Scandinavian-Americans in the Civil War

        Americans of Scandinavian descent during the Civil War period were largely to be found in the Northern sections of the continent, and consequently the majority of them served in the Union army. Fiercely antislavery, the freedom-loving Swedes, Norwegians, and Danes could not bring themselves to support the Confederate cause in any great number, no matter how admirable some of the infant nation's aims and goals might be.
        Extensive genealogical research can uncover only about 1,000 Scandinavian-Americans living in states that joined the Confederacy; among the Southern forces only 19 soldiers can be found who claimed Scandinavian descent. Therefore, the majority of Scandinavians were Federal sympathizers. It has been rightly said that the Scandinavians who enlisted in Union regiments went forth "in the firm belief that they were helping to make the United States what it was supposed to be-a free land where all men, white or black, were equal."
        Among the few Confederate Scandinavians, we do find one young hero: Augustus Forsberg, who served first as a lieutenant in the 51st Virginia Infantry Regiment, then was promoted successively to colonel. He commanded a brigade that included four Virginia regiments, though he apparently never officially received the rank of general. Reports of him cite his gallantry, efficient service, bravery, and "soldierly bearing."
        There were a great many more Scandinavians to be counted among the soldiers of the Union, from a far larger population. Census figures for the decade between 1850 and 1860 show a jump of nearly 55,000 Americans claiming to have been born in Scandinavia. Among them are some of the most resounding names of the history of the Federal forces-and one obligatory rogue.
        It would be unusual for Scandinavians not to be attracted to the sea, given their Viking ancestry, and one of Scandinavia's most famous immigrant sons surely must be John Ericsson, a Swede, inventor of the propeller, so critical to naval maneuvering-and designer of the Union ironclad ship the Monitor. Two members of the ironclad's crew were also Swedish: M. P. Sunstrum, assistant engineer, and seaman Hans Anderson. Ericsson fought ridicule and design prejudice to convince the Lincoln administration of the fact that an iron ship could not only stay afloat but maneuver tactically and withstand solid shot in battle.
        Admiral John Adolph Dahlgren of the U.S, Navy was also the son of Swedish immigrants, and went on to great fame as the inventor of the so-called "Dahlgren Gun," an Artillery piece, Commanding the Washington Navy Yard at the beginning of the war, Dahlgren was given charge of the blockade that kept Southern ports from receiving or shipping forth any goods, supplies, foodstuffs, or luxuries for the Confederacy. He assisted in the taking of Savannah, Georgia, in 1864, and was instrumental in the siege of Charleston, South Carolina, in 1865, where his flagship was torpedoed and sank. Dahlgren escaped, however, to live another five years in relative peace.
        Many other Scandinavians served creditably in the Union forces: Oscar Malmborg, a hero of the Mexican War, who was so bad-tempered in spite of his heroics in the Civil War that he was relieved of duty-only to have the general in command, John Logan, criticize Malmborg's replacement as not being nearly as gallant and effective as the man he replaced; General Charles Stolbrand, personally commissioned a general of artillery by Lincoln, and who fought bravely at Vicksburg and Savannah; and Ernst von Vegesack, who served for two years in the Union army, rose to the rank of brigadier general, and was cited frequently by his superiors in their reports for his "admirable example ... calm courage ... and meritorious conduct."
Source: The Civil War Society's "Encyclopedia of the Civil War."

This Page last updated 02/16/02

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