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Notes of a Civil War Soldier
    by Bersven Nelson, translated and edited by C.A. Clausen (Volume 26: Page 118)

THE government of our adopted country is in danger. That which we learned to love as freemen in our Old Fatherland — our freedom, our government, our independence — is threatened with destruction. Is it not our duty as brave and intelligent citizens to extend our hands in defense of our country and our homes?" {1} Thus read in part an appeal to Scandinavians in the Northwest to join the Union forces, and more especially the Fifteenth Wisconsin, "the Scandinavian Regiment," which was being organized in the fall of 1861 with the full endorsement of the governor of the state, Alexander W. Randall. The author of the appeal was the Honorable Hans C. Heg who on October 1 had been commissioned colonel of the proposed unit.

Recruiting went on with enthusiasm in Wisconsin and neighboring states. In December the nucleus of the regiment was mustered in at Camp Randall near Madison, and the following month its membership reached the required minimum. Though the appeal had been made to Scandinavians in general, the composition of the regiment turned out to be more than ninety percent Norwegian, a statistic that is not surprising, in view of the fact that most of its promoters were [119] of Norse blood. It was classified as a Wisconsin organization, and the bulk of the recruits lived in that state, but appreciable additions came from Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota.

Among those who joined the Fifteenth Wisconsin in 1861 was Bersven (Ben) Nelson, newly arrived from Norway. He evidently kept a close record of his wartime experiences; but internal evidence indicates that his notes were not put into final form until years later. The first part of his record is translated here. We feel that it throws light on various aspects of soldier life during the Civil War. {2}


May, 1861

On May 9, 1861, my parents, with eleven children, left our home in the Maalselv Valley (Finmark) and set off for America. The next oldest son had crossed the ocean the previous year; the oldest one had also been in the United States, but he had returned to the homeland. On the 12th, we boarded a steamer at Molsnes; we arrived at Trondhjem on the morning of the 17th. Thus we had the opportunity of witnessing the Seventeenth of May celebration in Trondhjem, which was quite elaborate. That evening we took a boat for Bergen, where we arrived on May 20th. There we boarded the sailing vessel Camilla, which was all set to depart for America with emigrants. We left Bergen on May 25th and arrived in Quebec on July 9th. The voyage went well; except for seasickness, all of us were in good health. [120] Because a great number of English soldiers had just arrived to guard the boundary between the United States and Canada, we would either have to wait a while or take a boat across the Great Lakes. We chose to do the latter, but the trip took much longer than we had expected. We did not get to our destination, La Crosse, until July 16th. There we remained for about two months; then we went on to Eau Claire, and my father filed on land eleven miles west of the town and half a mile north of Elk Mound. I stayed at home and helped build a house. Soon we could move into our new dwelling, a substantial timbered building constructed in the Norwegian style. Now I decided to go to Eau Claire and to look for work or else get a job in the woods for the winter. I got work at Smith’s and Buffington’s sawmill at $18 per month. I remained for three weeks; then the mill closed down, and I returned home.


November-December, 1861

On November 8, O. R. Dahl came to the house. {3} He was a sergeant from Norway who had been in this country for a time. So he could speak tolerably good English. Hans C. Heg had got in touch with him and had asked his help in organizing a Scandinavian regiment. From the governor, Heg had already received his appointment as colonel of this projected military force. After we had talked about the war for a short while, Dahl told us that a battle had been fought at Fort Henry, an engagement that the Northern forces had won. Prospects, therefore, were that the war would not last very long. Furthermore, a bounty of $100 was offered for enlisting plus $13 per month in salary as well as free food and clothes. These terms struck me as rather good. And, on top of it all, I would have an opportunity to travel and see [121] a great deal. My father said I could do as I wished. So I enlisted for three years or the duration of the war.

James Anderson, Bjørn Thompson, and Casper Hansen enlisted the same day. Dahl continued his recruiting. By the middle of December, there were twenty-two of us. We then left for Madison to be trained in military tactics. By now there were several hundred men on the drilling grounds, which went by the name of Camp Randall. The 16th and 17th regiments were also stationed there, and by the end of February we numbered about 3,000 men. We drilled some two or three hours in the forenoon and again in the afternoon. On Sundays we marched into town to attend church. Our pastor there was the Reverend Preus. {4}

I wish to tell a little about conditions at Camp Randall. Both the sleeping quarters and the dining hall were built of plain boards, with walls of only a single thickness. We had a large stove, but it was of little avail against the severe cold which beset us. The dining hall was a structure containing ten tables, each large enough to accommodate a hundred men. There were no chairs, and so we had to stand while we ate. The kitchen was at one end of the hail. The food was not the best, but it was no use to complain. We had to eat what was served or else starve. It was not then as it is now when regular army soldiers get everything prepared — all they need to do is cook coffee in order to get a respectable meal.


March, 1862

On March 2, 1862, the 15th, 16th, and 17th regiments were ready to set off for the front. We were paid in full from the day we enlisted until March 1st. At 8:00 o’clock in the morning, we left Camp Randall in a blinding snow storm and marched to the station where we took the train. A large number of Norwegians were gathered at the station to say [122] farewell to husbands, sons, brothers, and sweethearts. When the train left, there was waving of hats and handkerchiefs — as can be well understood. The locomotive had not gone very far before it got stuck in the snow. An extra engine had to be brought up to help pull us out. In the evening we arrived at Chicago; it was raining and the streets were full of mud. We marched to the courthouse, and there we were met by Chicago Norwegians who presented us with a beautiful silk flag. {5} We already had two, regimental colors and a battle flag; now we had three. After these ceremonies, we marched back to the train, and there the local Norwegians treated us to coffee, for which we were very thankful.

