Portraits

Nels Olavus Thorson

Nels Olavus Thorson ca. 1861

Nels Olavus Thorson was born at Eiesland Gaard, Eiken, Haeggebostad, Vest-Agder, Norway on 8 January 1842.  He was the second child born to Thor Oddson Eiesland and his first wife, Asgerd Gassesdatter Veggeland.  Asgerd died when Nels was just 5 years old, leaving him and his older sister Karen in their father’s care.  Thor later married Torbjorg Eielsdatter in 1850 and they would have 8 more children.

Nels emigrated to the US when he was 19 years old.  According to church records, he would have left Fjotland on 9 April 1861.  The family story is that he came with his friend Didrick Njatvan to Winnebago County, WI where they had no family or friends.  With the ships of that time, it is likely that Nels would have arrived at a port on the east coast of the US or Canada about 3 weeks after his departure from Norway.  He would then have had to travel by boat or by train along the Great Lakes for another several days to a week, eventually reaching Wisconsin.

No one knows why Nels came to America.  Perhaps it was the idea of rising above the strict class system in place in Norway, or just the idea of owning his own land and making a living for himself.  For a 19 year old man and his friend, the simple idea of adventure may have been reason enough.

The American Civil War began as Nels was on his way to the US.  The Union Army was offering a $100 bounty, $13 a month, free clothing and food to any man willing to enlist.  In 1861 land was being sold for about $1.25 an acre, so enlisting probably sounded like a good prospect to many of the new immigrants who were trying to start their lives in America, including Nels.

In Wisconsin, there was a desire to have an all Norwegian regiment due to the amount of new immigrants who did not speak much English.  There was a large amount of interest from this group in joining the army due to the incentives offered by the government.  In December 1861, the 15th Wisconsin Regiment was formed at Camp Randall in Madison and mustered into service on 14 February 1862. The man chosen to lead the regiment was Colonel Hans C. Heg, a Norwegian who came to the settlement of Muskego in Racine County as a young boy in 1840 with his parents.

Nels was enlisted under the name Nels Olans into Company B of the 15th Wisconsin Regiment on 6 January 1862 for a 3 year term of service.  (It was not unusual for the men to use alternate names when enlisting.  As you might imagine, there were several “Nels”, “Oles”, etc. and the aliases were sometimes necessary in order that the men could be told apart.)  Nels was mustered into service with the rank of Private on 18 January 1862 and at that time he was listed as 20 years old, not married, and a resident of Winchester, Winnebago County, Wisconsin.

Thorson, Nils Olavus aka Olans, Nils

After about 6 weeks at Camp Randall learning to be a soldier, Nels left there on 1 March 1862 in a snowstorm with his company and regiment to join the war.   He was listed as “present” with the 15th until September 1863.  As such, he would have participated in several significant events including; the battle at Island No. 10 on the Mississippi River in Tennessee, the raid on Union City, Tennessee, the 400 mile retreat with U.S. Major General Don Carlos Buell up to Louisville, Kentucky, the Battle of Chaplin Hills, the battle at Knob Gap, Tennessee, where the 15th captured a brass cannon, the Battle of Stone River, Tennessee (also called the Battle of Murfreesboro) where the 15th was cited for bravery, U.S. Major General Rosecrans’ Tullahoma campaign, and General Rosecrans’ Chickamauga campaign which would be the last battle that Nels would participate in.

Nels was present at the early morning crossing of the Tennessee River on 28 August, which the 15th led.  He was also present at the 19-20 September, 1863 fighting at Chickamauga, Georgia – the second bloodiest battle of the Civil War.  There he survived the vicious fighting around Viniard’s Farm on the first day, but was taken prisoner around noon on the 20th near Brotherton Field during Longstreet’s Breakthrough.  That was the last time he was with the 15th during the war. 

About 63% of the 15th’s soldiers who were at Chickamauga were killed, wounded, or taken prisoner.  Colonel Heg was one of those killed at Chickamauga.  Before he died, he said that “he was glad the 15th had held their places like men and had done their duty to the last”. His own life, he said, was given for a just cause.

Colonel Heg’s body was returned to Muskego, Wisconsin where he was buried.  He was the highest ranking officer from Wisconsin killed during the war. Today, at Chickamauga battlefield a pyramid of cannon balls stands to mark the spot where Hans Christian Heg fell at Viniard’s farm along with a monument to the 15th Wisconsin Regiment.  In Madison, on the grounds of the State Capitol, stands a statue of Col. Heg.  Replicas of this statue stand at Lier, Norway and at the old Muskego community of Racine.

After the battle at Chickamauga, Nels was marched under guard to Tunnel Hill, Georgia, along with other captured 15th soldiers.  Then he was transported by railroad train to Atlanta, Georgia, and further on to Richmond, Virginia, where he was confined beginning 29 September 1863. The Confederates held Nels as a prisoner of war for 359 days before paroling him to Federal authorities on 12 September 1864.  He was then reported as being “sick” in a U.S. Army hospital at Annapolis, Maryland, and then later in a hospital at Louisville, Kentucky.

Although it is not specifically stated in his papers from the war, I found the name Nels Olans on the list of prisoners held at Andersonville, Georgia – the most notorious prison camp in the south.  When Nels was taken prisoner, he weighed 180 pounds.  At the time of his parole, he weighed just 106 pounds. 

Nels was mustered out of service on 18 January 1865 at Madison, Wisconsin 6 weeks after the expiration of his 3 year term of service and the muster out of Company B on 1 December 1864, at Chattanooga Tennessee.

After the war, Nels returned to Winchester and would marry a young widow named Birgit Knudsdatter – known better to most of us as Betsey Johnson- on 11 November 1867.  Betsey had a daughter, Evalina, from her first marriage.  Over the years, Nels and Betsey would continue to live on their farm in Greenville, Outagamie County and would raise 10 more children together.

In 1917, just a year before his death, Nels would write a letter to the Adjutant General’s office describing an event that took place during the war in which he saved the life of an officer.  Nels felt that his actions placed his own life in jeopardy and that he therefore was deserving of the Medal of Honor.  The reply from that office was simply that they could not find his name in the roster of the soldiers of the 15th and that his request could not be further investigated for that reason.

I found that reply interesting in that they seemed to be able to find his name in order that he received not only his regular pension, but also the pension due him for his time served as a prisoner of war.  His name is also clearly listed in the index of civil war soldiers compiled by the state in 1885, 1895, and 1905.

Nels died on 29 September 1918 at his home.  His funeral was held on 1 October 1918 in Winchester.  It was written that his funeral was one of the largest ever held at Grace Lutheran Church.  According to the diary of Adolph Erickson, the pallbearers were his five sons Tobias, Gilbert, Alvin, Julius, Charlie and his nephew Theo Larson.  Six surviving members of his Regiment also accompanied the casket.  At the time of his death, he left behind Betsey and 10 of their children, 51 grandchildren, and 7 great grandchildren.

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