On September 1, 1862, U.S. Army Brigadier General Isaac Stevens (1818-1862), the first governor of Washington Territory, is killed in action at the Battle of Chantilly, Virginia, 25 miles west of Washington, D.C. Stevens is 44 years old at the time of his death.
An Early Volunteer
Fifteen months earlier, in May 1861, after learning of the outbreak of the Civil War, Stevens had departed Washington Territory and traveled to Washington, D.C. to offer his services to the Union Army. His first appointment was with the Army of the Potomac as colonel of the 79th Regiment of New York Volunteers, known as the Highlanders in honor of the large number of Scotsmen among its ranks.
After his promotion to Brigadier General in September 1861, Stevens was assigned to the expeditionary forces along the southern coast. The next summer he was ordered back to Virginia to support Major General John Pope (1822-1892) in the Northern Virginia campaign against the troops of General Robert E. Lee (1807-1870), Stevens's former colleague and friend, with whom he had served 15 years earlier in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during the Mexican-American War.
Stevens's Last Battle
On August 31, after Pope's defeat at the Second Battle of Bull Run, Stevens was given the duty of guarding the rear of the Union retreat. Suspicious of Lee's failure to order an advance against the exposed troops, Stevens predicted that the Confederates "would likely move around and strike us under the ribs" (Todd, 212). On the morning of September 1, scouts returned from the hamlet of Chantilly with a report that Stonewall Jackson (1824-1863), supported by a corps of 70 regiments, was indeed curling toward the wagon road that formed the main Union retreat route. "General Stevens saw at a glance that this movement of the enemy's must be arrested, or the line of retreat would be intercepted, the army cut in two while widely extended, and a great disaster inflicted" (Todd, 215).
Stevens immediately ordered the 79th Highlanders, who had remained under his command throughout the year, to flush out the enemy while he formed the rest of his corps into position. He directed his son, Hazard Stevens (1842-1918), who was a captain in his father's division, to help lead the advance. Hazard Stevens later described the scene: "Nothing visible but the open ground extending two hundred yards in front, and closed by a wall of woods, with an old zig-zag rail fence at its foot" (Todd, 219).
Seeing no sign of soldiers, one of the other captains was remarking to Hazard that they must have fallen back when
"the enemy opened fire from behind the rail fence at the edge of the woods ... . The next instant I struck the ground with great force and suddenness, shot in the hip and arm, and as I struggled to my feet, and tried to see how I was hit, I saw the regular and even battle line of the Highlanders pressing swiftly on" (Todd, 219).
A few moments later, General Stevens came upon his wounded son, and "asked me if I was severely hurt, and ordered a non-commissioned officer near by to help me off the field. Unheeding my remonstrances at his exposing himself to danger, he pushed on after the first line" (Todd, 219).
"Follow Your General!"
A heavy force of Confederates appeared on the field, pouring a withering fire into the advancing troops. According to a member of the 79th regiment, "Five color-bearers of the Highlanders had fallen in succession, and the colors again fell to the ground." The line was wavering, the men reluctant to push ahead. At this point General Stevens pushed to the front and took up the fallen flag. The wounded soldier begged him not to take the colors, which formed a ready target. After sending an aid to find reinforcements, the general rushed forward with the flag, calling "Highlanders! My Highlanders! Follow your general" (Todd, 220).
James Longstreet (1821-1904), a Confederate general who was present at Chantilly, described the Highlanders's "furious attack, driving back the Confederate brigades in some disorder ... so firm was the unexpected battle that part of Jackson's line yielded to the onslaught" (Longstreet, 194). While the battle raged, a sudden thunderstorm burst over the field. "The din caused by our batteries and musketry, and Heaven's artillery, with the heavily falling rain, combined to render the scene not only impressive, but awful," one soldier wrote (Todd, 220).
As Stevens led his men toward the rail fence that marked the enemy's position, a bullet pierced his skull and he fell dead. "He still firmly grasped the flag-staff," an eyewitness recounted, "and the colors had fallen upon his head and shoulders" (Todd, 220).
Last Trip to Washington
When the fighting calmed, a lieutenant sent word to the division headquarters that the enemy had been driven back and that Stevens had fallen. A return message instructed the men to bury the general and then fall back. The Highlanders "were very indignant at orders to bury the body of our beloved General on the field. Morrison caused it to be carried to the rear and placed in an ambulance, from which a wounded Highlander gladly and self-devotedly got out to make room, and sent the sacred remains to Washington" (Todd, 224).
Meanwhile, not realizing that his troops far outnumbered the Union forces at hand, Jackson did not order a counterattack, but chose to withdraw a short distance to rally and consolidate his scattered division for a fresh assault the next day. Early the next morning, however, his scouts reported that the Union's "rear had passed in rapid retreat quite out of reach" (Longstreet, 195). Stevens, by "appreciating the crisis as momentous," and acting quickly and decisively, had held Jackson at bay long enough to insure the Union retreat (Longstreet, 193). General Longstreet later wrote that Stevens "in his short career gave evidence of courage, judgement, skill, and genius not far below his illustrious antagonist" (Longstreet, 195).
William Lusk (1838-1897), who had served under Stevens for over a year, wrote to his mother shortly after the Battle of Chantilly: "I have lost my good friend, General Stevens ... who was shot while holding the flag of the 79th Regiment in his hand" (Lusk, 180). When the Highlanders were mustered out of the service two years later, their colonel wrote to Stevens's widow:
"Dear Madam, I have the honor to transmit to you the colors of the 79th Highlanders, the same that were in the hand of your late husband when he received his wound. Since I knew that you wished to have them in your possession I have watched them with a jealous eye through many stormy fields. Although but a rag, many a brave man would have sacrificed his life rather than anything dishonorable should happen them ... . Serving immediately under General Stevens, no one had a better opportunity of knowing him than myself. Well may you feel proud of him! His memory is engraven on the hearts of every one of his Highlanders, and the few of us that are left often speak of the many acts of kindness bestowed on us by "Our General" (Stevens, 500).