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Hans Christian Heg

Hans Heg Statue (1950 ca.)

Wisconsin Historical Society Image ID: WHi-34301

Hans Christian Heg Statue

On October 17, 1926, before a crowd of more than one thousand, a statue of Hans Christian Heg was unveiled at the King Street corner of the Capitol Square. Commemorating the most noted Norwegian-American to serve in the Civil War, the statue bears the following inscription:

Hans Christian Heg
Colonel 15th Wisconsin Volunteers
Born in Norway
December 21, 1829
Fell at Chickamauga
September 19, 1863
Norwegian-Americans gave this memorial
To the state of Wisconsin

Heg’s parents immigrated to Wisconsin in 1840, settling in Racine County. In 1849 Heg went to California for two years, seeking gold. After his return, he spent the next decade farming. In 1859 he was elected state prison commissioner, and was reelected two years later. Upon the outbreak of the Civil War, he raised the 15th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry, which was nicknamed the Scandinavian Regiment.

The 15th trained at Camp Randall in the winter of 1861, then departed for St. Louis on March 8, 1862. The 15th fought at Island No. 10 and Perryville, then Stone’s River, where the regiment lost 15 killed, 70 wounded, and 53 missing. Heg, whose men saved part of the army by holding their ground during the battle, was commended by his commanding officer as the “bravest of the brave.”

By 1863 Colonel Heg was in charge the Third Brigade in the army of William S. Rosecrans, commanding the 15th Wisconsin, 25th and 35th Illinois, and 8th Kansas regiments. (Rosecrans’ chief of staff, who relayed orders to Heg, was future president James A. Garfield). In the summer of 1863 Heg participated in the Middle Tennessee campaign, and settled in with the Union army at Chattanooga.

In mid-September Rosecrans moved south against the army of Braxton Bragg, encountering the Confederates a few miles south of Chattanooga drawn up along the banks of Chickamauga Creek. Heg and his men arrived on the right of the Union line around noon on September 19, 1863. After advancing a short way they were met with a volley from Rebels concealed in heavy woods. They held their ground, “cheered on by the gallant Colonel Heg, who was everywhere present, careless of danger.” Several times they were forced to fall back, then reformed and advanced. Then between 4 and 5 p.m. Hood’s Texans attacked, and his six Confederate bridades overwhelmed the Union three. Heg was mortally wounded in the attack; 696 of the 1,218 of his men who had gone into battle were killed, wounded or missing, a casualty rate of more than 50%. The following day the Confederates completed the rout of the Union army, driving Rosecrans all the way back to Chattanooga. Almost 35,000 men were lost between the two armies in one of the fiercest battles of the war.

In February 1920 Norwegian-Americans began a drive to raise $25,000 for a statue honoring Heg, and in 1924 the contract was let. Originally planned for a cemetery in Racine, permission was instead granted for it to be placed on the Square.

The bright flags veiling the statue were parted by Heg’s boyhood friend and wartime follower Lewis Rolfsen. Governor John Blaine, Mayor Albert Schmedeman, and Norwegian Consul Olaf Bernts all spoke. Heg’s daughter and Paul Fjelde, the sculptor, were present, along with four members of the 15th Wisconsin, all in their 80s.

Only 320 of the 960 men in the Scandinavian Regiment survived the war.

Mark Gajewski