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When the Civil War began, there was no shortage of volunteers in both the Union and Confederate armies. Among the many advantages that the Union army had over its counterpart was a continuous supply of potential new recruits coming across the Atlantic. Irish and German immigrants comprised the highest numbers of immigrant Union soldiers, but they were underrepresented per their share of the population. <ref> McPherson, James M. <i>Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era.</i> (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 606</ref> As influential citizens in the newly formed Scandinavian communities of America watched Irish and German immigrants march off to war, many believed that it was their duty as new Americans to rally their own communities to the Union cause.
The call to arms was made throughout the country in the Norwegian and Swedish language newspapers with many young men answering. The first all-Scandinavian company in the Union army (companies were
100 men units) was the Scandinavian Company of the First New York Volunteers regiment, which was mustered on April 25, 1861. Soon to follow was Company D of the Minnesota 3rd regiment and the Danish Guards of the Wisconsin 3rd regiment. <ref> Lonn, Ella. <i>Foreigners in the Union Army and Navy.</i> (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1951), pgs. 131-2</ref> It is difficult to put a definitive number on the number of Scandinavians who served in the Union army because ethnic identification can be fluid. Many first generation Scandinavians no longer saw themselves as Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish and many Anglicized their more obvious sounding Scandinavian names when they came to the United States. Still, there are reasonable estimates of the numbers that have been published in academic studies. Swedish volunteers from the states of Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota numbered over 2,100 <ref> Hokanson, p. 111</ref> while the amount of Norwegian volunteers was a bit higher with about 400 from Iowa, 800 coming from Minnesota, and over 800 entering the Union army from Wisconsin. <ref> Blegen, p. 389</ref> It was the large amount of Norwegian recruits from Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin that led to the formation of the only all-Scandinavian regiment in the Civil War – the 15th Wisconsin Volunteers.
The concept of an all-Scandinavian regiment was the idea of Norwegian immigrant and Republican Party activist, Hans Christian Heg (1829-1863). Heg drew on the enthusiasm of Scandinavian, in what is now the upper Midwest, for the Republican Party and the Union cause to create a regiment (1,000) men of nearly all Norwegians. When the regiment was mustered for service on March 2, 1863, it was a bit short of true regiment strength with just 900. Once it went into action, the 15th Wisconsin played a key role in many later battles in the western theater of operations including Murfreesboro and Chickamauga, where Heg lost his life and more than ten percent of the regiment was either killed, wounded, or missing. <ref> Krebsbach, Jared. “Colonel Heg and the 15th Wisconsin.” <i>Scandinavian Review.</i> 100 (2013) p. 23</ref> There is no doubt that the men of the 15th Wisconsin were brave, but what inspired that bravery is as important as any battle they fought.