Former Washington Territory governor Isaac Stevens assumes command of 79th Regiment of New York Volunteers on August 10, 1861.

  • By Jack and Claire Nisbet
  • Posted 10/08/2011
  • Essay 9915

On August 10, 1861, Isaac Stevens (1818-1862), former governor and Congressional delegate of Washington Territory, accepts a commission as colonel in the U.S. Army and assumes command of the 79th Regiment of New York Volunteers near Washington, D.C.

In late April, 1861, Isaac Stevens had been campaigning for re-election to a third term as Washington Territory's delegate to the U.S. Congress when news of the attack on Fort Sumter and the outbreak of the Civil War reached the Northwest. After a group of his political opponents blocked his nomination, he withdrew from the contest, offered his services to the Union, and boarded a steamer for the East Coast.

An Old Rivalry

Upon reaching Washington, D.C. in July, Stevens endured a month of frustration while waiting to secure an appointment. As a graduate of West Point and a veteran of military campaigns in Mexico and the Northwest, he was outraged at being sidelined by the Republican administration. Finally, in early August, Secretary of War Simon Cameron (1799-1889) offered Stevens a commission as colonel of the 79th Regiment of New York Volunteers, stationed near the capital with the Army of the Potomac, which Lincoln had recently placed under Major General George McClellan (1826-1885).

Stevens knew McClellan well -- they had served together in the Corps of Engineers in the Mexican War, and later on the Pacific Railroad Survey, during which their friendship had dissolved in a clash of wills. Stevens resented the fact that he would be under the command of his former subordinate, but felt duty bound to accept the position. "I will show those men in Washington that I am worthy of something better than a regiment, or I will lay my bones on the battlefield" he confided to a friend (Stevens, 320).

When news of his assignment reached the Northwest, a newspaper editor who had previously been critical of Stevens wrote:

"Gov. Stevens always professed to be a Union man. Having failed in obtaining the nomination of Delegate for Washington Territory, he lost no time in making a journey to Washington and offering his services to government in the present war for sustaining the Union. This was a patriotic act. He was willing to prove the truth of his professions, if necessary, by the sacrifice of his life. His offer of his services was accepted. He is a military man, was educated at West Point, and an officer of remarkable personal energy. We shall have good accounts of him" (Morning Oregonian).

A Challenging Command

When Stevens took charge of his new regiment on August 11, he faced a military and personal challenge. The New York Volunteers, known as the Highlanders because of the large percentage of Scotsmen in their ranks, had lost their commander, half of their officers, and 200 men in the Battle of Bull Run on July 20 and 21. Several more officers had resigned after the battle, and the remaining men were demoralized and dispirited. Lieutenant William Lusk (1838-1897), writing to his mother the day after Stevens arrived in camp, sounded hopeful:

"We have now a new Colonel -- Governor Stevens of Washington Territory. He seems to be a first class man. His advent among us was inaugurated by an order for us young officers to leave the pleasant rooms we occupied, and to return to our tents. This was as it should be; and other strict measures toward officers and men show that he is the right sort of a commander for a Regiment like ours, requiring a strong firm hand to govern it. I trust we may continue to be satisfied with him as our chief officer" (Lusk, 71).

Two days later, however, Stevens was tested by a near-mutiny when he issued orders to prepare to move camp. Many of the soldiers, deducing that an expected furlough to New York had been revoked, "believed that some one was playing fast and loose with them" (Todd, 61). The next morning, several companies refused to strike their tents. According to Lieutenant Lusk,

"Col. Stevens repeated the orders, but they were still silently and sullenly neglected. He then went among the men and used all his powers of persuasion ... but by this time, the camp, left without sentry, became exposed to the whiskey dealers. Soon a scene of the wildest confusion took place. The soldiers, throwing off all authority, presented the hideous and disgusting spectacle of a debauched and drunken Helotry" (Lusk, 74). 

