79th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment Mutinies in 1861

Regiment Regrets Rebellion and Rejoins Ranks to Fight the Rebels

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Drawing showing the Highlanders at the First Battle of Bull Run in July, 1861.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY (08/17/2011)(readMedia)-- The 79th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment charged into rebel cannon fire at the First Battle of Bull Run, but they later found themselves squaring off against Union artillery, infantry, cavalry and a determined veteran officer when they mutinied at Camp Ewen near Washington, D.C., on Aug. 14, 1861.

The sullen and drunk soldiers quickly submitted when faced by troops sent to put down their rebellion, but 35 of them were singled out as mutineers, and more than a dozen were incarcerated for it. Though they had several grievances, like being denied a trip home and the right select their commander per militia custom, the soldiers ultimately regretted the mutiny, recalled unit member William Todd.

"For the actions of the men, in flatly refusing to obey orders, no excuse is offered," Todd wrote in his book about the unit, The Seventy-ninth Highlanders. "Before our term of service expired we had learned to look back on that episode as the most unfortunate one in our history, and the wonder was often expressed that we had not been more severely dealt with."

Despite the mutiny, the 79th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment shed blood in battles from Fredericksburg to Petersburg. By the War's end, about 200 of the 2,200 soldiers who had served in the unit had been killed in action, while around 300 others were listed as wounded or missing.

Formed in New York City in 1859 as the 79th New York State Militia, the unit was more like a social club than a military unit, allowing its mostly Scottish-American membership to take part in parades, balls, ceremonies and martial displays, along with recreational activities, according to various historical accounts. They were also known as the 79th Highlanders, and Todd said they wore kilts on parade.

The unit offered its services after the fall of Fort Sumter, was recruited to full strength and placed under the command of Col. James Cameron, Secretary of War Simon Cameron's brother, Todd and others recounted. The soldiers were mustered in for a three-year term of service.

"So anxious were many of the boys to enlist –- and fearing they would not be accepted if under age –- that they did not hesitate to hold up their hands and swear to being 'twenty-one,'" Todd wrote. "Their fears proved groundless, however, for boys of eighteen, if in good physical condition, were readily accepted." Now 900-soldiers strong, the unit paraded out of New York City to cheers and applause and traveled south to Virginia, where it became part of Col. William Tecumseh Sherman's brigade.

Berry-picking en route to Bull Run

Sherman's brigade and others made up the 35,000 Federal troops Brig. Gen. Irvin McDowell was massing to capture the Confederate railhead at Manassas in July 1861. After beating the rebels and taking the railhead, McDowell intended to press on and capture the Confederate capital of Richmond, thus ending the war (see related story, below).

During the march, Union soldiers broke ranks to pick blueberries and chase livestock, according to McDowell and Sherman. The Highlanders "straggled as much as any other regiment," good-naturedly jeering Sherman's aides, who were hectoring them to keep up, Todd said. Some of the Highlanders retreated from angry bees after a failed honey-foraging foray, and a kilt-clad captain hopped a fence in pursuit of a pig, making "such an exhibition of his attenuated anatomy as to call forth a roar of laughter from all who witnessed it," he recounted.

"The march demonstrated little, save the general laxity of discipline, for all my efforts I could not prevent the men from straggling for water or anything on the way they fancied," Sherman wrote in him memoirs.

The Highlanders didn't dawdle and rarely wavered at the Battle of Bull Run days later, but after all the exhortations to close up, Union leaders fed them -- and other New York units -- piece-meal into the fight for the Confederates' Henry House Hill artillery position. Cresting the hill during one of their assaults, the unit "was met by most destructive volleys of cannon and rifle fire," an officer remembered. "But the regiment stood its ground."

During the last of its three charges, the 79th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment soldiers mistook a rebel flag for a Union banner and stopped firing.

