It’s 150 years since the first battle of Bull Run, one of the highlights of the anniversary of the Civil War, which illuminated a small band of Scottish men who played a crucial role in the most brutal conflict in the history of the United States.
The group, named the 79th New York Highland Regiment, belonged to the New York Caledonian Club, a social organization for young Scottish immigrants , which was formed in 1859 as a civilian militia. It was one of the first regiments to respond to Abraham Lincoln’s call for volunteers in 1861, after the firing of General Beauregard on Fort Sumter, South Carolina.
“There was a good cross-section of young Scotsmen 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.”
They regiment originally wore kilts in the Cameron tartan, enormous white sporrans (Scottish Gaelic for purse–a traditional part of Scottish Highland outfits) and Glengarry bonnets.
Although they weren’t laughed at, they felt very uncomfortable and started to wear Cameron of Erracht tartan trews (trousers). The US government told them that they wouldn’t provide money for the uniforms and made them wear Union blue.
They, nevertheless, had strong Scottish fighting spirit and the regiment was one of the most active regiments of the Union side during the Civil War and took part in 27 campaigns.
It is said that 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.
In addition the New York regiment, we must be aware that many first and second generation Scots fought on both sides of the Civil War. Generals James Geddes and James Wilson, both from Edinburgh, Scotland, and General Robert E. Lee, along with conferderate generals Joseph Johnson and John Brown Gordon (who 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.”
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