As we saw in my last post, the war had not gone well for the 79th New York. The regiment, known as the "Cameron Highlanders," had experienced high losses at Bull Run and mutinied when faced with the prospect of many more years of fighting. The soldiers had witnessed the ultimate humiliation of their colors being taken away on orders from General McClellan. As the 79th set out with the reconnaissance force to Lewinsville on September 11, 1861, the soldiers must surely have realized that they had already lost a lot, and could lose even more.
Col. Isaac Stevens, here a Brigadier General in Beaufort, S.C. (Library of Congress)
The leader of the Union expedition that day was the 79th New York's own commander, Colonel Isaac Stevens, who would be killed at the Battle of Chantilly almost a year later. The force consisted of the 79th, as well as four companies of the First Regiment U.S. Chasseurs, two companies of the 2nd Vermont, two companies of the 3rd Vermont, five companies of the 19th Indiana, four guns of Captain Charles Griffin's battery, and a detachment of 50 regular cavalry and 40 volunteer cavalry.
The Village of Lewinsville during the war, Harper's Weekly, December 14, 1861
Stevens set out from Camp Advance around 7:30 in the morning and arrived at Lewinsville around 10 am. He immediately placed the troops in a defensive perimeter around the village. The 79th New York was stopped about one-third a mile from Lewinsville, and according to Stevens, "a heavy body [of the Highlanders] were thrown out as skirmishers to cover the country towards Falls Church."
The reconnaissance was successful and recall was sounded around 2 pm. Southern pickets, however, had been eyeing the Union presence and sent word to the Confederate lines. Colonel J.E.B. Stuart rode to Lewinsville with a small force and unleashed an attack just as the Union soldiers were assembling and preparing to return to Camp Advance. The 79th, caught near the Gilbert family house, faced fire from both musket and cannon. Stevens decided to continue the march back to camp, rather than engage his whole force, and ordered Griffin's battery to cover the withdrawal from Lewinsville. The 79th New York helped to protect the retiring Union soldiers and provided support to a battery which had arrived on the field. The entire force reached Camp Advance in relatively good order. Overall, casualties were light, with about two Union soldiers killed, 13 wounded, and three captured.
In reports filed after the battle, commanders sung the praises of the 79th New York. According to Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Shaler of the 65th New York, who had immediate command of the 79th during the battle:
The conduct of the officers and men of the Seventy-ninth while under my command was in the highest degree praiseworthy. They gave undoubted evidence of their bravery and resoluteness.Captain David Ireland of the 79th explained that:
The conduct of the officers and men on this occasion was all that could be desired. They were cool and collected, behaving as well as if on parade, and more like veteran troops than volunteers. Where all did so well it would be wrong to individualize.To Lieutenant Samuel R. Elliott of the 79th, who was engaged around the Gilbert house:
The men throughout behaved admirably; even after it became certain that those crouching forms were the enemy's advance they showed less trepidation than perhaps I might have wished for the sake of celerity.We may not know whether these officers were motivated by some self-interested or altruistic desire to see the 79th's reputation rehabilitated. Or perhaps the Federal officers were so relieved that the ranks did not panic and run like at Bull Run that they were overly effusive in their praise. Regardless, the 79th New York had performed up to par, and was congratulated after the battle by General McClellan himself. (From various secondary accounts, it is unclear whether the commander of the Army of the Potomac met the troops in camp, or on the road around present-day McLean.)
A few days later, on September 14, no less an officer than "Little Mac" wrote to General Smith:
The colors of the New York Seventy-ninth will be sent to you to- morrow. Please return them to the regiment, with the remark that they have shown by their conduct in the reconnaissance of the 11th instant that they are worthy to carry the banner into action, and the commanding general is confident they will always in future sustain and confirm him in the favorable opinion he has formed of them.The Battle of Lewinsville may be little remembered, but to the men of the 79th, it was a fight to re-take the colors, from the Union Army itself.