"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," one veteran recalled. They retreated and found the body of Cameron, who had been shot dead in the second charge. The 79th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment fought a rear-guard action during the Union retreat from Bull Run and counted their losses -- 32 killed, 51 wounded and 115 captured -- some of the highest casualties of any unit at Bull Run.

Incidents in the following days showed the Highlanders' mood leading up to the mutiny. They lacked food, blankets and tents, and had taken to begging rations from other units, Todd wrote. Sherman encountered some of them in barn and asked in a "gruff and sympathetic tone," what they were doing there, he recalled.

"Keeping out of the rain," one of them replied. "We have no tents, and few of us have blankets, and we have nothing to eat."

"Well, you had better go down in the woods and build bush huts," Sherman told them. "I want to put my horses in here."

President Abraham Lincoln, accompanied by Sherman, drove through Union camps a few days later, greeted the troops and encouraged them. A Highlander related the barn incident to Lincoln, saying, "Mr. President, I don't think Col. Sherman has treated us very well."

"Well boys, I have a great deal of respect for Col. Sherman," Lincoln replied, "and if he turned you out of the barn I have no doubt it was for some good purpose. I presume he thought you would feel better if went to work and tried to forget your troubles." Lincoln departed with a bow and wave, Todd wrote, and his visit had raised morale.

The unit returned to Washington, D.C., but by that time many of the soldiers were complaining of chronic health problems and worrying about matters at home, Todd recalled. Instead of applying for furloughs, several of the officers resigned, and a few of the enlisted men received honorable discharges, he added.

The remaining soldiers inferred from the resignations, discharges and heavy losses that the unit "might be allowed to go to New York, for the purpose of more rapidly filling up its depleted ranks, electing new officers to fill up the vacancies, and thus be enabled to take the field again, when the time should arrive, with full ranks," Todd recalled.

Banking on the fact that their dead commander was the secretary of war's brother, and that the secretary had once pledged to help them, the remaining officers used the chain of command to petition him on the issues, Todd wrote. Though Secretary of War Cameron initially endorsed the recommendations and ordered Col. Isaac Stevens to take the unit to New York to recruit troops, he subsequently ordered one officer to make the recruiting trip alone and placed Stevens in command.

Expecting to return to New York

Todd and other soldiers couldn't recall if the regiment was told these changes, but he was certain that an officer had told them to prepare for the trip to New York. However, the soldiers grew suspicious when Brig. Gen. Charles Sandford ordered the officers to elect individuals to fill vacant positions and the commander's post, Todd said.

Todd couldn't account for the contradictory orders, but he said "all remained quiet" until Stevens arrived at Camp Ewen to take command of the regiment on Aug. 10. A senior captain and four lieutenants immediately resigned, leaving only 10 officers in the unit, and many of the soldiers vowed not to accept any officer unless elected by the soldiers, Todd wrote.

On Aug. 13, the soldiers were ordered to make rations, pack them and prepare to break camp. Discipline fell apart.

"The men now believed that somebody had been playing fast and loose with them," Todd wrote. "The order to move showed plainly that they were not to go to New York." Many of the soldiers went into Washington and returned drunk, or smuggled whiskey into camp.

On the morning of Aug. 14, most of the regiment flatly refused to strike their tents, demanding to know why they weren't going to New York. Things worsened when the soldiers heard that they would become part of a brigade commanded by Col. Dan Sickles, a political officer from New York who had killed his wife's lover and ducked the hangman's noose by pleading insanity (see related story, below).

Aware of Sickles' notoriety, the soldiers loathed serving under him, and jeered and hissed him when he appeared in camp, Todd wrote. They treated Stevens the same way.

"Early in the day Col. Stevens, the newly-appointed colonel of the regiment, calmly endeavored to bring them back to duty," the New York Times reported. "He called them together and addressed them, and then went among them and personally appealed to them to obey the orders of their superiors, but all his gentle remonstrance's and patriotic appeals were treated with contempt. Then he read the Riot Act, but this they laughed to scorn."

