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Q-C area Swedes played role in Civil War
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Q-C area Swedes played role in Civil War

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Though overshadowed by larger ethnic groups such as the Germans and Irish, the Swedish in Illinois displayed equal dedication to the Union in the Civil War. Many of these Swedish soldiers hailed from the Quad-Cities area.

Large-scale immigration of Swedes did not take place until after the war. Of the 325,000 Illinoisans of foreign birth in 1860, only 6,470 were Swedish. Still, they contributed 1,332 men to Union service, more than a fifth of their number and a higher ratio than the population at large.

"They had a great devotion to their new country, and adopted many of its ways," said Martha Downey, superintendent of the Bishop Hill State Historic Site. (The community of Bishop Hill was founded by Swedish immigrants.) "Here, they could worship as they chose and enjoy freedoms they didn't have back home in Sweden."

Dr. Dag Blanck, director of the Swenson Swedish Immigration Research Center at Augustana College in Rock Island, also cites the political leanings of Swedish in Illinois. "An overwhelming majority of Swedish immigrants supported the Republican Party and President Lincoln," said Blanck. "The issue of slavery played a significant role, but the view of Lincoln as a self-made man from humble origins also made them strong supporters of the Union."

Swedish immigrants comprised nearly three entire companies, all of which later fought at Shiloh in April 1862. One was the Swedish Union Guard of Bishop Hill, which became Company D of the 57th Illinois Infantry. The Bishop Hill company included Eric Johnson, the son of Bishop Hill Colony founder Erik Jansson, and blacksmith Olof Krans, who later became a renowned folk artist. In 1896, Krans began a series of paintings from memory of his youth in Bishop Hill.

Another was Eric Berglun, an 18-year-old printer who rose to first lieutenant. He enrolled at West Point in 1865, and four years later, graduated first in his class, becoming the Academy's first Swedish graduate.

In Knox County, a company of Swedes became the Galesburg Light Guards and mustered as Company C of the 43rd Illinois, a regiment composed primarily of Germans. Of the original 103 recruits in the company, 29 died of wounds or disease, and another 30 were discharged for disability.

A third Swedish company was recruited from the Chicago and Quad-Cities areas and became Battery H of the First Illinois Light Artillery. Commanded by Capt. Axel Silfversparre, the company was trained in the Swedish artillery tactics that Silfversparre had learned in service back home. The captain, however, was acquitted in two court-martials and resigned in 1863.

He transferred to another unit but was captured and spent 10 months at the infamous Libby Prison in Richmond. However, he managed to bribe a guard and escape, making his way to Wilmington, N.C., disguised as a Confederate officer. For the rest of the war, he remained in disguise, presumably to save himself, and served as an engineer on a Confederate blockade runner. He later became a successful civil engineer and reportedly drew up the plans for the new city of Denver.

Equally controversial was Oscar Malmborg, of Chicago, who mustered as lieutenant colonel of the 55th Illinois. Though apparently befriended by the likes of Ulysses S. Grant and Sherman, Malmborg was despised by his men for his autocratic personality.

Finally, the men revolted, and Malmborg was replaced, though he was portrayed with considerable bias in turn-of-the-century volumes on Swedish history in Illinois. One 1908 account angrily took exception to his nickname of "the damned old Swede."

The highest-ranking Swedish immigrant from Illinois was Charles J. Stolbrand, who came to this country in 1850 and entered service as captain of Battery G of the Second Illinois Light Artillery, a unit with nearly three dozen Swedish members. Stolbrand later became chief of artillery of the XV Corps and eventually was promoted to brigadier general.

Stolbrand, Silfversparre and Malmborg all were veterans of the Swedish military, with varying degrees of success.

"There are several examples of Swedes with a military background who came to the U.S. during both the Revolutionary and Civil wars," said Blanck. "Sweden was at peace, and America provided an opportunity to gain military experience."

Some Illinois Swedish served in other states, as a handful enlisted in such units as the 15th Wisconsin Infantry. The exploits of the Swedish soldiers were well-covered in Swedish-interest newspapers such as the Hemlandet, established in Galesburg in 1855.

Downey also notes the activism of Swedish in veterans' organizations after the war. In 1899, a monument was dedicated at Bishop Hill to honor the contributions of their men.

"They were very proud of their service," she said. "They were active in the Grand Army of the Republic, and we have some of their memorabilia here at Bishop Hill. They were proud of America, and how they served it."

Tom Emery is a freelance writer and researcher who lives in Carlinville, Ill. He may be reached at 217-710-8392 or ilcivilwar@yahoo.com.

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