On Writing

"Every fine story must leave in the mind of the sensitive reader an intangible residuum of pleasure, a cadence, a quality of voice that is exclusively the writer's own, individual, unique."
Willa Cather

Saturday, July 23, 2011

From Norway to Vicksburg and the Long Road Home

    He was thirteen when he traveled with his family from Etne, Norway, to the verdant prairie land of central Iowa.  The year was 1855, and Severt Tesdel felt an immediate kinship with this seamless vista, so different from the picturesque hills where his father had scratched out a living.  That little farm remained as his sole knowledge of Norway, never even visiting Oslo, the capital.  The Iowa prairie must have seemed like the whole world with all its possibilities stretching out before him.  But soon after their arrival, his mother died, and the five children had to take on many responsibilities.  Severt helped work the land with his father, a task he welcomed.  Soon, though, he hired out as a farm hand to a neighbor. The family liked the intelligent, hardworking young man, who picked up their English handily, and they taught him to read and write in this new language.  Each Sunday, Severt traveled by horse to the Norwegian Lutheran church and afterward spent the day with his own family.  His devotion to the church became a lifelong practice.  Within five years, the boy had become a man with his own land, purchased with his earnings.
    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.

1 comment:

  1. A fascinating story, Jeanne. And well written. It's interesting that Severt still loved Norway, but learned English, fought for his new country (earning his citizenship the hard way), and made a success in his life. My great great grandpa Hiram also fought in the civil war...although on the side of the South. So many young men did not come home from that great conflict--victims of the carnage or rampant disease. If Severt and Hiram hadn't made it home, I don't suppose we'd be here. Severt lived until 1920 which meant he left more of a memory in the minds of your grandfather and father. My great great Hiram died in 1888, while his wife was pregnant with my grand father. So my grandpa never knew him and only heard stories.