The soldiers prevented officers from striking the tents, roughing up two of them in the process. Discovering the mix-up underlying the grievances, Stevens demanded and received an officer's resignation, and pushed the issue up the chain of command to Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan.

The soldiers' complaints were frivolous and unfounded, and their conduct extremely disgraceful and cowardly, McClellan wrote in an order on Aug. 14. The soldiers were to return to duty, and any who didn't comply were required to lay down their arms or be "fired upon," he warned.

"The regiment will be deprived of its colors, which 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," McClellan concluded. He then ordered other Union troops to put down the mutiny by force, and arrest the mutineers.

Rumors of trouble attracted sympathetic civilians to the camp outskirts, along with some drunken ones. Prior to nightfall, Union Infantry, artillery and cavalry units arrived and surrounded the camp.

79th rethinks mutiny and goes on to serve bravely

"The infantry were ordered to load, the cavalry to draw sabers, while the artillery, posted on the hill above us, placed their pieces in battery and loaded them with canister," Todd wrote. Commanded to shoot any regiment members who tried to move through their lines, the troops ordered the civilians away from the camp, arrested drunken soldiers, told the regiment to fall in and confiscated the regiment's muskets, which had been stacked.

Addressing the regiment, Stevens conceded that they had been deceived, but then recounted his Mexican-American War experiences, which included suffering wounds and being surrounded by the enemy. Those dangers were worse "than that surrounding me now," he added.

"Soldiers of the seventy-ninth!" Stevens then shouted at the soldiers. "I am your colonel! And again I say you must obey me! Fall into the ranks!"

"The colonel's voice, as he uttered his last command, sounded like a trumpet," Todd recalled, "and those who had held back stepped into line at once. With the guns frowning upon them the men realized that further resistance would be useless."

McClellan's order was read to the Highlanders, their colors were taken, and the ringleaders arrested. Most were released, but 14 of them were incarcerated at Fort Jefferson, Dry Tortugas, Fla., where they performed fatigue duty. They returned to the regiment on Feb. 16, 1862.

But less than a month after the mutiny, the regiment had redeemed itself during skirmishes in Virginia. McClellan personally complimented the Highlanders on their "coolness and bravery," and on Sept. 14, 1861, restored the regiment's colors.

The regiment fought at the Second Battle of Bull Run, and lost six flag-bearers in the Battle of Chantilly a day later. In the thick of that battle, Stevens -- now a brevet major general and division commander -- seized the regiment's colors from a falling flag-bearer and led his old unit until he was shot and killed.

The 79th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment went on to fight at Antietam, Fredericksburg, the Wilderness, and at Spotsylvania in mid-May, 1864. Only 130 original members of the regiment remained at that point, and they mustered out when their three-year term of enlistment expired on May 13, 1864.

The regiment went on to fight at Cold Harbor, Petersburg, and in the Appomattox Campaign, where the Confederates surrendered on April 9, 1865. The Union Army was victorious, Todd wrote, and the Highlanders' reputation was cemented with that of the victors.

"On that memorable day, when the Union Army witnessed the collapse of the rebellion, and realized that the long and bloody war was virtually over, the Highlanders rejoiced with all their comrades, for peace was now assured, and the 'citizen soldiers' had made a record of which they were justly proud, and which is well worthy of being handed down to generations yet unborn."

Related stories:

New Yorkers Fought, Died and Learned to Fight Better at First Bull Run on July 21, 1861

19th Century Bad Boy was Civil War Commander of New York Troops

More than 500,000 New Yorkers enlisted in the Army and Navy during the four years of the Civil War and 53,114 New Yorkers died.

Throughout the period of the Civil War Sesquicentennial observance, the New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs will produce short articles about New York's Civil War experience researched by the New York State Military Museum in Saratoga Springs.

For more information, go the NewYork State Military Museum Civil War Timeline Website at http://dmna.state.ny.us/civilwar