Saturday, July 23, 2011
From Norway to Vicksburg and the Long Road Home
Then war broke out; Severt heard the call to arms, and at the age of twenty, he joined the 23rd Iowa Volunteers, Company A. He loved his new country and believed in the Union. The danger was great, the odds of survival were poor, but it seemed the right thing to do. And so his odyssey began in September, 1862.
The company trekked to the Mississippi River, boarding a steamboat to St. Louis, where they spent some time carrying wounded soldiers taken off boats to hospitals. Severt comments in a letter: “It was a gruesome sight to see those poor fellows.” Their orders were to stay in the vicinity until the ten regiments there were joined by thirty or forty more, the troops massing for the eventual assault on certain Mississippi strongholds, including Vicksburg. He describes several skirmishes around Camp Patterson during the winter months; it would be a slow and perilous march with the troops at last boarding another steamboat for New Madrid.
All spring they marched and fought their way toward their target, Vicksburg. “I am still well,” Severt writes, “for which I thank God,” a prayer he expresses several times in his letters. Many around him, including all the Norwegians from his company, had taken ill, some dying. On the way, they engaged the enemy in a hard fought battle, taking 5000 prisoners and escorting them to Memphis before returning to Mississippi.
By now, it was early July, 1863, and the Battle of Vicksburg had begun. Grant’s army had surrounded the city, bombed the redoubts with cannon, assisted by gunboats, and even charged forward with bayonets. Now the plans, Severt writes, were to starve out the Rebels, “because it is almost impossible to conquer them in battle.” The night of July 3, Severt was part of a tunneling group that was spotted by the enemy, who had themselves tunneled in the hope of blowing up the Union soldiers. Their efforts to bomb them failed, and both tunnels were abandoned. The next day, July 4, Vicksburg surrendered, with 27,000 being taken prisoner.
Then for the next year or more, Severt writes of their movements along the Gulf coast, from Mobile to Matagorda Island in Texas, where they picked up a Norwegian prisoner, whose wife’s brother-in-law was a neighbor of Severt’s in Iowa. “Brothers fighting brothers,” he laments. Finally he was mustered out in September, 1865, after spending three full years fighting. Of the 58 men in A Company who had left together in 1862, only five returned. For his war efforts, he got no medal, but instead won his citizenship, a prize infinitely more valuable to him.
He resumed the life of a farmer, having sent his pay home regularly to his father with instructions to buy cattle and horses in preparation for his eventual return. Ultimately, he acquired more land, amounting to 1000 acres, as well as a wife, the strong and handsome Ingaborg Lie. They reared six children, including my grandmother, who found herself through her mother’s line to be the second cousin of Chief Justice Earl Warren, another Norwegian. She herself married--who else--a Norwegian farmer, Cyrus Sydnes.
Severt never forgot Norway, the land of his birth, treasuring his memories like a small jewel in an old fashioned setting, brought out occasionally to admire. His new country, however, had captured his allegiance, and as a small businessman, he preferred the Republican Party. In 1913, along with the other early emigrants still living, Severt was honored by the Governor as one of the Original Pioneers of Iowa. He died in 1920, respected and successful.
His story is not unique, not even out of the ordinary, but it should not be forgotten. It is stories like Severt Tesdel’s that make up the fiber of our nation, so diverse, yet one. Courage, devotion to family and God, resilience, and industriousness define his character. I am proud to claim him as my great-grandfather.