Now we were off again and arrived at Alton, Illinois, the next day at 7:00 o’clock in the evening. We marched through the town to the wharf, where on the morning of March 4th we went aboard a very large boat called the City of Alton. It took us down the Mississippi and reached St. Louis at 11:00 o’clock that forenoon. There we were transferred to another large steamer which carried us to Cairo, Illinois. We arrived there at 7:00 o’clock on the morning of March 6th. Now we were ordered to cross the Mississippi to Bird’s Point, Missouri. After getting there, we moved on a distance of three miles and were then arranged in line of battle, because an enemy regiment was located nearby. We stormed forward, but when we came within range of the rebels, they took to their heels as quickly as possible. There was no opportunity for a fight, but we pursued them seven miles and took several prisoners. We stayed at this place some days to guard a railroad which runs south from St. Louis. Our first skirmish gave us courage. If the Southern soldiers were all as scared as these fellows, the war would soon be over! [123]


March, 1862

We tramped back to the river and encamped for several days. On March 14th, Commodore Andrew Hull Foote arrived with his fleet of gunboats for the purpose of opening the Mississippi to traffic. We were ordered aboard a steamer which was to accompany the fleet. The first town we reached was Columbus, Kentucky. We met no resistance despite the fact that a strong fortress was located there. Continuing downstream, we came to Hickman [Kentucky] at 7:00 o’clock, without meeting any opposition. The 15th Wisconsin and the 42nd Illinois regiments were ordered ashore. We marched nine miles into the country, burned a railway bridge, and tore up a stretch of the railroad three miles long. We returned to camp the following morning. Three thousand rebel troops were located beyond the bridge; we had burned it to prevent them from coming to Hickman.

On the 15th, we proceeded down the river; around 11:00 o’clock we were fired at by some Southern gunboats, and a few shots were exchanged. But the rebel fleet pulled back to Island No. 10, pursued by our boats until they came within a mile and a half of the Island. {6} Our gunboats began shooting; there was no return fire, presumably because the enemy wanted to lure us closer because their guns could not carry as far as ours. For three days, our flotilla continued throwing bombs into their camp. Then our men became impatient with this long wait, and one of our ironclads was sent half a mile farther down the river. Now the enemy opened fire, blazing away so that we could see water spurting all around the little gunboat — but it returned unharmed. The other boats also took part in the bombardment, but apparently their fire had no effect. [124]

We now had Kentucky to the east of us and Missouri to the west. We were put ashore on the west bank of the river to keep the rebels from coming into Missouri. From our outposts, we could see the enemy soldiers and their fortifications, but we could not tell how strong they were. We estimated, however, that there might be between 2,000 and 3,000 of them and that they had somewhere between twenty and thirty large cannon, besides some small ones. The Mississippi was very high that spring and the lowlands were flooded. We had to wade through cold water reaching above our knees in order to find higher ground where we could stand guard. This was difficult for those of us who were not as yet inured to such hardships. Many became sick and had to be sent to hospitals in the North. . . . On March 30th, we were ordered back to the boat that had brought us down. It took us six miles upstream to Hickman. Here we were put ashore and sent off on a twelve-mile march inland to a spot where we pitched camp for the night. Everything had to be done quietly, and we were not permitted to light a fire.

At 4:00 o’clock in the morning, the march continued for three miles. We came upon a sleeping enemy guard and took him prisoner. We had now arrived at a large plain and could see the Confederate camp on the opposite edge. Three cannon we had brought along were put in place and discharged. Then we saw tent tatters flying in the air and we rushed forward. It seemed that the enemy had managed to get one company placed in battle order. However, when we drew near and fired a salvo, they took to their heels. We captured several prisoners and seventy horses and mules besides some wagons, and then set fire to the camp. After this engagement, we went back with our booty by the same road we had come. Before we reached our headquarters, we were attacked by some of the rebel cavalry, who fired away at us. We held them at bay, however, and arrived unharmed. At our camp, we got help from a regiment stationed at Hickman and drove the enemy back. This happened at Union City [Tennessee]. [125] Thus ended our second skirmish with the Confederates, and we thought things were going very well. We began feeling like the old Vikings who never shunned a fight. Now we boarded the steamer again and went back to our old rendezvous two miles above Island No. 10.


April, 1862

After our expedition to Union City, we remained quiet for a time. Except for regular guard duties, we did not have anything to do. When on guard, we were called out at 7:00 o’clock in the morning and were relieved at the same time the following morning. Three men were stationed at each post; we mounted guard two hours and then were free four hours. In the meantime, our gunboats had been bombarding for three weeks, but there were no indications that the enemy would surrender. .

