. My whole Brigade in the Boats. We went over expecting to be shot at, But all went well. We were the first across the River and moved right up on the [Sand] Mountain without any fighting a[nd] very little skirmishing. In the afternoon, Old Rosey [General Rosecrans] and [General] McCook paid us a visit....It was quite a compliment to our Brigade to have the advance.

This success was followed by nearly 3 weeks of marching and counter-marching over the mountains of northern Georgia, leading up to what was to be the second bloodiest battle of the war. There, in 2 days of combat, his brigade would suffer 51% casualties (killed, wounded, or missing), the 15th would suffer 63% casualties, and he himself would be mortally wounded. The night before the fighting started Colonel Heg penned what turned out to be his final note to his wife.

    We have continued to march since I last wrote, and are still laying here ready at a moment's notice for anything. The Rebels are in our front and we may have to fight him a Battle if we do it will be apt to be a big one. Do not feel uneasy for me. I am well and in good spirits and trusting to my usual good luck. I shall use all the caution and courage I am capable of and leave the rest to take care of itself....Good Bye my darling write often, but do not expect to hear from me very often till the campaign is over.

At midday on September 19, 1863, Colonel Heg ordered his brigade forward into the Battle of Chickamauga, Georgia. That afternoon he was constantly in the thick of the vicious, close-range combat around Viniard's Farm, rallying and encouraging his brigade. Around 5 o'clock, just before the first day's fighting finally tapered off, Colonel Heg was shot in the abdomen a fatal wound. He was taken by wagon to a Federal Field Hospital at Crawfish Springs, Georgia, where he died late the next morning. The 15th's Surgeon Stephen O. Himoe attended the Colonel during his final hours and afterwards wrote this in his personal diary.

    [F]riends who called to see him, wept like children. Everybody who knew him loved him. He was not only a noble patriot, but a true Christian and died peacefully and calmly, fully persuaded of a glorious immortality thro' Jesus....

Upon hearing of Heg's death, General Rosecrans expressed regret, saying he had intended to promote Heg to Brigadier General. As it was, Colonel Heg was the highest-ranked Wisconsin soldier killed in combat during the Civil War. Below is a quote about Heg from the 1864 Annals of the Army of the Cumberland.

    His bravery, demonstrated in many engagements, is unquestioned. It is not however, the reckless daring of an unskilled and careless man, but the cool and determined valor of a competent, thoughtful commander. He is prudent, but not timid; deliberate, but not slow in movement. In person he is of medium size, rather slender, and with features more than ordinarily prepossessing. With the courage he has power of endurance so natural to the Scandinavian, and well calculated to share the hardships and privations of a march as he directs the movements of his command.

 

Sources: Genealogical data provided by his Great Grandson Captain James E. Heg, U.S. Navy (retired), by Lori Fields, by Kevin Dier-Zimmel, by Judy DeCoster of the Winchester Area Historical Society and by Dee Anna Grimsrud, MLIS, CGRS; Annals of the ARMY OF THE CUMBERLAND by John Fitch (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1864); Norwegian Immigrants to the United States, Volume Two by Gerhard B. Naeseth (Decorah, Iowa, 1997); The Civil War Letters of Colonel Hans Christian Heg Theodore C. Blegen (Northfield, Minnesota, 1936); Oberst Heg og Hans Gutter [Colonel Heg and His Boys] by Waldemar Ager (Eau Claire, Wisconsin, 1916); Det Femtende Regiment, Wisconsin Frivillage [The Fifteenth Regiment, Wisconsin Volunteers] by Ole A. Buslett (Decorah, Iowa, 1895); Regimental Descriptive Rolls, Volume 20 Office of the Adjutant General State of Wisconsin (Madison, Wisconsin, 1885); and other military records at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin Archives.
 

Copyright Scott Cantwell Meeker of Deep Vee Productions, 1999-2002. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission. For additional information on Colonel Heg and the Scandinavian Regiment, visit the 15th Wisconsin website.

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