American civil war: how a tartan-wearing regiment from Scotland joined the Northern cause

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IN THE small town of Strawberry Plains, Tennessee, Captain Shane Miles is preparing for the fight of his life. In his wardrobe hangs the dress uniform tartan trews and glengarry of his unit, as well as its battle uniform of Union blue.

Captain Miles may be a Southerner who has visited Scotland only a handful of times, but on 22 July, when he steps out on to a field in Manassas, Virginia to recreate one of the bloodiest battles of the American Civil War, he will fight not as a Confederate, or even as an American, but as a Scot.

It is 150 years this week since the first shots of the American Civil War were fired, and the re-enactment of the First Battle of Bull Run promises to be one of the highlights of the sesquicentennial anniversary. But it has also shone a torch on a small band of Scottish men whose crucial role in the most brutal conflict in American history has been all but forgotten on this side of the Atlantic.

The 79th New York Highland Regiment grew out of the New York Caledonian Club, a social organisation for young Scots who had moved to the city to seek their fortune. It's first commander was Lieutenant-Colonel Samuel Mckenzie Elliott. Originally formed in 1858 as a civilian militia, it was one of the first regiments to answer Abraham Lincoln's call for volunteers when news reached New York in April 1861 of the firing of General Beauregard on Fort Sumter.

"There was a good cross-section of young Scottish men in the 79th, from recent working class immigrants to men who had done very well for themselves in New York," says John MacDonald, past chief and current secretary of the New York Caledonian Club.

"It really crossed all social boundaries. There were people who were first and second generation Scots, and many who would have been third or even fourth generation. But most of the men who were drawn to the regiment were probably more recent immigrants as they were more aligned to a Scottish identity."

Originally kitted out in Cameron tartan kilts, glengarry bonnets and enormous white sporrans, the regiment soon found that the outfit did not make for suitable battle dress in a North American conflict.

"They decided to dress like that because that's what the British regiment the 79th Cameron Highlanders wore, and that's where they took the name from," says Pipe Major Iain Grant, an Edinburgh-based bagpiper who acts today as an honorary piper to the 79th, and has visited America to take part in re-enactments.

"They started to wear the kilt but apparently, while they weren't laughed at, they felt very uncomfortable.So they started to wear the Cameron of Erracht tartan trews, until they recruited more men and the US government said they wouldn't provide money for the uniforms, and put them in the Union blue."

Perhaps more significantly, they were imbued with a strong Scottish fighting spirit. In all the regiment took part in a mighty 27 campaigns during the four year war, and were one of the most active regiments on the Union side.

"The amount of battles they fought and the number of towns they were involved in meant they singularly changed the course of the American Civil War, and as a result, the course of American history," says Miles.

The battle of Bull Run, which Miles's Tennessee unit will re-enact in July and was the first major battle of the Civil War, is a case in point.

"The 79th was one of the first regiments on the field, opening the battle, and when we re-enact it we will be the last regiment to leave the battlefield five hours later," says Miles. The 79th fought a retreat to allow the rest of the Union army to escape, while the 79th New York had 200 soldiers captured." So why then, with such inspiring tales of bravery, has the regiment been forgotten? In Edinburgh's Old Calton Cemetery, a monument - the only one to the Civil War outside America - commemorates Scots who died during the American Civil War. Yet it contains only five names, a fraction of those who died.

As well as the Scots in the New York regiment, many thousands of first and second generation Scots fought on both sides of the civil war, including the Union figure General John McArthur, who was born in Erskine in Renfrewshire, and generals James Geddes and James Wilson, who were both from Edinburgh. Even Confederate commander-in-chief Robert E Lee, along with confederate generals Joseph Johnson and John Brown Gordon, who later became governor of Georgia, were of Scottish descent.

"There is a lot of collective amnesia about the Scots involvement in the American Civil War," says Eric Graham, author of Clyde Built, which documents the story of the blockade runners from Clydeside who supplied the Confederacy with vital supplies during the war using Clyde-built steamers. Scots are very keen to present themselves as heroes or victims, never perpetrators, but there were a huge number of Americans fighting in the war who were of Scots descent and there's not a lot been done on that."