Something had to be done. Our men had placed a barge or flatboat by the side of a gunboat and piled up a wall of cotton bales to guard its exposed side. Now they waited for an opportune time, such as a stormy night, so that they could launch a surprise attack. On the evening of April 7th, a terrible storm broke loose, with thunder and rain. Then [Lucius] Fairchild, who later became governor of Wisconsin, took four men in a small boat and let it float down with the current until they reached the Island. He got up to the fortifications and spiked six of the largest cannon so they could not be fired. All of our men came back unharmed. Now they let the protected gunboat drift down the river until it got past the Island. A hole was shot through its funnel when the enemy detected that the boat was alongside their fortifications. They were unable, however, to inflict any serious damage. Soon the gunboat fired the predetermined signals and began bombarding. Immediately, the gunboats above the Island also opened fire. . . . Pandemonium broke loose, the like of which we had never heard. This continued until the break of day; then we [126] spied the white flag signaling that the enemy had surrendered. Thereupon the whole flotilla went downstream. {7}

The 15th Wisconsin and the 42nd Illinois were landed on the Island. We captured 500 men who had not managed to escape across the river. The 42nd was left at the enemy base to guard the prisoners until we could send them to the North. Our regiment was ordered across the Mississippi to take care of things there, but some of us marched upcountry and took captive a number of stragglers. Here it may be of interest to note that General John Pope, with 20,000 men, came down through Missouri to New Madrid and Tiptonville, crossed the Mississippi, and went into Tennessee. There he met the fleeing rebels from Island No. 10 and took all of them prisoners — about 14,000 men. . . . {8}

Our booty on the Island was ninety large cannon and ten small ones in addition to a large storehouse with provisions, a drug store, and a clothing store. The clothes were, of course, not the kind that we wore, but they came in handy for the Negroes. The rebels also left a great deal of ammunition behind them. This happened on April 8th.

After our victory, we set up our tents and straightened things up on the camp ground, which was referred to as the "Tennessee Shore." The boundary line between Tennessee and Kentucky runs here; we were in the state of Tennessee. We began gathering up equipment that the rebels had left — guns, shells, axes, hoes, and some small cannon. The Southerners had rendered the rifles unfit for use, and the cannon had been spiked. However, the rifles could be repaired and [127] the vents bored open. Everything was sent to the North. Our Dr. Hansen took charge of the drug store. {9} The cannon which we had taken on the Island had also been spiked by driving steel bars into the vents, which likewise had to be bored open before their cannon could be used.

While we were moving the drug store, two boys from our regiment drank from a bottle which they thought contained whisky. They became so sick that we had to take them to the hospital. There both died within a few hours. I regret that I remember neither their names nor the company to which they belonged. At that time, it did not enter my mind that such facts might later seem of importance.


April, 1862

We repaired the entrenchments which the rebels had left, and cleaned up both there and in our camp. Our only task now was to take our turns as guards, a duty which did not occur very frequently. To pass the time away, Jens Andersen, N. K. Landrew, and I took a trip out into the country. We called on many farmers, who had stately houses and seemed to be prosperous, but they were afraid of us. At first they would not even speak to us, but after a while we got their tongues loosened. We found that there were a couple of brothers in the community who lived only two and a half miles from our camp. They were named Prinze and were of German descent. We got some buttermilk to drink and wanted to pay them, but when they saw our money they shook their heads and said "No good." Silver or gold was what they wanted. At the time we had nothing but paper money — 5-, 10-, 25-, and 50-cent bills called "shinplasters." We thanked them for their kindness and went back to our lines. [128]

On April 17th, which happened to be Maundy Thursday, we were ordered to move over onto the Island. This was done because it was rumored that our gunboats had been in an engagement with the Confederates down near Memphis and had been forced to withdraw up the river. We began building fortifications at the lower end of No. 10 and managed to get six large guns in position. However, we were soon informed that our boats had been able to hold the rebels back. Nevertheless, we practiced with the cannon and were prepared to receive the enemy in case they should come. My Company I had three cannon to man and Company G also had three. The other companies continued digging across the lower end of the Island, where several more small guns were put in place. When this work was practically completed, we had nothing to do but take our turns at guard duty every third day. On Sunday forenoon, we had a religious service and, in the afternoon, a dress parade.


June, 1862

At the upper end of the Island, we had a great store of ammunition that we had taken from the enemy. Now we moved it to our new fortifications and were ready to confront the rebels when they came. But thus far our troops had held them at bay.

On June 11th, eight companies from our regiment went up the Mississippi. Their destination was unknown to us; Companies G and I remained behind, for how long we did not know. We really wished to go with the rest of the regiment because this was a very unhealthful place. In addition, when we had remained in the same location for a time, we got tired of it and wished "to get a move on" and engage in some skirmishes with the enemy. We were also "fed up" with the rations we received: hardtack, salt pork, beans, rice, coffee, tea, and sugar. So we began to wonder whether we might have a bit of change — at least some milk for our coffee. [129] So Jens Andersen, N. K. Landrew, and I went out to one of the Prinzes and asked if we could exchange coffee, tea, or salt for milk, butter, and eggs. "No," the farmer said in a gruff voice, "I don’t want to have anything to do with the damned Yankees. It’s best for you to skip the country."

Fortunately, his daughter Annie heard this brusque talk. She came and told us that they had both milk, butter, and eggs for sale, if they could only get good money for it. But we had only paper money of the sort we had when last we were there. Then she asked if we had flour; if so, they might accept flour, salt, or tea. Well, yes, we knew that our quartermaster, Ole Heg, brother of the colonel, had some flour in the storehouse. We figured if we could only get hold of some of that, then there would be a trade. Of course, we could not do anything this time, but we did get three quarts of sweet milk to take along on condition that we would later bring some tea.

