Honoring a Norwegian-American Civil War hero
Odd Lovoll presents his book on Colonel Hans Christian Heg at Norway House
Class & Education Coordinator
In the summer of 2020, the statue of Col. Hans Christian Heg—prison reformer, abolitionist, Union solider in the Civil War, and champion for his fellow Norwegian immigrants—was beheaded and thrown into Lake Monona in Madison, Wis. The rioters later said that they didn’t know who Heg was, that it was simply a statue of a white man and therefore represented racism.
On May 29, 2022, the restored statue was dedicated in Madison. Then, on July 22, 2023, Norway House, along with the Norwegian American Historical Association, the Ramsey County Historical Association, and the Minnesota Historical Society Press, hosted the book launch for Colonel Hans Christian Heg and the Norwegian American Experience by Odd Lovoll. Heg’s legacy is becoming known once again.
“It was a great experience to be among interested friends and to meet new people who wanted to learn about Col. Heg,” said Lovoll about the event. “They all listened so carefully,” he added with a smile in his voice.
People did listen carefully as Lovoll spoke about Heg’s life and legacy. He was a Norwegian American who helped his fellow immigrants. He was a prison warden who believed in providing humane conditions and job training to inmates. He was a loving husband and father. He was an abolitionist who was willing to put his life on the line to eliminate slavery.
The vandalism and the lack of historical literacy represented by the attack on Heg’s statue motivated Lovoll to write Heg’s biography. He was a man whose life was dedicated to making his adopted country a place where all could thrive. Lovoll had considered writing such a biography in the past. Recent events made him decide that now was the time to do so.
Heg is best known for leading the 15th Wisconsin Regiment, which consisted of Norwegian immigrant volunteers. They distinguished themselves throughout the course of the war and served bravely at the Battle of Chickamauga in Catoosa and Walker counties in Georgia, where Heg was fatally injured. Lovoll’s biography expands on the story of Heg, exploring the influences of the Norwegian and Norwegian-American communities in which he was raised.
The Heg family left Lier, Norway, when he was 11, old enough to observe and understand a great deal about what was happening around him. His parents were quick to establish themselves, and they became instrumental in helping many other immigrant families who passed through their Wisconsin settlement. Lovoll describes the religious and political environment of Wisconsin, the influence of his family, and how these forces shaped Heg’s empathetic and insightful nature.
Lovoll draws on Heg’s correspondence, which shows a young man who loved his family, had a sense of humor, and wanted to be part of creating a fair and prosperous America. Heg seemed comfortable being both a Norwegian immigrant and a U.S. citizen. The biography provides a context for the man, his beliefs, and for the position he held in his community.
The day’s events started with a tour of the Pioneer and Soldiers Memorial Cemetery, led by cemetery historian Susan Hunter Weir. She focused on the Civil War veterans and Scandinavian immigrants who are buried there. After the hour-long tour, people were invited to Norway House for water and hardtack for a bit of Civil War verisimilitude, though the water provided was much cleaner and cooler than what soldiers would have received.
Odd Lovoll then spoke and answered questions to an audience of 60 people on the importance of Heg to the Norwegian-American community of his day and later generations. A book signing followed.
Joseph Grødahl, director of programs and operations at Norway House, summarized the event: It was a day of important reflection on the stories and experiences of some of the earliest Norwegian Americans, both heroic figures and ordinary people. The preceding cemetery walk was a wonderful complement to this, as it helped to make real the struggles and sacrifices ordinary people faced at the time.
This event was the first of what will be an annual program at Norway House to commemorate the Civil War and the Norwegians and Americans who fought. There is a clear need to keep memories of the war alive. We need to think about the legacy of slavery, the importance of balancing states’ rights with federal power, the process of immigrants becoming citizens, and most of all, recognizing the wounds of a Civil War. The ripple down for generations emphasizes our need to focus on Heg and other leaders who were willing to die to end an evil, but who wanted the end result to be unity and prosperity for all.
This article originally appeared in the September 2023 issue of The Norwegian American.