For the BBC Civilisations Festival we have some special guest posts. This one is written by D. Scott Hartwig who was supervisory historian for the National Park Service at Gettysburg National Military Park, where he worked for 34 years. He retired in 2014. He has his own Scottish ancestry with family lineage to the Grants and Gordons.
It is estimated by one source that some 50,000 Scots served in the Union army during the American Civil War. How many served in the Confederate States armies is unknown. While it would be possible using muster roll records to fairly closely determine how many soldiers of Scottish birth served on both armies, since place of birth was recorded on these records, we shall never know with any accuracy how many of Scottish descent actually served, so the 50,000 figure above is simply someone’s estimate. Unlike the Irish and Germans, who immigrated to America in large numbers during the late 1840s, 1850s and 1860s, large numbers of Scots had settled in America in the 18th and early 19th Century and had fully assimilated into the population by the time the Civil War began in 1860. There was no “Scots Brigade,” like the famous Irish Brigade, or army corps filled largely with Scots, like the German dominated 11th Army Corps of the Union Army of the Potomac. There was no Scottish voting block to be appealed to or manipulated as there was among the Irish and Germans. Scots were both Republicans and Democrats, and Confederates.
Efforts to create Scottish nationality units in the Union army met with mixed success. Because Scots had assimilated there was not the enthusiasm for Scottish formations like there was with the Irish and Germans. There were exceptions. In New York State the 79th New York State Militia was formed in 1858 by Scots and Scots-Americans. The numerical designation was selected to match that of the 79th Cameron Highland Regiment. When the war broke out in 1861 the regiment was mustered into the Federal service for three years. They fought at the First Battle of Bull Run where the regiment suffered 198 casualties, including James Cameron, it colonel, who was killed. Issac Stevens, A West Pointer and non-Scot was assigned to command the regiment which caused the men to mutiny. It was quickly suppressed when U.S. Regular infantry and artillery surrounded the regiment and trained their weapons upon them. From this low point the regiment steadily improved. When Issac Stevens was promoted to general, the regiment’s lieutenant colonel, David Morrison, who had served with the Black Watch 42nd Highlanders in the Crimea, was promoted to colonel. Although Irish, English, Germans, and other nationalities served in the regiment’s ranks, Morrison attempted to preserve the regiment’s Highland integrity by refusing to promote any non-Scot in the regiment above the rank of captain. The regiment participated in a number of the war’s major battles, including the Second Battle of Bull Run, South Mountain, Antietam, and Fredericksburg. The last elements of the regiment mustered out of the service in July 1865 having lost 199 officers and men dead to combat, disease or imprisonment.
In Illinois, Daniel Cameron, of Berwick-Upon-Tweed, who had settled in Chicago and was employed in the newspaper business, organized the 65th Illinois Infantry in May 1862. Known unofficially as the “Second Scotch Regiment” and the “Cameron Highlanders,” Cameron was unable to fill the ranks exclusively with Scots and a number of non-Scots served in the unit. It too had an unhappy early experience being caught up the debacle at Harpers Ferry, Virginia in September 1862 during the Antietam Campaign and surrendering with nearly 13,000 other Union troops. Its fortunes improved after this disaster. After being paroled it was assigned to duty in the western theater of the war, taking part in the defense of Knoxville, Tennessee, the Atlanta Campaign of 1864, and the bloody battles of Franklin and Nashville.
To get a sense of Scots who were somewhat typical of those that served during the war we shall narrow our focus to three individuals associated with the Battle of Gettysburg. The first of these was 1st Lieutenant James Stewart, the commander of Battery B, 4th U.S. Artillery. Stewart was born in Edinburgh in 1826. He immigrated to the United States in 1844 and attempted to earn a living as a printer. This did not work out for him and in 1851 Stewart enlisted as a private in the U.S. Army, a choice that often meant an individual had run out of any better options. But Stewart thrived in the pre-war army. He was assigned to Battery B, 4th U.S., which was then serving in the western United States. Over the years Stewart rose steadily in rank, to corporal, sergeant, and 1st Sergeant by 1861. With the outbreak of Civil War the battery’s captain was promoted and detached to other service and Stewart was promoted to 2nd Lieutenant. The newly promoted captain of the battery, Joseph H. Campbell, was a Scottish-American from New Hampshire.