After alerting his superior officer to the insurrection and calling for additional troops to surround his camp, Stevens addressed the mutineers:

"I know you have been deceived. You have been told you were to go to your homes, when no such orders had been given. But you are soldiers, and your duty is to obey. I am your Colonel, and your obedience is due to me ... . All the morning I have begged you to do your duty. Now I shall order you; and if you hesitate to obey instantly, my next order will be to those troops to fire upon you. Soldiers of the 79th Highlanders, fall in!" (Lusk, 77).

According to another eyewitness, "the Colonel's voice, as he uttered this last command, sounded like a trumpet, and those who had held back stepped into line at once" (Todd, 64). After the ringleaders were arrested and led away, the color bearers were ordered to turn over their flags to waiting guards. General McClellan issued instructions that the regiment's colors "will not be returned to it until its members have shown by their conduct in camp, that they have learned the first duty of soldiers -- obedience -- and have proven on the field of battle that they are not wanting in courage" (Todd, 63).

Instilling Zeal. Fidelity, and Soldierly Bearing

Stevens immediately set about imposing discipline, winning the trust of the men, and stifling the prejudice of the Scots toward the non-Scottish recruits who filled out the regiment. Realizing that few of the volunteer militia had any formal military training or wartime experience, he tried to instill "zeal, fidelity, and soldierly bearing" among his amateur troops (Stevens, 323). He kept them busy digging trenches, building fortifications, and running picket duty. "Spades were trumps," one of his men later recalled, "and every man held a full hand" (Todd, 73).

Although his political and professional relationships often proved stormy, Stevens was "in his proper element as colonel of the Highlanders. His qualities of force, courage, and even arbitrariness, which had led to difficulties in Washington Territory, were needed in the Army of the Potomac" (Richards, 363). By several accounts, he developed a lasting rapport with the men he called "My Highlanders," and within a few weeks, the regiment was being praised for their "perfect order and excellent spirits" (Richards, 364) and for "behaving more like veteran troops than volunteers" under enemy fire (War Letters ..., 175).

Worthy to Carry the Banner

After distinguishing themselves in skirmishes against Confederate brigades in northern Virginia in early September, the Highlanders received a commendation from General McClellan, along with the return of their confiscated colors. "They have shown by their conduct that they are worthy to carry the banner into action," McClellan wrote,  "and the commanding general is confident they will always in future sustain and confirm him in the favorable opinion he has formed of them" (War, 168).

In mid-October, Stevens received orders to report immediately to a new command at Annapolis, Maryland. One of his men later recalled that

"we felt sorry at the thought of losing him from the regiment. He had endeared himself to us as no other officer ever had, and every man felt that he had in Colonel Stevens a true friend; he would never order a man to go where he dared not lead, and, this being known, his orders were always cheerfully obeyed" (Todd, 84).

Stevens paused on his way out of camp to deliver a few farewell words to his regiment

"and as he recalled the events of the past two months, his voice faltered, and it was quite evident that he regretted the parting as much as we did. Just as he turned to ride off, one of our number, stepping a pace or two in front of the line, shouted: 'Tak' us wi' ye!' This touched a responsive chord, and the cry was at once taken up by the whole line" (Todd, 86).

When he arrived in Annapolis, Stevens requested and received permission to summon the Highlanders to join his new brigade, and the volunteer regiment remained with him until his death a year later.

Sources: "Got a Situation," Morning Oregonian, August 28, 1861, p. 2:1; John A. Hemphill, West Pointers and Early Washington (Seattle: The West Point Society of Puget Sound, Inc.); William Thompson Lusk, War Letters of William Thompson Lusk (New York: privately printed, 1911); Kent D. Richards, Isaac Stevens: Young Man in a Hurry (Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1993); Hazard Stevens, The Life of Isaac Ingalls Stevens, Vol. 2 (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1901); William Todd, The Seventy-ninth Highlanders, New York Volunteers in the War of Rebellion, 1861-1865 (Albany: Press of Brandow, Barton, & Co., 1886); United States War Department, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies Series 1, Vol. 5 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1881).

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