Next day it was our turn to fetch rations, and we asked Ole if we could have flour instead of hardtack. Ole would not agree to this, but we could get corn meal. He had lots of that, he said. This was no news to us, as the storehouse was about full of the stuff when we took the place. We told him we had a good baker in our company and that we wished for wheat bread once in a while. Nothing helped, however. We went back to our quarters without provisions, but returned with our rifles and asked what he would prefer, to give us flour or to sit on the points of our bayonets. He chose the former alternative and gave us flour. Then we fixed up an oven, and Herman Andersen, a baker from Christiania, made bread of the very best quality for us. We still lacked butter, and so we took a twenty-five-pound sack of flour, some tea, and a bag of salt out to the Prinze farm and traded for a goodly batch of butter and an eight-quart-pail full of milk.

After this, we went out there twice a week to barter, and we had butter, eggs, and milk at all times. Annie had a sister [130] named Kate. A brother of our Mr. Prinze lived half a mile away; he also had a daughter named Annie and a son who was in the Confederate army. By now we had become well acquainted and were good friends. They often came to our camp with vegetables, and now our money was good enough for them. Furthermore, they could not secure any supplies except from the Northern states.

On the 24th, we moved over to the Tennessee Shore, where a cavalry regiment was stationed. There were rumors afloat that some "bushwhackers" were in the neighborhood. Presumably this was the reason why we were moved. Fifteen men remained on the Island to take care of the cannon. The next day, with the cavalry, we took a swing of some five or six miles into the country, but we found no bushwhackers. We did, however, see many Negroes plowing with mules in the cornfields. There were so many stumps that they could hardly get between them. This had been a wooded area. The trees had now been cut down and burned, leaving the stumps. A Negro girl was standing looking at us. We asked what her name was, and received the answer: "Topsy Massa Williams."


July, 1862

On July 1st, I was doing guard duty. This did not happen as often here as on the Island. There were six posts, at which duty was alternated between the members of Companies C and I and the cavalry. As a result, this assignment did not occur very frequently. During the night of the 3rd, two men from Company A skipped jail, where they had been sitting more than a month for having stolen silverware from a house they had happened onto. Now some of us were to search for them. Arne Thorkelsen and I set off with rifles on our shoulders, taking the road toward the Prinze farms, where we were acquainted. We learned that two soldiers had been there that morning, and we were told the direction they had [131] taken. We went on until we came to a crossroads, where we met some of the cavalrymen and told them which direction we thought the fugitives had taken — that is, toward the north. They set off northward at full gallop, caught the culprits, and brought them back to camp. They were sent to Cairo with the first boat; after that we heard no more of them.

On the Fourth of July, whisky was doled out to all of us. We got about three "shots" apiece, but this whisky was so bad and evil-smelling that I could not down it. So I sold mine for twenty-five cents. That evening many fellows got so drunk and crazy that they had to be thrown into the guardhouse to sleep off their debauch. Next morning they were set free. On the 9th, I was sent back to the Island to take the place of a man who had become ill. Our hospital was on No. 10, and a great number of troops were confined there with sickness. Other members of the regiment had been sent to hospitals in the North. It was stupid of me not to get their names. I had to mount guard the evening I arrived on the Island. The weather was terrible, with rain and thunder, and the heat was so intense that it was impossible to sleep. There were eighteen of us, including three who had been sick and had recovered sufficiently to be on duty.

There was no regular cook, and those of us who remained on the Island agreed that each should take a turn for one week. My stint began on July 16th. I accepted the challenge, and the first thing I did was to clean up the cook shack and put everything in order. Of course, there was not much to cook: beans, rice, pork for frying, smoked ham, and pork for boiling. But there were two cows that used to come around quite often. I started milking them, and thus could prepare rice veiling every noon. {10} The boys thought this "hit the spot." We got bread from Andersen on the other side of the [132] river. In the hospital was a woman who had come down to care for her sick husband. She was kind enough to teach me how to make doughnuts and cookies. Now we were living high, and I continued cooking the whole month. While on this job, I was relieved of guard duty and also of drilling — except on Sundays. When the eight companies left, the chaplain went with them. Hence we had no clergyman and consequently no religious services. {11}


August—September, 1862

I continued as cook for the time being. We received orders on the second of August to dismantle all the cannon at the fort. Our gunboats had sunk some of the Confederate craft and had driven the rest down the river; now the Island was no longer in danger and everything was quiet. We had nothing to do but mount guard, and there was little of this duty, as only one post remained. On the 16th, a company of engineers arrived. They brought all the cannon and ammunition — including a large supply of cartridges — down to the wharf.

Jens Andersen returned on the 19th. He had been home on sick leave but was now well again. A couple of days later, we were on the Tennessee Shore to receive four months’ pay, that is, for March, April, May, and June. On the following day, a couple of boys and I went to the Prinze farm to buy butter and eggs. We were there frequently while we were stationed on the Island. The next week, a steamer arrived, hauled the cannon aboard, and took them down the Mississippi to be used at the siege of Vicksburg. Soon after, Finn Gassman, our lieutenant, went home on sick leave. The same day we were told that a great battle had been fought at Fort Donelson, but nothing was reported about the outcome. We were also informed that some rebel troops were on their way [133] to attack our camping place on the Tennessee Shore. Our cavalry set off to meet them and drive them back.

On the 30th, two gunboats and five steamers went down the river to Memphis for the purpose of exchanging prisoners with the Southerners. The following day our cavalry returned with ten prisoners. One of our soldiers was badly wounded and was sent up river to Cairo, Illinois. Company G took part in this fight, which lasted two hours. They beat the enemy and put them to flight.

