Book Review: Suicide by Army Life

The following book review was written by Bobbi King:

Suicide by Army Life
by Ozzie Sollien. Self-published. 2017.

In 1861, Olaus Hansen immigrated to Iowa, like thousands of his European contemporaries, seeking a better life. He was born in rural Norway, idyllic in imagination and appearance, but tough in climate and opportunity. Brothers Ole and Hans Hansen emigrated also, but their lives had far different outcomes than the life of their middle brother Olaus.

Mr. Sollien spent decades researching the life and times of Olaus Hansen. It’s not a story of a successful man, but rather, it’s a study of a man’s life spent enduring battles of the Civil War, and serving through the West’s dusty summers and brutal winters riding with Gen. George A. Armstrong’s 7th Cavalry unit as they pursued and fought the Sioux Wars.

There is a lot of detail in this book, which is both engrossing and distracting. The densely-fact-laden paragraphs are slow reading, but the particulars of what emerges is interesting to the reader who cares about certain Civil War battles, the ones Olaus fought in, and out West U.S. Army 7th Cavalry Army life, including aspects of the the Battle of Little Bighorn. Accompanying the text are lots of photos and images that add to the story. It’s an interesting book, even more so to a Norwegian researcher, and I did find it noteworthy for its telling of Army life and descriptive Norwegian back story.

Mr. Sollien presents some interesting theories about the contribution of the consumption of hardtack, that infamous staple of mountain men and Army soldiers. The author posits that the harmful components of the ingredients of the biscuit exacerbated the oppressive effects of battle fatigue, the shock of battle carnage, along with the curse of alcoholism; the author suggests that the combined factors contributed to the suicide of Olaus out on the plains of Dakota.

Mr. Sollien is a solid and dogged researcher. He resolved to revive the life and reputation of Olaus Hansen, whose Norwegian family, abroad and in America, had long since shelved him as “died in the Civil War” rather than endure the scandal of suicide in a culture where dying by one’s own hand is deeply mortifying, and he achieved his goal.

An admirably-researched biography, told in the context of some of the decades of some of the most momentous of American times. Sometimes a non-American author offers us a unique perspective on our own history.

Suicide by Army Life by Ozzie Sollien may be ordered from Amazon at: https://amzn.to/2F4cAdh.

8 Comments

It certainly sounds like a book I’d want to read, as painful as it would be to become acquainted with the details. I don’t have Norwegian ancestors–yet–but history is fascinating to me regardless.

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David Paul Davenport March 12, 2019 at 1:12 am

Far be it for me to be a contrarian, but the author of this title, Mr. Ozzie Sollien, asserts that he has written a book about Olans Northeg, “a Norwegian survivor from Custer’s Last Stand at the Little Big Horn,” but the lists survivors do not include a man of this name. See one such list at http://files.usgwarchives.net/sd/military/big-horn.txt . If one such obvious error can be made in a biography, how many more might there be a more obscure passages? For example on page 25, Sollien writes that Olans and his brother “signed out” on the church register on April 16, 1861, and thereby gave notice that they intended to emigrate to America “because they may have read about the attack on Ft Sumter 4 days earlier.” I am confident that they could not have done so given the primitive nature of communication between the United States and Norway at the time. So although this may be a well-written book I will consider it a work of fiction, and not non-fiction.

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    Atlantic Cable 1858, perhaps the news spread quicker than we thought?

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    David – the Devil is in the details, so if you change the details, and then critique, you critique you own changes, not my book. Let me address your last concern first: Nowhere on page 25 does it say that the brothers intended to emigrate “because they may have read about the attack on Fort Sumter 4 days earlier”. “Because” is a word you added, and it changes the entire meaning of the sentence. What it says, is: “The two brothers may have read about the attack on Fort Sumter…..”, but that is to underscore the point in the next sentence: “They could not have known that less than 24 hours before Olaus went to church, President Abraham Lincoln had issued a call for 75 000 volunteer to deal with the insurrection in the southern states”. The first sentence gives an infinite possibility to the fact that they may have heard SOMETHING, but the second concludes that there was no way they could have known that they were headed for a Civil War. This is important, because Hans Hansen’s living relatives in America had been led to believe that he emigrated because of a promise of a land grant if he volunteered in the Civil War. My point is that, that could not have been the case, because he didn’t know there was a civil war on.

    Your second concern is Olaus’ survival at Little Bighorn. Firstly, the list you presented is not survivors, but casualties, which is the opposite. There are a few wounded on that list, which may have survived because they were not killed outright. I don’t think a comprehensive list of survivors has surfaced. You deduct that from the rolls minus the killed. What is essential to know about the Custer fight is that there were 3 detachments and 2 battles. The village was first attacked by 1 detachment with 3 companies (A, G and M) under Major Marcus Reno, resulting in “The Valley Fight”. Olaus Hansen was one of two line sergeants in Company G, and survived. The second detachment was George Custer with 5 companies, who initiated the second attack. They all got wiped out at “The Last Stand”. The two attacks should have been coordinated, but it got bungled and Custer overrun. The third attachment was 3 companies under Captain Frederick Benteen, who came late and never engaged in the battle. So the 7th Cavalry went in with 12 companies (for the first time since 1866, when it was created), 5 were wiped out, most of 7 remaining survived.

    After 25 years of research and with 640 end notes, I can assure you that this is no work of fiction. That is not to say that it does not contain errors, and it may very well be critiqued, both for it’s factual content and its theories. However the critique has to be of the actual facts in the book, and from correct sources.

    Ozzie

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David Paul Davenport March 13, 2019 at 12:12 am

The Atlantic Cable only worked from August 12 1858 to September 1858. It then failed due deterioration of the insulation. No private messages were transmitted during this time, and the new Atlantic Cable wasn’t laid until 1866. So there was no transmission of telegraphic messages when Ft Sumter was attacked. Sorry, Mr. Heath, but you hypothesis doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

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David Paul Davenport March 14, 2019 at 1:49 am

I appreciate the clarification. The fact remains that Sollien wrote that Northeg was ““a Norwegian survivor from Custer’s Last Stand at the Little Big Horn.” He now explains here that Northeg wasn’t with Custer at the Little Big Horn; Northeg was with Reno, so Northeg wasn’t a survivor of Custer’s Last Stand and the fact presented on p 13 is false. The fact also remains that my addition of the word “because” in no way alters the substance of the text which states at page 25 “The two brothers may have read about the attack on Fort Sumter 4 days previous.” The Atlantic telegraph cable was not working between September 1858 and its replacement by a new cable in 1866. Therefore, the boys could not have heard “something” that manifested its influence in their decision to emigration other than the “normal” method of learning about America, namely letters for those who emigrated previously.The political situation in the United States in Jan-April 1861 was unknown to them and to mention it here misleads the reader. Non-fiction must be based on facts, not speculation. BTW – credible non-fiction strives to cite reputable sources like Pierce (at 88 on page 55), and not “internet” blogs (such as 74; thomaslegion.net, on p55) and self-published vanity works. (such as Meyer, 87, on p55). The American Civil War is the most written about conflict in human history and there are numerous credible works that should have been cited, including the 128 volumes of the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion).

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    May be the authors handling the events during the Battle of Little Bighorn have become sloppy over the years. There is really no differentiation in the hundreds of books, articles and reference works specifically separating survivors from the different detachments, because they were all gathered and carried to the river boat Far West on the Bighorn River, and are highlighted as “survivor” in the reference works, wherever they survived – the “Valley Fight” or the later “Hilltop Fight”. I guess the authors all take it for granted that everybody knows that nobody survived with Custer – but they still survived. The battle, or the two uncoordinated battles, are collectively called “The Custer Fight”, “Custer’s Last Battle”, “Custer’s Last Stand”, but if we are talking about Major Reno specifically, his part of the overall battle was the “Valley Fight”, and then Major Reno and Captain Benteen fought the “Hilltop Fight”. However, if you were to claim that Reno and Benteen were not at “The Last Stand”, I think you would get some odd looks from the Custer buffs, so I guess the survivors are also regarded as being from “The Last Stand”, as it is used that loosely . The only advise I have, is to write an article in the Little Bighorn Research Review and ask that these fights and survivors are specifically separated in future works, to avoid misunderstandings.
    So, are you seriously suggesting that a critic can add and subtract words in a paragraph in a published work, to alter the meaning of it, and then critique it’s meaning? That is a very interesting point of view, which gives you an enormous latitude to criticize – more than I would allow, actually. It seems like a bit of an infringement. Your addition changed the meaning completely, as my point was not whatever they may have heard – as you point out – but what they did not know, which was that it was a Civil War brewing.
    When credible non-fiction strive to cite creditable sources, I am going to assume that I am not among the authors of those, but I find it puzzling that it is impossible to use internet blogs. Enormous amounts of information now goes directly to the internet, and will never see the pages of a book, and I think that if we do not use that, we do ourselves a disservice, and certainly slow ourselves down with years of research in libraries, research which can be done in seconds on the net. When using a blog, and it refers to sources which I find to be credible, I do not see why they cannot be used – that is somewhat of a mystery to me. This leads into the “self published vanity work” of Steve Meyer, and here, likewise, I am at a loss to understand why we cannot use that. Meyer has written two books about Iowa in the Civil War, which has many first hand accounts and detailed information about Iowa’s entry into the war, political situation, weaponry, military organization etc – information I found useful.
    This leads me to the “shoulds” of the world. You “should”. I have had that happen to me before, in a book of non-fiction, but very closely following actual events. I had 460 references to literature I had used as relevant to the book, but some professor told me that I “should” have referred to # 461, some obscure work he found very important, but did not relate directly to any of what I had written. In my present book I apparently “should” have referred to the Official Record of the War of the Rebellion.
    I guess the case is, that when I write a book, I do not construct it in a way that will give me opportunity to list all the references I “should” quote, to look good. I find the information I need for my book, and then refer to the specific sources which gave me that information. That is what I want to present. “Should” is a biased, emotionally loaded expression which allows unwarranted grading, and “should” not be used about a creation. It is done, take it or leave it. If you want to do it differently – have at it.
    This will be my last contribution to this discussion – when the word “should” is introduced, I pass.

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David Paul Davenport March 19, 2019 at 11:50 am

“Enormous amounts of information now goes directly to the internet,” Indeed this has become the case, much to the dismay of researchers. Information can include opinion and not facts, which is why academic historians insist that non-fiction cite primary sources, and not secondary sources. No academic (ie reputable) historian would ever accept a term paper from a student based on information provided by wikipedia, for the same reason that internet blogs are never permitted in scholarly works – the information has not been vetted by professionals in the field. Historians and their peer reviewers strive to verify their sources. It isn’t a question of citing sources that SHOULD be cited “to look good,” citing sources is always about citing sources that are true to the evidence. To do so, the axiom of professional historians has always been that participants are better able to report what they see, hear, and experience, than someone who interjects opinion into the narrative. I spent 30 years teaching American history, especially that of the civil war, to young minds in the belief that they would learn both history and how to research history. I failed to convince most that the internet was not a valid source unless it was displaying scans of original documents. BTW – we now have out breaks of measles and chickenpox because people with opinions about vaccinations influence thousands who decline to follow the advice of professionals. This would not be happening were it not for the internet. Do not fall into the trap of believing that the internet is an acceptable source of information.

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