The battery distinguished itself in the Battle of Antietam, where Campbell was badly wounded, and Stewart assumed command. The battery fought its guns against a fierce Confederate attack that was only repulsed with charges of double canister and the loss of 40 men killed or wounded, the highest casualties for any artillery battery in the battle. Stewart was also wounded but concealed his wound because he was afraid the battery would be assigned to the command of someone else. Still a second lieutenant – promotion came painfully slowly in the artillery service – Stewart commanded the Battery B at Gettysburg. During the late afternoon of July 1 the fire of its six Napoleon cannon helped to decimate an attacking Confederate North Carolina brigade. A Union infantry officer supporting Battery B wrote of how enemy fire “killed Stewart’s men and horses in great numbers, but did not seem to check his fire.” Of Stewart this same officer opined that the lieutenant “was as brave and efficient a man as ever fought upon a battle field.” For his performance in the first day’s fighting at Gettysburg Stewart was promoted to 1st Lieutenant on July 3, 1863, the final day of the battle. The Scotsman continued to distinguish himself through the rest of the war, earning brevet, or honorary promotions to captain and major for “gallant and meritorious” service in 1864 battles. Stewart remained in the Regular Army after the war, retiring in 1879. He died in 1905 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
Colonel Henry Boyd McKeen, commanding the 81st Pennsylvania Infantry, reflected the assimilation of Scots into American society. McKeen was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to a father of Irish decent and a mother whose father had been born in Storneway, Hebrides, Scotland. At Gettysburg, McKeen’s regiment fought in the Wheatfield, the scene of some of the bloodiest fighting of the second day’s battle on July 2. He earned the praise of his division commander who wrote that the colonel “behaved, as he always has on every battle-field, with the most distinguished gallantry, and brought off his command in perfect order.” McKeen would not survive the war. Having been promoted to brigade command in 1864 he was mortally wounded leading his command at the Battle of Cold Harbor on June 3, 1864.
77 year old James McAllister, like Henry McKeen, was born in Pennsylvania but was of Scottish descent. McAllister, his wife Agnes and their 7 children operated a grist and saw mill on Rock Creek a little over a mile south of Gettysburg. McAllister and his family, reflecting the abolitionist mood of Scotland in that era, helped found the Adams County Anti-Slavery Society in 1836. Part of the society’s work was to establish safe houses for runaway slaves. The border of Maryland, a slave state, was only five miles from McAllister’s, and his mill became one of the first stops on the Underground Railroad, the network of safe houses and pathways that escaped enslaved people followed to freedom in the North. McAllister took a considerable risk for the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act made it a crime to harbor escaped slaves, even in a free state like Pennsylvania. Yet, throughout the pre-war years the McAllisters helped hundreds of slaves to escape to freedom. When the war came, McAllisters sons enlisted in the Union army and one of them was killed at Vicksburg.
During the Battle of Gettysburg, McAllister’s home and buildings were just on the edge of the front lines of the two armies. Their close proximity to them meant that their home, mill and other buildings were appropriated for use as a temporary hospital. The Union 12th Corps established a hospital here on July 2 where both Union and Confederate wounded from the nearby heavy fighting on Culp’s Hill were treated and on July 3, the Union 1st Division, 2nd Corps moved its hospital here when heavy shelling drove it from its previous location. Thirty five identified soldiers who died at the hospital were interred on the property.
McAllister died in 1872, the family moved on and his home and mill gradually fell into disrepair. For a good part of the 20th Century the property, which was outside the boundaries of Gettysburg National Military Park, was used as a municipal dump. But a local group fought to have the dump moved and the site was officially recognized in 2011 by the U.S. Government for its important connection to the Underground Railroad.
Stewart, McKeen and McAllister are but three of tens of thousands of men and women (both local and those that came to help the wounded in the battle’s aftermath) from Scotland or of Scottish ancestry who helped make history at Gettysburg and throughout the American Civil War.