From the Hornet’s Nest to Custer’s Last Stand: The Immigrant Story of Norwegian Sergeant Olaus Hansen
Thanks to Asbjørn “Ozzie” Sollien’s book “From the Hornet’s Nest to Custer’s Last Stand,” yet another Norwegian immigrant has emerged as a Civil War champion. Olaus Hansen from Northeg (Nord Eik) in Nannestad fought in one of the deadliest Civil War campaigns, the Battle of Shiloh, where more than 24,000 men perished. Fourteen years later he survived the battle at Little Bighorn. Sadly, however, wartime injuries caused painful arthritis, and he succumbed to opium and alcohol, the drugs he used to numb his physical and emotional pain.
Olaus and his brother Hans emigrated in 1861 to Iowa where their older brother farmed. They wanted to assist since farming had been their livelihood in Norway. But the Civil War was in full swing and the brothers felt compelled to join the 12th Iowa Volunteer Regiment. Almost immediately they found themselves in the thick of battle, including conflicts at Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, before moving on to the Battle of Shiloh, often called the Hornet’s Nest. Later, they became Confederate prisoners of war. Unlike many of their fellow Norwegian Union soldiers who were imprisoned up to 18 months, the Hansen brothers were released after six months from what was known as a cruel death camp.
Sollien is quick to illustrate that being a soldier in the Civil War exposed the brothers to massive death and destruction. Even so, Olaus chose his rifle over a plow after the Civil War and re-enlisted in the army. Among his assignments was a post in Louisiana where soldiers ensured that mistreated and unpaid slaves became free, paid plantation employees.
After a one-year break, Hansen enlisted with the 7th Cavalry in 1875 and was assigned to Fort Abraham Lincoln in Dakota Territory, where he trained new soldiers. In 1868 the U.S. government and the Lakota entered into a treaty allowing the Lakota to keep the Black Hills of South Dakota and Wyoming, since to them it was sacred. But once gold was discovered, prospectors flocked to the area, and the Indians were ordered to move to reservations. President Ulysses S. Grant found Indians refusing relocation hostile and in violation of the treaty, and he ordered them captured.
In 1876, the Battle of Little Bighorn took place, and the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho overwhelmingly defeated the 7th Cavalry and General Custer’s battalion. Olaus Hansen survived, as did the only other Norwegian immigrant known to have fought during the skirmish, John Sivertsen from Trondelag.
After Little Bighorn, Hansen was assigned to Fort Meade near what is now Sturgis, S.D. He continued to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and his addictions. His alcoholism was so great that in desperation he signed a promissory note secured by his future pay to obtain the spirits he so badly craved, an act considered a serious crime. Hansen was sentenced to three years in jail and discharged from the army. Subsequently, his sentence was reduced to one year after which he worked for a mule train operation.
In November 1882 Hansen was found dead from an apparent overdose of opium and alcohol in his cold sleeping room that also housed the explosives he shipped. The coroner ruled his death a suicide. No one knows for sure. Regardless, Sollien has found another brave Norwegian Civil War soldier. His research was extensive and he should be commended. Norwegian participation in the Civil War is an area few Norwegian or Norwegian-American historians have explored. Sollien’s book is well worth the read.
Torbjørn Greipsland is an author and editor. He is often credited as an expert regarding Norwegian immigrant Civil War participation. He is the author of “Nordmenn i dødsleirene” (Norwegians in the Death Camps), which discusses these soldiers, especially those that ended up in Andersonville Prisoner of War Camp 65 miles southwest of Macon, Georgia.
This article was originally published in Norwegian in the Eidsvoll Ullensaker Newspaper. It was translated for NAW by Leslee Lane Hoyum of Rockford, Minn.
This article originally appeared in the April 11, 2014 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.