We moved over to the Tennessee Shore on September 7th, leaving only the hospital and some Negroes on the Island. From New Madrid came reports that the enemy had taken possession of the town. The cavalry, the artillery, and Company G were ordered to go there, eleven miles north of the Island. They returned on the 11th after a skirmish with the rebels in which they had driven them off. The next day, six steamboats went down the river with prisoners to be exchanged. On the 13th, Company I had a competition in target shooting. Christian Olsen took first prize, Ole Westby second, and B. Nelson third. Not long after, our company received orders to proceed to New Madrid, as it was rumored that bushwhackers had been in the area, plundering and stealing. We had a clash with them, in which they lost two dead and six prisoners. Two of our men were wounded. We remained there for a time, but nothing of importance happened. Our two wounded companions were sent to the hospital on No. 10, where they soon recovered.


October—November, 1862

We returned to our camp on October 4th. Five days later, Jens Andersen and I took a little trip out into the country. When we had hiked two or three miles, it began to rain, and we went into a house. The only occupants were a woman and a fourteen-year-old boy. In reply to our question as to her husband’s whereabouts, she said that he was "in the [134] employ of J. J. Davis," and that when her son became two years older he also would serve the same leader. In a short while, she claimed, the Confederate armies of Jefferson Davis would crush the Yankees and scatter them like dust. We could not agree with her on this point, but it was not easy to say at that time how things would go, because the war was still young.

We went on in the rain and decided to return to the camp. We walked and we walked, but there was no camp to be seen. Then we met a man on horseback and asked where the Island was located. He pointed in the opposite direction and said it was about five miles distant. Naturally, we turned about and took the same road back, past the house where we had visited. Soon we came to a place where the road forked. We could not take both roads, but the one we chose was, of course, the wrong one. After a while, we saw a house by the wayside and went in for further guidance. We were informed that the road we were on led to New Madrid and that the camp was three miles away. These people were Unionists and treated us very kindly. We were even invited to eat with them. After the meal, we wanted to pay for the food, but, no, money they would not accept. They helped us find the right road, and we reached the camp toward evening. When a person first gets lost, it is usually true that he continues to take the wrong directions. We were in a heavily forested area with poor roads and, as it was raining, we did not have the sun to be guided by. After this, nothing in particular happened. The days went by with the ordinary camp routine.

At about four o’clock on the morning of October 17th, we were awakened by rifle fire from our outpost. More shots followed as if a whole army were in action. We were ordered into battle line and were marched toward the scene of action, but when we got there, everything was quiet. We searched the area and found some pistols and rifles. Fortunately for us, the enemy had made a great mistake. Their force had [135] divided into two detachments and were to attack us from opposite directions. But they had not approached close enough to the river. When the two rebel parties met, they mistook each other for the enemy and started blazing away.

Then we took after them, naturally with the cavalry in the lead. In a little house we found two wounded men, one mortally. The other was not seriously hurt; we brought him to our camp and cared for him. After a march of five miles, we made contact with the enemy, and a tough fight ensued. They numbered 500 and we, only 230, but still we took fifteen prisoners, five of them officers. The Southerners gave up and retreated into the woods. This fight took place on a farm with large buildings and considerable cultivated ground. We used the buildings as cover; otherwise we undoubtedly would have lost more men. As it was, we suffered three dead and three wounded. We do not know how many casualties the enemy had. In the afternoon, we returned to camp with our captives, who were sent by steamer to Cairo. That evening a cavalry company joined us as reinforcements. On the 18th, the two cavalry companies went out into the country to learn whether the rebels were still in the neighborhood, but they found no trace of them. Now things were quiet for several days.

We received a report on October 21st that 3,000 Confederate soldiers were only seven miles away and that they were heading for our camp. We were poorly prepared to receive such a force. There were two cavalry companies, totaling 160 men, besides our two Norwegian companies, also numbering 160 men, besides our one small cannon and poor entrenchments. If our encampment fell into the hands of the rebels, they would also take Island No. 10, and then all the transports for General Grant’s troops coming down the Mississippi would be stopped. So this was an important point to hold. We were ordered to transfer to the Island. This did not take long, as we had a large steam ferry which took us across. The next day the enemy arrived; but to their great [136] surprise we were over on Island No. 10, and our little cannon began lobbing bombs at them. They left the place as quickly as they had come.

A couple of days later, all the farmers round about came and complained that the rebels had taken away from them everything they had. They only wished that we would come back to the camp again so the cavalry could keep the marauders away. They even offered Companies C and I horses if we would help the cavalry keep the area clear of the enemy. The people in the neighborhood had become so friendly toward us that they had more confidence in the Union soldiers than in the Southerners. It was decided that we, in combination with the cavalry, should make a sortie into the area. On the 25th we set off and took time to gather horses; by noon we were prepared. First we went toward New Madrid, but, as we did not detect anything there, we continued on to Tiptonville. Some rebels had been there the previous day, and we went off in the direction they had taken. However, we were unable to catch up with them the first day. That night we pitched camp near a large brook. In the morning we continued on our way and by noon we came to a little town. There we found four saddled horses which belonged to the marauders, but the owners were nowhere to be seen. We then made an about-face and started for our camp.

We had not gone far before a mounted man in civilian dress caught up with us and presented himself as a farmer. Our captain, however, and others among us were not satisfied with this explanation. The man was searched. We found some papers in his possession that proved he was courier for General Forrest, who was in command of a part of the Confederate cavalry and had orders to inflict all the damage possible on the Union forces along the Mississippi. {12} We took the courier captive and shipped him up to Columbus, where [137] he was grilled by a court martial and found guilty of treason as the leader of a band of bushwhackers. We never did learn whether he was hung, which he probably deserved to be. Late in the evening we returned to our camp.

