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.
n 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.
The proposed uniform was to be a Cameron of Erracht tartan kilt; a
sporran with plain black leather top, white horsehair background and three silver tassels; diced red and white hose complete with black flashes; and silver buckled shoes. The doublet tunic was dark blue with a red stand-up collar with light blue piping or light blue with red and white patch; New York State buttons; red cuffs with light blue piping and red epaulettes with gold trimmings bearing the numerals "79" in brass. The tails of the doublet bore embroidered grenades. A diced Glengarry, with a brass number "79" completed the dress uniform. This badge was later replaced by a replica of the New York State coat of arms.
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.
On 2 June 1861 the Cameron Highlanders, 895 men strong, complete with pipe band, marched down Broadway on its way to Washington. Passing through Baltimore the Highlanders received a good welcome in contrast with the reception the 6th Massachusetts had received a few days earlier. Arriving in Washington the regiment served in the defences of the Capital until the middle of July when it was attached to Sherman's Brigade, Tyler's Division, in McDowell's Army of Northeast Virginia, for the advance on Manassas.
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 of Company B - pictured - who was wounded) or missing - a total of 198 - 22 percent of its strength!
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.