Why Did Scandinavians Volunteer for the Union Army during the Civil War

The Battle of Chickamauga

One of the more important legacies of the Civil War was the many innovations that it introduced to the United States. For instance, the Civil War was one of the first wars in world history where rifles were used extensively. The telegraph was used to relay messages between commanders and railroads were used to transport troops to and from the front. Truly, the Civil War was one of innovation, but not all innovations employed during the war were technical.

The formations of regiments during the Civil War, by both the Union and Confederate armies, followed a template that was used during the Revolutionary War whereby regiments were created in each state. Soldiers from Tennessee would generally fight in a Tennessee regiment, soldiers from New York in New York regiments, etc. But the United States had already changed significantly, regarding demographics, by the time the Civil War began in 1861. A large number of European immigrants who came to the United States in the decades during the Antebellum Period made creating army regiments a bit more complicated.

Instead of just organizing soldiers according to their home states, the Union army, and to a lesser extent the Confederate army, also organized their fighting men according to their ethnicities and national origin. Most of the Union’s ethnic regiments were Irish and German, but Scandinavian immigrants volunteered in great enough numbers that they were able to form several companies and even one complete regiment – the 15th Wisconsin Volunteer Regiment. The reasons why Scandinavian immigrants volunteered to fight in the Union army were as diverse as the army itself, but the primary reasons were ones that can be seen in previous and later periods of American history. Scandinavians believed in the Republic, were ardent supporters of President Abraham Lincoln, and wanted to prove to their generational American neighbors that they too belonged in the United States. Along with the ideological reasons, many Scandinavians also joined for personal advancement and glory.

Scandinavian Immigration to the United States

1925 American Stamp Celebrating 100 Years of Norwegian-American Culture

Although there were a small number of Swedes living in America at the time of the Revolution, Scandinavian immigration to the United States did not happen in any substantial numbers until the 1830s, which was accompanied by large numbers of immigrants from the German-speaking kingdoms as well as Ireland. Historians generally see the 1825 voyage of the sloop Restauration from Stavanger, Norway to the United States as the beginning of the great wave of Scandinavian immigration, even though the ship only carried about fifty immigrants. [1] Once the immigrants from the Restauration safely made it to the United States and wrote back home to tell their families about all the fertile farmland in America, ships began leaving the major ports of Scandinavia regularly filled with emigrants.

The land was perhaps the greatest pulling factor that brought Scandinavians to the United States during the Antebellum Period. Because of the often rugged terrain and inheritance laws that prevented many young men from finding even the smallest plots from which to start a farm, the land was at a premium in Scandinavia. American railroad companies were aware of the situation in Scandinavia and saw the problem there as a potential solution to one of their problems.

As the United States moved west, so too did the railroads, but the railroads wanted people to populate the areas around the land they had bought in the newly organized states and territories of Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota. They saw Scandinavians, who were known for being industrious, as a suitable population to buy their land and create towns along the railroads. The railroad companies sent representatives to Norway and Sweden with offers of cheap land to entice young men and families to immigrate to what was then known as the northwestern region of the United States.

As the area began to fill up with immigrants from Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, another pulling factor connected to the land brought even more people from Scandinavia in the early stages of the Civil War. The Homestead Act of 1862 gave resident aliens 160 acres of farmland, primarily in the northwestern region, if they lived on and developed the land. [2]

Along with the factors that pulled Scandinavians to the United States, there were several that pushed them away from Scandinavia. In the late 1840s, Norway was hit by an economic depression that left many of its people unemployed and hungry. Many Norwegians saw the United States as their best chance to start over as by that time letters from the vesterheim, or “western home” as many called America, told of the nation’s abundance of land, jobs, and food.

As the depression continued, more and more Norwegians decided to immigrant to the United States with the peak being in 1849-50 when more than 8,000 Norwegians left their native land. [3] When the depression finally receded in the 1850s, so too did emigration from Norway for a few years. The numbers remained study until massive crop failures hit Norway in 1860, which led to another spike in emigration that peaked at about 8,900 in 1861. [4]

Another factor that pushed many Scandinavians to leave their homelands was political repression and the constant threat of war. Although Sweden adopted an American influenced constitution in the early 1800s, many political problems led to emigration. In the decades before the Civil War, Norway was part of the Kingdom of Sweden, which although the two countries are quite similar culturally, was a blow to the civic ego of countless Norwegians. Not seeing any solution to the political situation, many Norwegian patriots decided that instead of fighting they would try their luck in a new land. Many Swedes had also had enough of their government by the middle of the nineteenth century. During the nineteenth century, Sweden was still a superpower and often embroiled in wars that many of the commoners believed benefited them little, which was enough of a reason for many of them to immigrate to the United States. [5]

Scandinavians Answer the Union Call to War

Statue of Colonel Hans Christian Heg in Front of the State Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin

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 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. [6] 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 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 1000 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. [7] 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 [8] while the number 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. [9] It was a large number 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 Scandinavians, in what is now the upper Midwest, for the Republican Party and the Union cause to create a regiment of nearly all Norwegian men. 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. [10] 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.

