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Archive for May, 2014

The Statue on the Square by Guest Author Bob Drane

Hans Heg

Unpublished photo of Colonel H.C. Heg (courtesy of The Robert Drane 19th Century Photography Trust).

Have you ever noticed, amidst the festivities of a Farmer’s Market Saturday on Madison’s Capital Square, the moment when visitors come upon the statue of that soldier on King Street – a young man in uniform, standing tall, eyes fixed on the horizon, somehow intent on moving forward on behalf of the flag fluttering in the distance over his left shoulder?

His presence prompts an interlude of silence and curiosity. Who is he; why is he here; what message does he wish to deliver to those who stop and ponder his eternal presence?

He is a soldier who gave up his life that our nation might live.

He could be many soldiers from many wars, but in this case he is Hans Christian Heg, proud son of Norway, and Colonel of the 15th Wisconsin Regiment on August 19, 1863, the day he fell in battle at Chickamauga, along the “river of death,” down in Georgia.

He was 32 years old on that day, with a wife and three children praying for his safe return, up North in the small town of Waterford, county of Racine, Wisconsin.

As he led his regiment across a small stream at the southern end of the battlefield, he was struck in the gut by a Confederate minie ball that seared his body and shocked his limbic brain. Perhaps his life flashed before him in that instant.

His joyful boyhood in Lier, Norway, three miles to the north of the port city of Drammen. At age eleven, in 1840, the journey across the Atlantic from Oslo to New York, then from Buffalo through the Great Lakes to Milwaukee and on to the Norwegian settlement near Lake Muskego, in Racine County, founded in 1825. There a lovely 350-acre farm.

A new language to be mastered, along with many lessons in community from his father, Ewen, whose famous “Heg Barn” became the gathering place for social and religious events, and whose journal, Nordlyset (Northern Lights), was the first Norwegian newspaper in America, and later an organ of the Free Soil and Republican parties.

At age twenty, a rite of passage. Hans and three pals bitten by the gold bug, navigated the perilous journey to California and spent two years as Forty-Niners. This lark ended when Even Heg died, and Hans returned home to his roots in Muskego.

Next came the love of his life, his beautiful bride, Gunhild Einong, and the joys of three offspring, little Hilda, James and Elmer.

Followed by recognition, for Hans, like his father, proved to be a natural-born leader. He became Major in the 4th Wisconsin State Militia. A public person, board of supervisors in the Town of Norway, delegate to the Republican Convention of 1857 in Madison, Wisconsin State Prison Commissioner at Waupun in 1859.

All was working out nicely for Hans Heg and his family. Fine prospects for a long and satisfying life and a happy ending. But, as Lincoln put it, “then came the war.”

Governor Alexander Randall appointed the popular Heg, Colonel of the 15th Wisconsin Volunteers as of September 30, 1861. His first duty was recruiting, which brought this appeal:

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

After winter training at Camp Randall, Heg led his 960-man contingent into the field. Indeed they were Norseman – Olsen, Hanson, Peterson, Johnson, Thompson, Erickson, and no fewer than 115 who answered to the name of Ole. They marched off in companies: the St. Olaf Rifles, Scandinavian Mountaineers, Heg’s Rifles, Rock River Rangers, Clausen’s Guards.

What followed is what always follows in war. Drums beating the long roll, the crash of guns, the rattle of musketry, the strange mournful mutter of the battlefield. In October 1862, the Scandinavian Regiment skirmished at Perryville, Kentucky, followed on December 31 by a terrible slaughter at Stones River, as Heg’s regiment, along with his entire Union corps, was overrun by the CSA left wing, under Braxton Bragg. A hellish day, bitter cold, running through the woods, firing, killing and dying. After a Union rally and stalemate, Heg wrote:

“There is no denying that we were badly whipped the first day, as usual because of an infernal fool of a General allowing himself to be surprised. We lost a great many men.”

2.14_Images_Heg, Hans (WVM Mss 1147)

A charcoal portrait of Hans Heg from the WVM Collections.

A total of 138 men, with 15 dead in his regiment alone. But Heg received a commendation from General William Carlin, as “the bravest of the brave.”

The following September, the blue army snaked further South, eager to attack Bragg again, below Chattanooga. Heg now commanded the entire Third Brigade, and he wrote a final letter home on September 18, 1863:

“The Rebels are in our front and we may have to fight him…in a big battle. 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. Good-bye my darling.”

Toward sundown the next day Heg’s luck ran out. He was leading a Union counter attack near the Viniard House when he felt the lead ball slice through his lower bowel. It was a grievous wound, and he suffered all night before succumbing mid-morning on the 20th.

Chickamauga had been the “big battle” Heg predicted, with 35,000 men lost between the two sides, a number topped only by the 58,000 casualties a month earlier at Gettysburg.

When the war ended 18 months later, the Scandinavian Regiment numbered 320 survivors out of the 960 who marched out with Heg.

