On August 14, 1861, the sense of anger and disgruntlement that had been building among the men of the largely Scottish-American 79th New York Infantry “Highlanders” boiled over. The rank and file of the regiment, which had suffered one of the highest number of casualties among Union units engaged in the recent Battle of Bull Run (including the death of their colonel, James Cameron, brother to the secretary of war), had been under the impression that they’d be allowed to return to New York to recover, recruit, and select a new commander. When it became clear that they would be remaining where they were—and that a new colonel, Isaac Ingalls Stevens, had been appointed to the regiment without their say—many of the men, fueled by alcohol, refused their officers’ orders to perform any duties that August morning. Upon hearing of the mutinous conduct of the Highlanders, newly minted army commander George B. McClellan dispatched a band of regular army and cavalry troops to surround the regiment; 21 of the men deemed the mutiny’s “ringleaders” were arrested and the regiment’s colors seized, not to be returned until several months later.
Three days later, one of the 79th’s officers, William Thompson Lusk, recorded the events of that day in a letter to his mother, which is reproduced below.
Camp Causten, Aug. 17th, 1861.
My dear Mother:
This has been a busy and painful week for the officers of the Highland Regiment. You have seen various accounts of our troubles in the papers, but they contain nothing authentic, although perhaps about as much as an outsider can understand. The mutiny of Thursday is only the legacy of a quarrel begun among the officers before the Regiment left for the seat of war. The quarrel ended after the battle of Bull Run, in the resignation of several of the officers whose ambition was disappointed as to governing the affairs of the Regiment. Not content with withdrawing their services, these men resolved to undermine the Regiment itself. Their plans were well laid. In an underhand way they conveyed papers among the men purporting that, as State Militia they were entitled to return home at the expiration of three months service, but that an effort would be made to detain them for the war. By going home, it was represented the men would receive a grand ovation, would meet their families, and be enabled to tell their tale of the Bull Run battle. Those who had had enough of fighting could resume their old employments, while the greater part who were ready to re-enlist for the war, would be entitled to the re-enlistment bounty of $30. A Government which would give $30 bounty for re-enlisted three month soldiers must place a high value upon them.
“Now,” the men were told, “a secret plan has been formed to prevent your return home at all. Lieut.-Col. [Samuel] Elliott has received from Government $10,000.00 to sell you all for the war, and to cheat you of your rights and privileges.” Some little things occurred, which as far as the men were concerned, seemed corroborative of these statements, viz: — An order which had been issued by the Secretary of War for us to return to New-York to recruit, was recalled as inexpedient on the day the three-month service of our men expired. This was sufficient for them. They believed they had been sold; and the train which had been carefully laid, exploded upon our being ordered, not into the boat for home, but onto the road into Maryland. Since the battle, owing to the loss through resignations or deaths, of our Colonel, Major and 9 of the 10 Captains, besides that of many of the Lieutenants, we were left in a condition peculiarly unfavorable to discipline; and this much is to be said that the companies of Captain Ellis (my own) and that of Captain Elliott, which were provided with officers, obeyed their orders, and refused to join the mutineers.
The mutiny commenced in the morning by the men’s refusing to strike their tents as commanded. They were to have been struck at 5 a.m. and the Regiment was to move at 6 o’clock. 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 they had been told that they had the law on their side, and if they only persevered, they would be able to return home as a militia regiment. Col. Stevens next went to each company singly and read the articles of war, appending to them such remarks as would enforce in the men the danger of their course; but by this time, the camp, left without sentry, became exposed to the whiskey dealers who made good use of their opportunities. 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. It was a time trying to one’s nerves—more trying far than the musketry or cannonading of Bull Run. The Colonel ordered the officers to strike the tents themselves. This we did amid the jeers, the taunts, and the insults of an infuriated mob. One man brought me his gun, cocked it, showed me it was capped, and reminded me it was intended for one officer at least to die, should our release be attempted. Still we worked quietly on, obeying our orders. Some of the Lieutenants were allowed to take down the tents undisturbed, but on leaving them a moment, they were again pitched by the men. Everywhere we were threatened, and it became equally necessary to show neither fear of the men, nor, on the other hand, to allow ourselves any act of violence which would precipitate bloodshed.
Luckily for us, when the men were most maddened by drink, an old country quarrel broke out among them, viz: — the feud between the Orangemen and the Ribandmen, which we only know of through English novels, and history. We were not, however, altogether forgotten. Names neither poetical, decent, or complimentary were freely bestowed upon us. Finally afternoon advanced, and nothing was gained. The Colonel called on the men for the last time to render obedience. Soberness and reflection had begun their work upon a few. These fell into their places, and were stationed around the Camp as a guard over the others. Still, though thus yielding, their sympathies were either extended to their mutinous comrades, or else they were too fearful to render much assistance. It was necessary for the officers to be everywhere, and I confess I was quite exhausted when a body of cavalry and a line of infantry appeared, coming toward us. This was a great relief. The mutineers, all unconscious, were surrounded, and, when it was too late to resist, obeyed the orders issued, a death penalty being promised to those who wavered. You have seen in the papers the punishment awarded to the Regiment—the taking of our colors and the disgrace from which we are suffering.
Dear Mother, I feel heartsick and much depressed. I begin to repent bitterly of having cast my lot with a foreign Regiment. Our men have not the feelings of Americans, and cannot, when a reverse comes, be inspired to renewed efforts by enthusiasm for the cause. I am eager for another battle in order that we may have an opportunity to regain our colors, yet dread to risk it now that our men are much demoralized….
Col. Stevens, who is an able man, thinks though, in less than a month he can make us once more the finest Regiment in the field….
Good bye, dear mother.
Love to sisters and all.
W. T. Lusk.