Reasons for Scandinavian Enlistment

Colonel Hans Christian Heg (1829-1863)

Scandinavians, like most people, had many reasons to join the Union army, foremost was their support for President Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party. When the war began, most immigrant groups in the United States supported the Democrat Party. The nascent Republican Party formed as a coalition of former Whig Party, Free Soil Party, and American Party members. The influence of the former American Party, which was an unapologetically anti-immigrant party, on the Republicans turned off many new immigrants, but not Scandinavians, who mostly lived in rural areas far from the ethnic strife in larger cities.

Scandinavians supported the anti-slavery platform of the Republican Party because they saw it as a cultural and economic threat to their existence as small farmers, but also on moral grounds as evidenced by the anti-slavery resolutions that were adopted by most of the Lutheran synods of the time. [11] Scandinavian support for Lincoln and the Republicans was visible in the 1860 and 1864 presidential elections when their votes helped Lincoln carry the upper Midwest by a large margin. [12] The Lutheran churches played a significant role in influencing Scandinavian support for the Union, but the Scandinavian language newspapers played an even more substantial part.

The Chicago based Swedish language weekly paper, Hemlandet, and the Norwegian language weekly paper, Emigranten, out of Madison, Wisconsin were both vocal proponents of Lincoln, the Republican Party, and the Union war effort. Although written in their native languages, both papers stressed the importance of supporting their new country and that each person should do his or her part to defend their new homeland. The papers exercised immense influence throughout the Scandinavian communities with their ideas often being echoed in the words of the men who volunteered to fight. Once such Scandinavian volunteer named Hans Mattson articulated this idea very clearly in his memoirs:

“I entered the service because I considered it to be my duty to do my little part in defending the country which had adopted me as a citizen, and not, as many have supposed, on account of ambition for the sake of gain.” [13]

Although most Scandinavians in the Union army probably held similar views to Mattson’s concerning their reasons for volunteering, the fact that he felt the need to point out that he did not join “for the sake of gain” suggests that a number of his kin did join for more personal reasons. Not long after the war started, American embassies and consulates in Scandinavia acted as recruiters for the Union army. The embassies offered young Scandinavian men a free trip to America, a chance for excitement and glory, and a fast track to citizenship. Anecdotal evidence shows that the strategy was at least partially successful. The American consul in Stockholm reported on November 12, 1862, that he could get as many as 1,000 volunteers in a month and had already received over 2,000 applications by that date. [14]

Similar to the young men who signed up in Scandinavia to the Union army to get passage to and citizenship in America, were the soldiers of fortune. Although long past their days as Viking warriors, Scandinavians in the nineteenth century, especially Swedes, were still known for their martial abilities. Many Swedes distinguished themselves in European wars and saw more opportunities when the Civil War started. Some of these Swedish soldiers of fortune who fought for the Union included Jakob Cederström, who first distinguished himself in the First Schleswig War in 1848-49 for Denmark before coming to the United States to fight for the Union at the Battle of Antietam.

Other Swedish mercenaries were even more colorful. Palle Rosencratz was a career soldier who served in both the Swedish and Danish armies before he joined the French Foreign Legion. After his stint with the Legion, he accepted a commission as a major in the 4th New York Cavalry, which he helped lead from 1861 until 1863. Finally, there was Elof Hultman, a Swede who first fought in the Union army before heading down to Mexico to fight alongside first the French and then the Mexicans. Once the hostilities in Mexico ceased, Hultman returned Sweden a richer man and no doubt with plenty of stories to tell. [15]


One of the most interesting and important legacies of the American Civil War was a large number of immigrants who volunteered to fight for their new country, many of whom were young men from Scandinavia. The reasons why Scandinavians joined the Union cause were many and complex. The pro-Republican influence of the Scandinavian language press and the Lutheran churches played a role along with genuine patriotic feelings that were prevalent in the Scandinavian communities. Although most Scandinavian volunteers did so out of belief in the Union cause, there were still many who joined to obtain U.S. citizenship or even to advance their military careers. Truly, in many ways, the Civil War was an opportunity for Scandinavians to prove that they belonged in the American landscape.


  1. Semmingsen, Ingrid. Norway to America: A History of the Migration. Translated by Einar Haugen. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1978), p. 10
  2. Blegen, Theodore C. Norwegian Migration to America: The American Transition. (Northfield, Minnesota: The Norwegian-American Historical Association, 1940), p. 388
  3. Semmingsen, p. 32
  4. Blegen, p. 387
  5. Hokanson, Nels. Swedish Immigrants in Lincoln’s Time. (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1942), p. 14
  6. McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 606
  7. Lonn, Ella. Foreigners in the Union Army and Navy. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1951), pgs. 131-2
  8. Hokanson, p. 111
  9. Blegen, p. 389
  10. Krebsbach, Jared. “Colonel Heg and the 15th Wisconsin.” Scandinavian Review. 100 (2013) p. 23
  11. Blegen, p. 419
  12. Hokanson, pgs. 60-64
  13. Mattson, Hans. Reminiscences: The Story of an Immigrant. (Saint Paul: D.D. Merrill, 1892), p. 60
  14. Hokanson, p. 59
  15. Hokanson, pgs. 91-94

Updated January 4, 2018.

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