It is hard for me to write in general these days, because there is so much going on that depresses me and things just continually seem to get worse. It constantly feels like things are on the precipice of getting completely out of hand, and our national leadership seems intent on saying and doing things that generally don’t help and sometimes actually make things worse.
I suppose that compared to a deadly global pandemic, economic disaster, and widespread civil unrest across the country, the loss of a single statue in Madison, Wisconsin, is not that big a deal. But I still can’t help but feel a little affected by the destruction of the statue of Colonel Hans Christian Heg last night.
I have a book about Colonel Heg, a collection of his letters (mostly those that he wrote to his wife) while he was away in the Union Army. He was a Norwegian immigrant, an abolitionist, and a social reformer who often put his words into deeds. He was, in short, the kind of historical figure from the Civil War era that I admire.
Heg came to the United States with his family when he was 11 years old. In 1849 he moved to California after the discovery of gold there, but returned to Wisconsin when his father died in 1851. Then he finally settled down, marrying Gunhild Einong that same year. He became active in politics, first with the Free-Soil party and then with the Republican party. He served as a justice of the peace, a town supervisor, and a commissioner of a poor farm. He was elected state prison commissioner in 1859, the first Norwegian to be elected to state-wide office in the United States. He believed in rehabilitation, not punishment, and opposed brutal treatment of the prisoners He was also fiercely anti-slavery.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Heg became Colonel of the 15th Wisconsin Infantry, a regiment made up almost entirely of Scandinavian immigrants and the children of immigrants. The regiment became somewhat famous after marching through places like Louisville, Kentucky and Nashville, Tennessee, singing songs in Norwegian.
Heg led his regiment throughout the summer and fall campaigns of 1862, and through the battle of Stones River, which is where I first became aware of him, while I worked at the battlefield there. Heg apparently thought highly of General Rosecrans, who commanded the Union Army in that battle and is a hero of mine. Heg wrote to Gunhild:
I have just been up to Rosecranses Head Quarters, and had a shake of the old fellows hand. He always calls me Heck. You do not know how pleased everybody is at the change of Buell for him.
Colonel Heg wrote often to his wife, and spoke often of their family and children.
He was mortally wounded on September 19th, 1863, the first day of the Battle of Chickamauga. He died the following day. General Rosecrans was reported to have said:
I am very sorry to hear that Heg has fallen. He was a brave officer, and I intended to promote him to be general.
I don’t know enough about Colonel Heg to say whether or not he deserves to have his statue pulled down. I wish I knew more about what happened last night, about whether people were pulling it down because of an informed opinion of him or whether it was just another statue of an old bearded white guy that deserved to come down. I don’t know. But I hope that people didn’t overreact to his statue and demolish a memorial to a man that, as far as I know, seems worthy of remembrance.