Now we received orders from Columbus, Kentucky, where our headquarters was located, to move back to the Tennessee Shore and entrench ourselves. The move was made and the work begun. A great number of Negroes had arrived and were quartered on the Island. Thirty large, husky blacks were sent over to work for us. Our only responsibility was to supervise the operations. More of them came every day — so many, in fact, that we could not make use of them all. By the end of the month, we had barricades around more than a half of the camp.

The construction of barricades proceeded rapidly. On November 12th, an officer of the regular army came to inspect our work, and it evidently met with his approval. In a week the entrenchments were completed, but then we were ordered to move back on the Island, because too many men were required to man our present position. Two companies would be sufficient on No. 10. All our labors on the fortifications were therefore wasted and worthless.

The two cavalry units that had been with us were now transferred to their respective regiments, leaving only the two 15th Wisconsin companies. We had one little cannon which we fired every morning and evening — a shot at 5:00 a.m. to awaken everybody, and a shot in the evening signaling that it was time to go to bed. There were many Negroes and mules on the Island, because this was a secure place for all sorts of people and animals.


December, 1862

There were looters in the neighborhood, and so we were ordered out in search of them. After a march of some five or six miles, we came to a house which six robbers were [138] busy plundering. We bagged all of them and returned to the Island. The prisoners were sent to Columbus. A fisherman came to the camp and began some petty trading. Things went well for a while, but then the quality of his goods began deteriorating. His tobacco, for instance, was rotten and everything else was of the cheapest kind. This stuff he sold at outrageous prices. He had also peddled beer at times, which was illegal. So we gave him the choice of either leaving the Island or being arrested. He chose the first alternative.

General Davis, who was in command of this district, came and inspected our camp on December 8th. He wanted us to move to Camp Pillow, but the captain of Company G, who was in charge of the Island, advised against this move; so no change was made. Nothing of importance happened for some time. We had lots of rain. One night four inches of snow fell, but it disappeared before morning. We went out to the Prinzes for butter, milk, and eggs, and at times we ate at their place — all of which was very pleasant.

On Christmas Day, we were told that a great battle had been fought below Memphis in which we had lost several gunboats. Now, so the report went, the remainder of our flotilla was coming up the river with the rebel boats in pursuit. Consequently there was great danger that the Island would fall into enemy hands. But these reports were not true. The next day we learned that the Confederates had lost three boats and our side only one. So we realized that ours could hold the enemy in check. .

About this time, a member of Company G was killed by an accidental shot. Twenty-five men of our regiment arrived in camp, fleeing from Union City, which had been retaken by the rebels. It will be remembered that we had captured this town nine months earlier and that a small garrison had been left there to protect the railway station. Union City was located twenty-five miles distant from the Island.

Otherwise everything was quiet. From time to time, boats moved up or down the river. Those that went downstream [139] brought provisions and mail to our men; those that went upstream were usually loaded with prisoners taken from the rebels. . . . There were many sick men in camp. The most common illness was ague.


January, 1863

Now a new year set in for us, and our sincere wish was that by next New Year’s we could be at home, safe and sound. On the first day of the new year, we heard that Vicksburg had fallen, but this rumor proved to be erroneous. There had been a battle, to be sure, but neither side had won a victory. A boat came up the river with Union troops captured earlier. These men had been released on their word of honor that they would not bear arms against the Confederacy during the remainder of the war.

On the evening of January 5th, the 28th Wisconsin and the 32nd Missouri regiments stayed here overnight. They were bound for Vicksburg. In the 28th Wisconsin Regiment, there were many Norwegians. They told us that the 15th Wisconsin had taken part in a great battle at Stones River or Murfreesboro, and that half of the regiment had been killed or wounded. {13}

Three boats loaded with troops went down the river a few days later. Shortly after that Lieutenant Christ Olsen and I were out at Prinze’s place and had a good time. A gunboat arrived about the middle of January to keep watch between the Island and New Madrid; bushwhackers had been firing at our boats plying the river.

The weather was very uncertain. For two weeks rain kept falling, but suddenly it turned to snow — twelve inches of it covering the ground. After that we had clear, [140] cold days — very cold, indeed, for this part of the country. On the 25th, another gunboat came and relieved the earlier one which was being sent on to Vicksburg. By now most of the snow had disappeared, as rain had again fallen. By the end of the month, two soldiers, who had been discharged because of illness, left for home. One of them was Olaf Andersen of Company I, but I do not have the name of the other one.


February, 1863

A great number of Confederate soldiers tried to come across the river from the Missouri shore during the night between February 1st and 2nd. But our guard heard something out in the water. He could not see what it was, but he shot and sounded the alarm. We got down to the bank in a hurry and held them off until the gunboat could come to our assistance. We fired a number of shots, and so did our boat. In the dark, however, we could not tell whether we hit anything. The rebels also fired at us, but none of our men was wounded. We heard later that the Union crew had found a little boat in the river with a hole from a cannon ball in it. But none of the enemy was found either living or dead.

The second day of February, I had to go to the hospital because I, too, had been struck by fever and stomach trouble. The next day five companies from the 35th Iowa Regiment came to reinforce us, but our captain quickly sent them back. He told them he had no need of them. We had snow again on February 5th. Jacob Jackson, a member of our company, left for home on sick leave. I remained in the hospital until the 12th, when I was tolerably well again.