And so the story appeared to end in despair. But not quite – for Heg’s Norwegian community assumed the duty of remembering him and the men he led.

On October 17, 1929, “St. Hans Day” in Norway, Heg rose again in the magnificent statue on the Square, crafted by sculptor Paul Fjelde. Dignitaries such as the Governor and Mayor turned out, but the occasion belonged most to attendees from back home, the Colonel’s daughter, Hilda, and four octogenarian comrades from the old 15th.
In remembering him that day, they honored him. A soldier who gave up his life that his nation might live. Some 185 years later, it is only right and just that we too pause at the King Street corner, and do the same.

“The Statue on the Square” appeared in the 2014 Summer issue of The Bugle, a quarterly newsletter that is an exclusive benefit of WVM membership.  To read more stories like this, become a member at http://bit.ly/1hj93YR

Wisconsin’s Fighting Flag by Kristine Zickuhr

State Flag of WIAlthough Wisconsin became a state on May 29th, 1848, it did not have a state flag until decades later.  You might not know that the first version of Wisconsin’s state flag participated in the hardest battles of the Civil War.

The ladies of a community often sewed flags for the first regiments leaving the state.  Their craftsmanship was beautiful, but there was a lot of variation in design and measurements.  The 2nd Wisconsin Regimental flag was crafted by the ladies of Madison in 1861.  The ladies opted to include the Wisconsin Coat of Arms on one side.  Lacking any guidance on design, the emblem was copied directly from Governor Randall’s stationery! This might be Wisconsin’s very first state flag, although it was still years away from being official.

As the Civil War carried on and more regiments signed up to fight, Wisconsin standardized its flags.  An official design was approved in March, 1863.  The 2nd Wisconsin was still carrying its set from 1861 and was one of the first units to request new flags.  Replacements were sent to them in June of 1863, but the old flags were not quite ready for retirement. They led the 2nd Wisconsin into Gettysburg for one final battle.  The ladies of Madison must have gasped when they saw their beautiful silk banner return to the state in shreds.  This early example of Wisconsin’s state flag was not created to fly idly on a government building, but rather to serve right alongside its soldiers in the toughest trials of the Civil War.

Your regiment will doubtless part with regret with the glorious old flags beneath which it has won so high a reputation, and around which its brave officers and men have so often rallied, and poured out their blood like water in the contest with the enemies of the Union and Constitution; but those flags, returned to this state, will be guarded with care, and serve as mementoes of your valor.

William H. Watson, Military Secretary of Wisconsin, to Colonel Lucius Fairchild, 2nd Wisconsin, June 1863

The flags formed the foundation of the collection of the Grand Army of the Republic Memorial Hall, established in the Capitol in 1901.  They remain a highlight of the Wisconsin Veterans Museum’s collection today.  Some flags are so fragile that they have only been unfurled once in the last 150 years for study and documentation.

Today, on the anniversary of Wisconsin’s statehood, take a moment to look up and appreciate the blue state flag we often take for granted.  You can explore the history of Wisconsin’s Civil War flags at http://bit.ly/ShGak0. Go in depth and search for other treasures related to Wisconsin’s early history at http://bit.ly/1oxMCRZ.

The ‘Grand Old Lady of Memorial Days’ by Jennifer Carlson

Did you know that Memorial Day was first established as “Decoration Day” by the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) in May of 1868? Just three years after the Civil War, with so many soldiers lost, it was a way to pay tribute to those killed during America’s bloodiest war. To honor their loved ones on this day, many men and women visited their graves and adorned them with flowers to ensure their contributions would never be forgotten.

One particular Madisonian, Mrs. Ella Bennett Bresee, the daughter of one of Madison’s oldest families carried on this tradition until the day of her death in 1945. When she was just a child, her father and mother would take her to Forest Hill Cemetery on Madison’s west side to decorate the graves of the Union veterans who were killed during the Civil War.

Ella Breese

Her father, James Bennett, served under William Vilas in Company A of the 23rd Wisconsin Infantry Regiment during the Civil War. In a letter dated Monday, March 30, 1863, he expressed his love and concern for his wife and daughter:

“…I hope I shall get home to look after you and my dear little Ella child….it seems so hard for me to be away from her, she is so young and needs my care, but these troublesome times things don’t go as they used to…I hope this war will soon be over don’t you. As it is an awful war ain’t it to see the suffering. I have had a pretty good chance to see the suffering there is in the field and in the hospital.”

James Bennett was discharged on April 5, 1863, due to wounds he received on an expedition up the Arkansas River. After witnessing so much suffering and death, James wanted to pay tribute to his fellow veterans, so he became an active member of the veterans’ community and a charter member of the C.C. Washburn G.A.R. Post (later known as the Lucius Fairchild Post in Madison). He assisted in decorating Union soldiers graves at Forest Hill Cemetery as part of his post duties. After his death, his daughter Ella carried on this family tradition.