IN RURAL Oregon, around 25 miles from the state capital Portland, 50-year-old bridge worker and civil war re-enactor Douglas McLain is preparing for a visit to Scotland. Next August, he and his unit - the Cameron Highlanders of the Northwest - will head for Perthshire, where they hope to parade through Perth and Crieff, and hold a service of remembrance at Culloden.

The trip is planned as an attempt to allow the Oregonians to reconnect with their distant Scottish roots, while reminding Scotland of its rich Civil War history.But it is also intended to highlight one of the most poignant tales of the 79th New York Highlanders - that of the Campbell brothers of Crieff.

Alexander and James Campbell emigrated from the Perthshire town as young men, and found themselves working in different parts of the United States. When the war broke out, Alexander signed up to the 79th New York Highlanders. His brother, living in Charleston, joined the Confederates. At the Battle of Secessionville, the two almost came face to face on the battlefield. When James discovered how close he had been to fighting his own brother, he sent him a letter, which was carried across the battlefield under a flag of truce. The two even tried to meet each other, but were not allowed to cross battle lines. The pair were eventually reunited after the war, and their letters live on today amongst the 79th's most treasured memorabilia.

It is these types of stories, along with its dashing dress uniform and strong Scottish heritage, that make the 79th so popular among the Civil War re-enactment movement across America today.

"There are 11 different groups around the US from Arizona to Florida who operate in concert to do the 79th New York re-enactments," says Miles, whose East Tennessee unit, despite being based in what was once a Confederate state, are passionate about the Union soldiers.

Not, of course, that you have to be of Scottish descent to join. "We don't have 100 per cent Scottish members," says Oregon-based McLain. "We've had a Matt Gonzalez before, and a Matthew Chin, we have different ethnic backgrounds, but certainly, if Scottish culture and music and that sort of thing offends you, you're not going to find a good home with us."

The magic of a re-enactment, when it happens, is palpable.

"Every once in a while we come away from a battle and say 'man, that was really spectacular'," says McLain. "There really is such a thing called time travel. It's kind of like the feeling of deja-vu, it's very fleeting and hard to put your finger on but every once in a while you get this little sense that you're actually there."

The Campbell brothers' close call is not the only extraordinary tale born from the Unit's days on the battlefield. The regiment had its own dog, Pip, who helped change the course of the war during the Battle of Fort Sanders, fought in Knoxville, East Tennessee on 29 November 1863. Although Tennessee was officially a Confederate State, East Tennessee was pro-Union. Around 500 men of the 79th took control of Fort Sanders, previously a Confederate fort, much to the annoyance of Lt Gen James Longstreet, a trusted subordinate of Robert E Lee. Longstreet viewed the Fort through field glasses and saw a soldier and the dog walking along what he believed to be a shallow ditch.

The ditch was, in fact, about 20 feet deep, and the dog and man were walking on a plank.But Longstreet couldn't believe a dog could be clever enough to walk a plank, and, believing the ditch shallow enough to be walked over, ordered a dawn raid of 5,000 men the next morning. The Confederates attacked and, finding themselves exposed by the deep ditch, sustained 500 casualties in 20 minutes. The ensuing fall-out broke the siege of Knoxville.

Despite so many victories however, the 79th sustained heavy losses throughout the Civil War. Out of a total enrolment of 2,200, 198 were killed and 304 were wounded or missing. The unit was disbanded after the Union victory, and lived on through a veterans association. When it eventually died out, its legacy was passed on to the re-enactors, who recreate its living history today.

"Part of our mission is to transfer some of our heritage along to our young people," says McLain for whom a big part of the Cameron Highlanders is encouraging local young men to work together as a group, to learn values and discipline through their re-enactments. "We want to make sure it hasn't been forgotten and won't get lost. It's important that they have something to focus on."

MacDonald, former chief of the Caledonian Club in New York, is in no doubt of the importance of the 79th to the American people today. "The Civil War was a horrible moment in American history. It pulled this country apart," he says. "And we have to remember the people who fought in that and their reasons for doing so. A group like the 79th had a unique identity rather than just being a group of individuals who fought. They were people of Scottish descent who not only wanted to fight for their country, but also wanted to honour their heritage and their tradition."