On the 13th, we stopped and searched a steamer. We found that it carried considerable goods intended for the Confederate army, and also 560 letters bound for the South. Many of these dispatches were addressed to officers and men in high positions and gave detailed information about [141] conditions in the North and about maneuvers of the various Union armies. Sixteen of us were sent aboard the boat as guards. We took it up to Cairo where everything intended for the South was unloaded and the captain put under arrest.

There was a certain suspicious-looking fellow on this boat. He wanted to leave, claiming that he lived seven miles out in the country and wished to get across the river. Our captain was willing to let him go ashore, but first he wanted to inspect the contents of the man’s knapsack. This the fellow objected to strenuously, but, of course, he had to give in. A great many letters addressed to higher officers were found, destined for Richmond and other places. Furthermore, there was $35,000 in gold, also destined for Richmond and the Confederate government there. The bearer claimed this sum was intended for pupils in certain Catholic schools whose fathers were in the army. Our captain, however, let him know that it was not necessary to smuggle money for such purposes, for it could be sent across the line by regular mail. The man was sent up North. The captain took the papers and the money and accompanied him, together with three soldiers as guards.

On the 22nd, a large gunboat went downstream toward Vicksburg. Nothing except the regular activities of camp life happened during the rest of the month.


March, 1863

On Easter Day, a Methodist minister, who traveled about preaching to the soldiers, held religious services at our camp. I suppose it is a mistake to relate that the following night we were over on the Missouri shore and stole a yearling calf which we butchered and took along to our headquarters. The veal tasted excellent. We had not eaten fresh meat since we left Madison. About this time, we had terribly bad weather, with thunder and rain. Arne Thorkelsen, N. K. Landrew, and I were over in Tennessee at the Prinze farm [142] on March 10th. We brought along wheat flour, coffee, tea and salt, besides some cigars, because these people smoked and chewed lots of tobacco, as the weed is raised in this area. Even the women smoked what they called "ladies’ cigars." We gave some of ours to the old man; he lit up immediately and blew smoke like a factory chimney. We also offered one to Old Ma Prinze, but she said she feared it was too strong. Then she showed us some small cigars. "These are the ones I smoke," she said. "They are milder."

The other Prinze brother and his wife also happened to be there. So we had to give him a cigar, too. He thanked us politely and smoked with gusto. We figured that the girls should also have one apiece; they accepted the offer and lit up. Naturally we had to join in. There we all sat, puffing away until the room was so full of smoke that doors and windows had to be thrown open. The girls thought these cigars were pretty potent, but by taking brief periods of rest from time to time they managed very well. It was too cold to sit outside.

Then we did our trading and were ready to leave, for it was past one o’clock. But, no, we should stay for dinner. Old Ma said that Annie would soon have the biscuits ready, and so the wait would not be very long. The flour we brought came in handy, she said, because they had not had any for a couple of weeks. They had lived on cornmeal all the time. Now the food was ready and we had an excellent meal!

On March 11th, a gunboat again went down the river toward Vicksburg. It had been built in Ohio and was reinforced with railroad rails while the superstructure resembled a flat-roofed house. On the top was a deck where the captain had his quarters. The boat had a crew of a hundred men. The rails were so arranged that they formed a plain wall, which would cause the cannon balls to glance off when they made contact. Both ends of the boat were similarly protected. There were six gun ports along the sides and a large cannon at each end. The balls for the latter weighed 30 [143] pounds; the other cannon took 24-pound balls. The reinforcement of rails extended two feet below the waterline before the boat was loaded. These gunboats were flat-bottomed; they were designed for use on the Mississippi, where there was a great deal of shallow water.

Soon we were ordered to proceed to Tennessee, where marauders were again on the loose. Twelve men from Company G and a similar number from Company I went out into the country some six or seven miles. A man whom we met said that some bushwhackers were eating in a house close by. We stole off as silently as we could, surrounded the house, and without firing a shot captured all eight of them with their horses.

On March 13th, we received pay for four months. We always had a backlog of eight months coming to us. The next day we fished two cannon out of the river, which the rebels had sunk when they left the Island. They were twelve-pounders, i.e., designed to fire balls weighing 12 pounds. We cleaned and polished them until they looked really good. But as we did not have the right kind of balls, we could not use them. Later they were sent to Vicksburg.

Now I was on the sick list again and went to see the doctor every day; but after four days I had recovered sufficiently so I could resume my duties. All was quiet the rest of the month.


April, 1863

In the early part of April, many Negro families came to the Island. In all, they numbered about four hundred. They had lived in the neighborhood of Vicksburg and had fled as our troops conquered that area and told them that they were free and could go wherever they wished. They came northward in droves so as not to be exposed to mistreatment by the Southerners. The Island had been occupied by a farmer before the war. We found several buildings in the locality and [144] about thirty or forty acres of cultivated ground. Besides this there were some hundred acres which could be cleared.

As Uncle Sam had to feed all these black folk, something had to be done. Therefore, a farmer was sent down from the North. He got the Negroes together, everyone from sixteen years to old cripples, and prepared a roster of their names. Some were put to work digging the dirt away from the roots of the large trees and clearing away the underbrush. Others were set to plowing the ground as it was cleared. We had an oversupply of mules, but plows and harrows had to be sent down from the North. Potatoes, corn, and all sorts of vegetables were planted. The foreman needed "bosses" — practically a boss for every black worker. We knew the Negroes from the time we had them working on the fortifications. Many of the soldiers became bosses. As a result, work went better than one might have expected. The crops produced were a benefit to the soldiers and to others. A large tent was also set up to be used as a schoolhouse, and a teacher came down from Chicago to instruct the colored people.