Due to her father’s teachings, Ella took a keen interest in patriotic work. During World War I, she volunteered for the Red Cross and started the first canteen service. During World War II, she was responsible for starting the first service center in Madison, which later became the United Service Organization (USO).

This ‘Grand Old Lady of Memorial Day’ helps remind us of the true meaning of today; remembering those who gave the ultimate sacrifice. While you enjoy the holiday, take a moment today to remember these veterans and their sacrifices. After all, their sacrifices ensure your freedoms.

To learn more about Ella and other prominent Madisonians, join us for this year’s Talking Spirits Cemetery Tour!

Military Appreciation Month by Ellen Brooks

“It takes about eight or ten people behind the lines to support one person in the front lines.”

(Thomas Diener, Oral History Interview, 2005)

Thomas Diener never saw combat while serving during World War II with the Army Air Corps, but he was one of the essential troops supporting those at the front.

And behind all those troops are the supporting friends, families and spouses on the home front. Our service men and women rely on the encouragement and loyalty of their loved ones at home. For Thomas Diener, those loved ones were his family in Milwaukee, and most importantly, his sweetheart and later wife, Betty Jean Dealy.

Betty Jean and Tom both grew up in Milwaukee and started “going together” as young teens. Tom enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1943, and from July 5, 1943 until his discharge in 1946, he and Betty Jean were apart; their worlds turned upside down by the war. Despite the hardships faced, at home and abroad, they kept up a steady correspondence and the Wisconsin Veterans Museum is proud to have dozens of letters exchanged between the couple during wartime. It is obvious from reading these letters that their love and support for one another played a pivotal role in how they survived the war.

In this clip from his oral history interview, Tom mentions the letters between himself and Betty Jean and talks about the feelings of sacrifice and separation. In a letter (partially pictured and transcribed below), Betty Jean relays her reactions to V-J Day to Tom and her wish to share the celebration with him.  Click the image below to hear Tom Diener’s oral history clip.

 

Diener ProposalPeople ran out ~ kids yelled & blew horns & banged kettles & pots, etc. And I sat there ~ I couldn’t run out or do anything – you’ll probably think I’m crazy, but honey I couldn’t help crying ~ I tried not to ~ but I didn’t succeed. I ran in my bedroom ~ fell on the bed and just sobbed & sobbed ~ I was so happy ~ I just cried like I couldn’t stop ~ and I couldn’t ~ it seemed I cried for everything I had held deep inside for 4 years ~ I cried because the war was over ~ everything I’d lived and prayed and hoped for, for 4 years finally came true ~ and I couldn’t control myself ~ …  

Now the next thing I want to celebrate is your homecoming ~ oh Darling, now maybe our dreams will begin to come true ~ Tommy there is no sense in me telling you how terribly much I wanted to be with you yesterday ~ or how much I thought about you ~ just every second Tommy darling!  

(Betty Jean to Tom, dated August 15, 1945)

Betty Jean and Tom were married in 1948.

Not only did Betty Jean’s letters and love carry Tom through the war, her work in the post-war years when he was unemployed, helped put him through college. Of the war years and the years after, Tom said, “Through all of this, my wife was part of my life, of course. The most important part.”

Full Matching Leather Jackets

wwii leather jacketThe standard issue uniform for American World War II soldiers consisted of a basic wool uniform, a field jacket or wool coat, leggings, and various other pieces. Most of the clothing was a light to medium shade of olive drab. Some soldiers even wore items from home—either because they needed to, or because they desired to be more stylish.

2nd Lt. William J. Schereck and his division fell into the latter category. Schereck served from 1943 to 1944 with the 143rd Infantry Regiment, 36th Infantry Division. The officers in his unit privately ordered horsehide Hercules leather jackets, selected from the Sears catalog and shipped directly to the field at Monte Cassino, Italy. The officers kept their jackets blackened and shined, proudly wearing them as part of their field uniform.

When 2nd Lt. Schereck donated this leather jacket to the museum, our curator was astounded by the jacket’s background, and even questioned the origin. It was highly unusual for privately purchased pieces to be shipped directly to the field during a campaign.

It seems that 2nd Lt. Schereck was a soldier with cultured taste, as he also donated a book of self-authored poetry along with his jacket.

Here’s our favorite excerpt:

LET US TALK

Let us talk of pretty girls

And not of dying men.

Let us talk of the many things

We want to do again.

Let us talk of the life ahead

Not of what has gone by.

Let us talk of gay bright lights

Where brave men do not die.

Let us not talk of the war

There are things more cheerful yet.

Let us not be reminded of the

Things we want to forget.

See more World War II artifacts for yourself at the Wisconsin Veterans Museum. You can also see our “Through the World Wars” online exhibit by clicking here.

The Wisconsin Veterans Museum is an educational activity of the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs.

Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs