"Thank God Lincoln had only one 79th Highlander Regiment"
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By Tony Mandara
The original text of this article appeared in issue 67 (December 2001) of Crossfire, the magazine of the ACWRT (UK)
At first, war was for dressing up in eccentric outfits; but soon the reputation of a regiment was judged not on its sartorial taste but on its ability to perform on the battlefield. One New York regiment learned the hard way.
In the early days of the Civil War, when "going to see the elephant" was still an exciting adventure, hundreds of peacetime militia units, believing that war was a glorious game, chose to call themselves such bellicose names as Yankee Hunters, Mounted Wildcats, Avengers, Fearnoughts, Fire-Eaters, Mountain Boomers, Hell Roaring Horses etc. Many regiments went even further by adopting eccentric uniforms in emulation of famous European units, without consideration of the garment's practicality or general comfort. Among the more bizarre costumes were such romantic items as brightly coloured Zouave trousers, Prussian 'pickle-haube' helmets, Corsican caps, Italian 'Bersaglieri' uniforms, turbans and fezzes. But perhaps the most picturesque outfit, by far, was that of the 79th New York Volunteers, a regiment that chose, uniquely, to dress in full Scottish regalia and called itself the Cameron Highlanders.
This State National Guard regiment was to take part in nearly every major engagement of the Civil War and become one of the most travelled regiments in the Union army. It was formed in 1858 with the help of the St. Andrews and Caledonian Societies of New York from Scottish Americans and Scots immigrants strengthened by Irish, English and a few other nationalities. It originally consisted of four companies, but was later increased to nine companies when the regiment was mustered into Federal service.
They were designated at their own request, as the 79th in honour of the British 79th Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders but it was not until 11 December 1861 that the regiment officially received its numerical designation.
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The kilts were probably protected by buff aprons bearing "79" in large white numerals on the front. For fatigue dress a kepi was worn with tartan trews (trousers). The regulation US black leather accoutrements were worn. NCO's wore red sashes and yellow epaulettes. Chevrons were light blue and swords were of typical Scottish pattern.
The Glengarry was later superseded by a regulation kepi bearing a brass badge in the shape of the regular infantry hunting horn with "79" in the centre.
Like most militia units, when they were first formed, the 79th was armed with .69 calibre smoothbore percussion muskets, then later, in company with most New York State troops, with Enfield .577 rifles.
Officially recognised on 9 June 1859, the first duties undertaken by the regiment after its formation were the usual displays etc. They also provided a guard for HRH The Prince of Wales when he visited the United States and did the same for the Japanese Ambassador.
When the war broke out the Highlanders were mobilised and, as the regiment was under strength, new men were quickly recruited before it left New York. Under the command of Lt-Col Samuel McKenzie Elliott the regiment was mustered into service for three- year duration, on 29 May 1861 and attached to Mansfield's Command, Department of Washington.
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Although the regiment had taken part in several skirmishes, Bull Run must be considered as the 79th's baptism of fire. On the march to Manassas dogged old sergeants who had served in the British Army attempted to keep the raw recruits in step, barking at them "Left! left! Now - you - have - it, damn - you - keep - it! Left! Left!" But the New York City boys, who were unused to marching, were soon weary of tramping the powdery Virgina roads. Under a hot July sun, with parched throats and nostrils blocked by a fine dust, many became exhausted and some, overcome by heat stroke, collapsed by the road-side.
There has been much argument as to whether or not the regiment wore the kilt in this battle. William Todd of Company "B" was emphatic that they did not. He wrote, "If by that it is meant "kilts" it is an error. It is true that all the officers and many of the men did wear that uniform when we left the city (New York) in June 1861 (actually May) and on dress parade occasions in Washington, but when we went into Virginia it was laid aside altogether with the plaid trousers worn by all men on ordinary occasions and we donned the ordinary blue. Captain...? Was the only one who insisted on wearing the kilts on the march to Bull Run, but the day before we reached Centerville the kilts were the cause of his drawing upon himself much ridicule and when we started for the battlefield on the Sunday morning he also appeared in ordinary blue uniform".
The unfortunate captain mentioned by William Todd is probably the officer who persevered on wearing his kilts to the amusement of other regiments, his bare knees drawing numerous soldier witticisms. He replied defiantly. "Highlanders wore kilts in India, surely the gnats and mosquitoes of Virginia won't be worse than the venomous insects of the East?" His discomfiture was compounded a little later when, sword in hand, he led a squad of men in pursuit of a pig. Soldiers, observing the chase across the field, shouted such encouragement as "Go it piggy!" "Catch him Captain!" and when the captain unwisely threw himself across the top of a rail fence to seize the pig he presented what a comrade called "such an exhibition of his anatomy as to call forth a roar of laughter". The regiments hooted with delight and chorused, "where's your pants". The humiliated captain never ventured to wear his kilt again.
In spite of William Todd's assertion that no one wore the kilt there are some who claim otherwise. Perhaps his claim applied only to his own particular company. It is just possible that before leaving New York the new members of the regiment had no time to he supplied with kilts or trews so that at First Manassas some men may well have been kilted and others wearing trews or blues, although there is no conclusive evidence to prove the matter either way. A photo taken at Castle Pinckney, Charleston, of prisoners from the 79th captured at Manassas show no trace of any Highland dress. Had any prisoner been wearing a kilt the photographer would surely have taken a picture of him simply because the costume would have been so unusual.
However, the kilt was certainly discarded after the battle except for ceremonial purposes, although some of the regiment continued to wear tartan trews for a few months until they wore out, when from then on regulation blue trousers were worn by all.
The Third Brigade, under Colonel William Tecumseh Sherman, consisted of three militia regiments and a battery of artillery. As one of those militia regiments, the 79th experienced some of the fiercest fighting and suffered some of the highest Union casualties at 1st Manassas although, to begin with, it appeared that they would miss the action. As Confederates fled from the initial Union attack and withdrew up the hill past the Henry House, Private Todd stepped out of line calling to Colonel Sherman, "Give us a chance at 'em before they get away!". His sergeant, a British Army veteran, dragged him back into line, growling "shut up your damned head - you'll get plenty of chance before the day is over!"
Shennan, in obedience to orders, committed his regiments piecemeal to the capture of Henry Hill. He first sent the 2nd Wisconsin who, still wearing their militia gray uniforms, were shot to pieces by both sides. When the Wisconsin boys were eventually driven back the 79th were ordered forward. Led by their Colonel, James Cameron, brother of Lincoln's first Secretary of State for War, Simon Cameron, they charged three times over the dead and wounded of the 2nd Wisconsin. Unluckily, in the smoke of battle, they mistook a Confederate flag for one of their own and ceased firing. It was a costly mistake - "As we lowered our arms and were about to rally where the banner floated we were met by a terrible raking fire, against which we could only stagger". Retreating back down the hill they saw Colonel Cameron lying dead in the yard of the Henry House. He had been killed by the Confederate's second volley.
The Highlanders eventually retreated from the plateau and sank sullenly behind the brow of the hill to lick their wounds. There they remained for two more hours while the attack was pressed by other Union regiments with an equal lack of success, until all were finally driven from the plateau by Confederate reinforcements. It then acted as a rear guard during the Federal's ignominious retreat to Washington. The regiment sustained one of the heaviest losses of the battle losing 32 killed, including their commanding officer, 51 wounded (eight mortally) and 115 captured (including Captain James A Farrish
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On their return to Washington the Highlanders were employed in building defences around the Capital, helping to construct dozens of forts and batteries plus 20 miles of trenches. The whole project had to be carried out with just picks and shovels and was backbreaking work. One of the men recalled it as "the hardest kind of manual labor".
One morning in mid-August, shortly after Bull Run the Highlanders, together with the 13th and 21st New York regiments, mutinied and demanded an adjustment of certain perceived grievances. The men felt tricked when the three-month's volunteers were allowed to return home while they, three year volunteers who had performed their duty equally well, were not permitted to return to New York. They were further incensed that they were unable to quit the army, unlike their officers who had the privilege of being able to resign their commissions. They also objected to having a new Colonel, Isaac Ingalls Stevens, appointed on 30th July to replace James Cameron (killed at First Manassas) rather than being able to elect their own commander as was common with militia units. The situation was exacerbated by a shortage of junior officers brought about by wounds, capture or resignation. In just over a month the regiment had lost its colonel, major, nine of its 10 captains and a number of lieutenants. Fuelled by alcohol, the men finally refused to carry out any further duties.
These fledging soldiers were undoubtedly naive as to the seriousness of their actions believing that, as freemen, they could exercise their democratic right to do whatever they saw fit. They were quickly disabused of these un-military notions when McClellan, blaming the regiment's own officers for allowing the unrest, appointed a regular army officer with orders to mow the mutineers down if they did not immediately surrender. A battalion of regular infantry, supported by a squadron of regular cavalry and a battery of artillery was lined up facing the 79th, firearms loaded and ready for use. When the mutineers, who had not anticipated such a response to their complaints and whose own arms were stacked, were ordered to cease their mutiny, they recognised the futility of their position and speedily submitted. They whole matter was handled quickly and efficiently and was a most salutary example to any other regiment that might consider similar disobedience. Twenty- one members of the 79th who were considered to be the ringleaders of the revolt were sent to the hell of the Dry Tortugas prison, Florida, and the 79th's regimental colours were taken away, which McClellan then kept in his own headquarters until the regiment redeemed itself some months later.
Stevens was reluctantly accepted as Colonel of the regiment. Short, only an inch over five feet, and rather stout, with a massive head, swarthy complexion and bright dark eyes, he was pompous and humourless. Yet, in spite of his apparent lack of charisma, he was blessed with high intelligence and cool courage and quickly won the men round to become an extremely popular commander. When on 28 September 1861, just two months after his appointment as Colonel of the regiment, he was promoted to Brigadier General, the Highlanders requested transfer to his brigade. They also presented him with a sword, sash and spurs.
Colonel Addison Farnsworth now assumed command of the 79th on 28 December 1861.
In August the regiment became part of W F 'Baldy' Smith's Brigade, Division of the Potomac and in October, after Smith's promotion, were part of Stevens' Brigade, Smith's Division, Army of the Potomac. During this time the regiment were involved in several skirmishes and reconnaissance including Lewinsville, Little River Turnpike and Bailey's Cross Roads.
FIRST COMBAT SUCCESSES
On 21st October, the 79th became part of Thomas W. Sherman's Expedition to Port Royal, South Carolina, aboard Flag Officer Du Pont's ships. When Fort Walker and Fort Beauregard were beaten into submission by the fleet's bombardment, the 79th were among the troops sent to occupy the town of Beaufort. In spite of the area being unhealthy, with the hospitals full of fever and dysentery cases, only one man from the 79th was confined to the hospital.
For the next 11 months the 79th spent their time skirmishing with odd bands of Confederate. They also burnt the properties of known Rebel sympathisers. In their spare time the regiment also acquired some pets, including two dogs and an alligator! One of the dogs, named "Tip" because it was missing a leg, was adopted as the regimental mascot and served with the Highlanders for the rest of the war.
The regiment took part in the expedition to Port Royal Ferry in January 1862 and saw action at Pocotaligo, South Carolina in May, but not before becoming part of the 2nd Brigade, 2nd Division of the Department of the South in April.
In June the Highlanders were part of the expedition to James Island and took part in the battle of Secessionsville where Brigadier General Henry W. Benham, who was in temporary command of the brigade, ordered a bloody and foolhardy assault on the Confederate positions. Instructed not to undertake any offensive operations Benham, over the objections of his division commanders, ordered a futile attack on Confederate General N. G. 'Shanks' Evans.
The position was surrounded by a swamp and defended by rifle pits. Ale first attack was made by the 8th Michigan, whose history was closely intermixed with the 79th, the two regiments sharing a mutual respect and close friendship, swapping hats and playing pranks with each other. So close was their comradeship the two regiments were often referred to as the "Highlanders" and the "Michilanders."
The 8th Michigan's assault was cut down by a murderous fire before reaching the enemy lines and the 79th, moving to their support, fared no better. Trapped, without reinforcements, the Highlanders were forced to retreat across open ground. Three futile assaults had been made with the loss of 683 Union soldiers, while the defenders lost only 204. The Highlanders alone lost 110 men out of 474 engaged but their bravery was recognised by the Confederate Charleston Mercury, which said, "Thank God Lincoln had only one 79th regiment." Brigadier General Benham was relieved of command, arrested for disobedience of orders, and his appointment revoked by Lincoln.
On 12th July the regiment began its transfer to Newport News, Virginia, where it arrived on the 16th of the month to become part of the 9th Army Corps, Army of the Potomac.
In August 1862, the regiment was involved in Pope's Campaign in Northern Virginia and just a year after the death of James Cameron at Bull Run the regiment was once again fighting over the same battlefield. Manassas was once again to prove unlucky for the 79th. At Chantilly on 2 September 1862, while approaching the crossroads of the Warrenton and Little River Turnpikes, the Union forces collided with Stonewall Jackson's men who were formed in a line in front of Ox Hill facing southeast near Chantilly Mansion.
In the ensuing battle, Cameron's successor as regimental commanding officer, Brevet Major General Isaac Ingalls Stevens, now in command of the division, led his old regiment for one last time. Under an overcast sky, which threatened rain, Stevens organised the 79th into three lines and took them into the attack. As they advanced across the blood soaked battlefield he ran past the body of his own son, who lay critically wounded. Calling "Follow me, my Highlanders" Stevens was killed instantly by a bullet through his temple as he took the regiment colours from the sixth colour bearer to fall. He died amid the cheers of victory with the colour staff gripped firmly in his hand almost at the same time and nearly on the same ground as Major General Philip Kearney.
The Highlanders had sustained heavy losses - their Colonel, Addison Farnsworth, had been wounded and 9 men were killed, 79 wounded (1 mortally) and 17 missing, a total of 105. "I have never seen regular troops that equalled the Highlanders in soldierly bearing and appearance," commented General Sherman on the 79th's performance.
On 12 March 1863 Stevens was posthumously confirmed Major General to rank from 18 July 1862. After the war the surviving members of the 79th sent the same bloodstained flag, for which he given his life, to his widow.
During the Maryland campaign of September 1862, the 79th saw action at the battles of South Mountain and Antietam. During the later battle the Highlanders fought at Burnside's Bridge and were deployed as skirmishers leading an advance along the Sharpsburg Road near the Sherrick House. Despite heavy Confederate fire they pressed on, managing to drive in part of Jones' division and capturing a battery of artillery. However, the arrival of A. P. Hill's troops drove the 79th back into the suburbs of Sharpsburg where they engaged in a vicious firefight around the Sherrick House. In spite of heavy fighting the regiment escaped relatively lightly with only 40 men killed, missing or wounded.
Following Antietam the regiment saw duty in Maryland, and in December took part in the battle of Fredericksburg before taking part in the "Mud March" of January 1863.
In February 1863 Col Farnsworth resigned his commission as a result of the wounds he had received at Second Bull Run, and David Morrison was promoted from Captain of Company E to command from 17th February.
The regiment, as part of the 9th Corps, became part of the Army of the Ohio in April and two months later became part of the 3rd Brigade, 1st Division, of the Army of the Tennessee preparatory to joining the Vicksburg Campaign. They travelled by side wheel steamer down the Ohio, which was described as being of such shallow draft "it could sail on a heavy dew", and broke their journey at Louisville to spend a riotous couple of nights in the town's bars and "parlour houses", a euphemism for brothels, before arriving at the front.
A few days later, as Sherman rode down his column, on the march towards the town of Jackson, he was startled to be greeted by a loud cheer. Knowing his men were not usually so demonstrative he looked around to see who was showing such uncharacteristic enthusiasm. He saw the 79th New York newly arrived to join his unit. The last time they had met was in the camps around Washington after 1st Manassas when the fresh-faced boys had been roundly cursing him. Matured into veteran soldiers, they could now appreciate Sherman's merits and were delighted to see their ex-brigade Colonel.
The regiment was too late to take part in the siege of Vicksburg, but instead were sent to Jackson to tear up rail tracks and destroy the Mississippi Central Railroad at Madison Station.
August found the regiment back once more with the Army of the Ohio, in time to take part in Burnside's campaign in East Tennessee, seeing action at Blue Springs, Lenoir and Campbell's Station.
At Fort Sanders (known by the Confederates as Fort Loudon), Knoxville, the Highlanders helped inflict a massive defeat on Longstreet's troops. The position, a bastioned earthwork, was on top of a hill, which formed a salient at the northeast corner of the town's defences. In front of the earth- work was a 12-foot-wide ditch, some eight feet deep, with an almost vertical slope to the top of the parapet, about 15 feet above the bottom of the ditch. It was defended by 12 guns and, according to different sources, 250 or 440 troops, of which the 79th provided 120 men.
A MEDAL OF HONOR IS WON
Longstreet ordered the brigades of Humphrey's Mississippians and Bryan and Wofford's Georgians, approximately 3,000 men, to make a surprise attack on the fort. The night of 28th November was bitterly cold as the Confederate troops quietly moved into position just 150 yards from the fort but, in spite of their caution, the defenders overheard them and were prepared for the coming assault.
At first light the Confederates began their attack, struggling through telegraph wire entanglements which the Federals had stretched between stakes a short distance in front of the ditch. In spite of this obstacle the Rebels man- aged to reach the ditch with relatively light casualties, but it was there that their problems began. They found that there were no scaling ladders with which to climb the slope up to the parapet and the situation was further aggravated by the ground being frozen and covered in sleet which caused the soldiers to lose their footing and fall. In spite of this, some men did manage to reach the top by climbing on the shoulders of their comrades and were able to place their colours on the parapet. There then followed vicious close quarter fighting during which First Sgt Francis W. Judge of Company K, 79th NY, grabbed the flag of the 51st Georgia from their colour bearer and, in spite of a concentrated and deadly fire, was able to return in safety with his trophy into the fort. Judge, who was born in England, was later awarded the Medal of Honor for his action.
Longstreet's men were eventually forced to retreat to the yells of "Remember James Island!" from the elated Highlanders. The 79th sustained only nine casualties out of a total Federal loss of 20 killed and 80 wounded. They had inflicted terrible punishment on the Confederates who lost 813 men, killed, wounded and missing.
In the January of 1864, the 79th were reinforced for about two months by members of the 51st Infantry and of the 45tli, 50th and 100th Pa. Volunteers, taking part in fighting at Holston River and Strawberry Plains. In April the Highlanders rejoined the Army of the Potomac, in time to fight at the Battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania, being engaged in the assault on the salient.
It was at Spotsylvania that the original Cameron Highlanders were to fight their last engagement. Again they faced Longstreet's hard fighting veterans and once more the 79th drove them from the field, losing five more men killed or mortally wounded in the fight. Their Colonel, David Morrison, was wounded and command was passed to Colonel Laing. As the regiment stood in line on the bloody battlefield the men received the order for muster-out, their term of enlistment having expired on 13 May 1864.
Those veterans whose term of enlistment had expired returned to New York City where they were discharged. Less than 130 of the Regiment's original members were left. Those with unexpired service were sent as guards for Confederate prisoners bound for Alexandria. These men were later formed into A & B Companies, which formed the nucleus of the New Cameron Highlanders that Col. Samuel M. Elliott had received authority to recruit on 4th May. In November 1864, companies C and D, made up of new volunteers, were added to the regiment, and company E joined in January 1865. A further company, F, was organised in the field from recruits received in March 1865.
The new regiment served at Cold Harbor, Bethesda Church, Petersburg, Weldon Railroad and Poplar Springs Church. In October they were appointed provost guard of the 9th Corps, taking part in the Appomattox Campaign.
After Lee's surrender the regiment moved back to Washington and took part in the Grand Review on 23 May 1865. They continued duties at Washington until they were eventually mustered out of Federal service on 14 June 1865, when the regiment returned to Militia status.
Ladies of the New York Scottish Society sent new Glengarries for the regiment to wear for their re-entry to New York City. During the war they had lost 198 killed, plus 304 wounded or missing out of a total enrolment of 2,200.
After the war the regiment again adopted Highland dress and in 1868 adopted feather bonnets and spats. In 1871 the regiment took part in the Orange Riots in New York City before being finally disbanded in January 1876 due to re-organisation of the Militia.
Muster role at time of enlistment
Commander: Lt Col Samuel McKenzie Elliott
Major: David McClellan (McCleeland?) Adjutant: David Ireland
Quartermaster: Patrick Home
Commissary: Harry Pearson
Surgeon: James Norval
Engineer: John J. Shaw
Mustering Officer: Captain S. B. Hayman
Chaplain: George S. Doughty
Bandmaster: William Robertson - 17 musicians
Colour Bearer: James Cummings
Right and Left Guides
Company A: W. Manson, Lt John MacPherson, 1st Sgt John R- Herzies, Sgt Robert M. Clark, Sgt Walter W. Fonnan. Sgt David Russell, Corporal John 5. Dingwall, Corporal Henry Softs, Musician David Pennycook, Musician Paul Borger - 67 men
Company B: Captain J. A. Farrish, Lt John Whyte, 2nd Lt D. G. Falconer - 77 men
Company C: Captain T. Barclay, Lt K. Mathison, Lt Ostrander - 83 men
Company D: Captain D. Brown, Lt J. More, Lt J. A. Falconer - 83 men
Company E: Captain D. Morrison, Lt J. Ayres, Lt J. B. Sinclair - 83 men
Company F: Captain J. Christie, Lt R. McNie - 82 men
Company G: Captain J. Laing, Lt J. Dick, Lt W. B. Ives - 66 men
Company H: Captain J. Coulter, Lt R. Campbell, Lt W. Drake - 95 men
Company I: Captain R.T. Shillinglan. Lt. S.G. Elliot, Lt G. Pier - 87 men
Company K: Captain H.A. Ellis, Lt S.R. Elliot - 110 men
Total: 895 men
1. Sergeant, full dress uniform. Drawing by Tony Mandara from an illustration by J Severin.
2. Sergeant, corporal and private of 79th New York, just before leaving New York in 1861 to go to war.
3. 79th New York Regiment (Highlanders) New York State Militia marching through the City on the way to the war. Source: Harper's Weekly. May 25, 1861.
4. James A. Farrish mustered into the 9th New York Volunteers in April 1861 as Captain of Company B. Wounded and captured at First Bull Run.
Sherman: Fighting Prophet, by Lloyd Lewis Smithmark Publishers.
Centennial Album of the Civil War, by Marvin H. Pakula, Thomas Yoseloff.
Uniforms of the American Civil War, by Philip Haythornthwaite, Blandford Colour Series.
Brother Against Brother, Time-Life Books.
Dyer's Compendium Pt. 3 (Regimental Histories).
79th New York Volunteer Infantry:- www.geocities.com/Heartland/Hills/6579/roster.html
Yankees in Kilts, Civil War Times, December 1996.
© ACWRT(UK) 2001