On April 8th, it was a year since our company had come to the Island — 94 men, strong and healthy. Now there were 76 of us — many weak and sick. Three had died on the Island; the others had been sent to the North, either to their homes or to hospitals. Company G lost the same number of men. On this day we were told that Charleston, South Carolina, had been taken, but later we learned that the report was false.

Nothing further of importance happened during the month. On the 21st, we were given four months’ pay: $52 in paper money — worth 65 cents in gold.


May, 1863

After sickness had made a weakling out of me for a long time, the doctor said it would be best to go home for a spell. On May 8th, I went by boat to Cairo, which cost me a [145] dollar. From there I took the train to Chicago, which set me back $6.50. Next I went to Sparta [Wisconsin]. That ticket was $5.40, and then I took the mail coach to Eau Claire, where I arrived on the 14th. This cost me another $5. There was no railway to Eau Claire at that time. I stayed at the Eau Claire Hotel overnight, and then proceeded to see Doctor Galloway. He was the only doctor in town, and I had to report to him. He gave me a flask of medicine which cost me a dollar; it did me no good whatsoever.

My home was eleven miles from town. Fortunately, I met a farmer who had a yoke of oxen, and with him I got a ride to my destination. {14}


<1> Quoted in Theodore C. Blegen, ed., The Civil War Letters of Colonel Hans Christian Heg, 23 (Northfield, Minnesota, 1936).

<2> Bersven Nelson’s "Civil War Notes" (Optegnelser fra borgerkrigen) are found complete in Waldemar Ager, Oberst Heg og hans gutter, 15—61 (Eau Claire, Wisconsin, 1916). The following also deal in whole or in part with the history of the Fifteenth Wisconsin Regiment: J. A. Johnson, Det Skandinaviske regiments historie (La Crosse, Wisconsin, 1869); O. A. Buslett, Det femtende regiment Wisconsin frivillige (Decorah, Iowa, 1895); P. C. Dietrichson, En kortfattet skildring af det femtende Wisconsins regiments historie og virksomhed under borgerkrigen (Chicago, 1884); Theodore C. Blegen, Norwegian Migration to America: The American Transition, 390—400 (Northfield, 1940); Waldemar Ager, "The Fifteenth Wisconsin," in the American-Scandinavian Review, 3:325—33 (November—December, 1915); Agnes M. Larson, John A. Johnson: An Uncommon American, 41— 43, 52—56, 60—61, 280—83 (Northfield, 1969).

<3> Ole Rasmussen Dahl came to Wisconsin from Norway in 1854. He had studied topography and surveying at a military academy in Trondhjem. He gained considerable recognition as a map maker while serving with the Fifteenth Wisconsin Regiment.

<4> This was presumably the noted pioneer pastor Herman Amberg Preus, Who served a congregation at Spring Prairie, Wisconsin, from 1851 to 1894.

<5> The flag was donated by the Scandinavian club Nora. It was made of silk, carried the American and Norwegian coats of arms, and the words "For Gud og vaart land" (For God and Our Country).

<6> Island No. 10 was located at the bottom loop of a hairpin curve in the Mississippi River near the northwestern corner of Tennessee. It covered about 200 acres; several batteries were positioned there, but heavier fortifications were situated on the Tennessee shore opposite the island. In later years, the island has been carried away by erosion.

<7> On the night of April 4, 1862, the gunboat Carondelet under Commander Henry Walke made a spectacular run past the guns of Island No. 10 and joined the forces of General Pope at New Madrid. In the early morning of April 7, the Pittsburgh made a similar run. These two gunboats knocked out the Confederate batteries on the east bank of the Mississippi, enabling Pope to cross the river and intercept the fleeing enemy soldiers from the Island. For brief accounts of these events, see John Fiske, The Mississippi Valley in the Civil War, 101—108 (New York, 1900) and Kenneth P. Williams, Lincoln Finds a General: A Military Study of the Civil War, 3:396-400 (New York, 1922). There is no verification of the exploits of Lucius Fairchild referred to in the text.

<8> A more realistic figure seems to be 7,000.

<9> Dr. S. J. Hansen from Koshkonong, Wisconsin, was the first physician to serve the Fifteenth Wisconsin Regiment. In January, 1862, Dr. Stephen O. Himoe (Høimo) became the chief doctor and Hansen served as his assistant.

<10> Velling is a Norwegian dish similar to gruel, made of milk and flour or pulled grain.

<11> The chaplain at the time was the pioneer pastor Claus Lauritz Clausen.

<12> General Nathan B. Forrest was one of the most daring and dashing cavalry officers in the Confederate forces.

<13> This number was greatly exaggerated. Ager says that about 500 men from the Fifteenth Wisconsin took part in the battle of Murfreesboro. Buslett reveals that the regiment suffered the following losses: 15 killed, 70 wounded, 34 missing. The total Union force of 56,649 engaged in the battle had the following casualties: 1,730 killed, 7,802 wounded, 3,717 missing.

<14> Ben Nelson was sent home on sick leave during the period from May to August, 1863. On September 16 of that year, Companies G and I were ordered to leave Island No. 10 and to rejoin the rest of the regiment. The reunion fell on September 21, immediately after the bloody battle of Chickamauga, where Colonel Heg (now a brigadier general) was mortally wounded and his regiment decimated. Ben Nelson and a large number of his comrades from the Fifteenth Wisconsin were mustered out in February, 1865.

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