In 1773, the family of Alexander and Margaret Cameron packed their belongings and left Glenmoriston, Inverness-shire to live in the American colonies. They settled in Schenectady, New York, unfortunately, this was a time of civil war for the British world. Alexander had witnessed the disturbing aftermath of the last Jacobite Uprising, and his teenage son, Duncan, was on the losing side in the War for American Independence, serving with the King's Royal Regiment of New York. Following America's success, the Camerons joined other persecuted royalists across the border to British North America. The family resettled in Williamstown, Glengarry County (now part of Ontario). Duncan Cameron began working for the North West Company, and by 1800 was a partner. In 1814, he took charge of the Red River section which was contested by the Hudson Bay Company, based in London. Following an attack on Fort Gibraltar in April 1816, Duncan was captured and sent to England for trial. His defense proved successful, and the Hudson Bay Company paid him damages for wrongful imprisonment. Duncan then retired to Williamstown in 1820 to marry Margaret McLeod, their son Roderick Cameron was born in Williamstown on 5 July 1823
In 1858, the Scots and Scottish-Americans of the New York Caledonian Club conceived the idea of a military unit founded along Highland principles, with members drawn from their own community. They chose the numerical designation " 79" to form a link with the 79th Cameron Highlanders of the British military. The desire for such a connection may be due to the influence of Roderick Cameron, a prominent Canadian businessman operating in New York. Cameron lent his support to the 79th
The first formation the 79th was on 9 October 1858 with 223 officers and other ranks present, some of which were veterans of the Crimean War. Their time was spent drilling or participating in social events at their headquarters in Mercer House. The prospect of civil war seemed unlikely at this point in time, although tensions were rising over the question of slavery. When war came, it came like a storm.
On 12 April 1861, the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter in South Carolina. By 27 May, the 79th NYSM was mustered into federal service with the required 1,000 men, and on 4 June, they made their first camp, named Lochiel, in Washington DC.
The regiment's first colonel was James Cameron from Pennsylvania, the brother of Simon Cameron, Lincoln's Secretary of War. Unfortunately, a minie ball abruptly ended his tenure during the first major battle of the war, First Bull Run. This battle is most remembered for the complete rout of the Union forces. Soldiers dropped their kits and weapons, and sped past the civilians who had come from Washington DC to view the spectacle. However, the 79th was among those regiments who refused to retreat, and thus prevented the capture of the capital, losing 197 men in the process. Their sacrifice is largely forgotten in American history books.
Even at the time, the 79th received little recognition. The regiment was placed on ditch digging duty. Promises of leave were denied, and morale sank. Many of the officers who had survived First Bull Run wanted to resign their commissions and return home. The tradition among the members was to elect a new commander from among the officers. However, the United States government instead appointed a new colonel, a veteran of the Mexican-American War, and former governor of Washington territory, Isaac Stevens. All of these factors led to a bloodless mutiny on 14 August. Federal regular troops were brought in, and the companies in mutiny relented at the point of artillery barrels. Despite this initial black mark on the honour of the regiment, the 79th quickly proved their valour in small defensive skirmishes, and were among the first regiments sent South. Their mission as part of the Carolina expedition was to capture Charleston.
During this period, Colonel Stevens was promoted to general, and David Morrison, a Crimean War veteran from the Black Watch, served as colonel of the 79th. Morrison reportedly refused to allow any non-Scot to be promoted above the rank of captain. The reason given for this decision was the desire to maintain Scottish leadership. The regiment seemed to be constantly struggling to maintain its Highland identity. The new recruits sent to replace fallen soldiers were of varied ethnic backgrounds, from American, Irish, English, and German communities. It is not uncommon for the British Highland regiments to have non-Scottish members, but a Scottish and especially Highland majority is always the ideal. In spite of these obstacles, the 79th succeeded in maintaining its Highland identity throughout the war.
One of the key battles for the 79th during the Carolina expedition involved an assault on Tower Battery, James Island. The men found themselves charging works, while the 1st South Carolina Battalion, which included a Southern Scottish regiment, the Charleston Highlanders, fired bits of broken chain and iron tools upon them. Two brothers from Crieff found themselves on opposing sides in this battle. Nevertheless, Alexander Campbell of the 79th and James Campbell of the Charleston Highlanders, continued to correspond after the engagement. The Charleston Mercury later described the 79th as " the valiant Paladins of the North" and thanked God that Lincoln had but one 79th New York. It was during this campaign that the regiment acquired their dog, Tip, and a pet alligator. Tip served with the regiment throughout the war, but the alligator was left behind.
Scots have historically found themselves on opposing sides in various conflicts. Contrary to Roderick Cameron's belief, Scottish support for the 79th NYSM was limited. Following nine months in the Carolinas, the 79th fought in nearly every major engagement of the Civil War. As the 19th century equivalent of the modern Special Forces, they travelled more than any other Northern regiment. Aside from the battles, other regimental adventures included saving escaped slaves while under Confederate fire, the Battle of the Choirs between the 79th and a house full of Southern ladies, and one march where the Highlanders had to lower their supply wagons through the steep mountain passes of Tennessee.
At the First Battle of Bull Run, the 79th had lost Colonel James Cameron. During a sideline to the Battle of Second Bull Run, known as the Battle of Chantilly, the 79th lost Cameron's replacement, General Isaac Stevens. Several standard bearers of the 79th were shot down in succession. General Stevens passed through the ranks, took hold of the St. Andrew's Cross, and shouted, " Follow me my Highlanders. Follow your general." Then he too fell to a bullet. Reports state that as he fell, the banner covered his body like a shroud. After their beloved general fell, the enraged Highlanders rushed forward, and routed the Confederates. Newspapers of the period wrongly depicted General Stevens carrying the Stars and Stripes, and not the Saltire.
The Battle of Spotsylvania occurred the day before the 79th's three year enlistment concluded. General Wilcox chose to keep the 79th from the fray, but when the inexperienced Union troops were repulsed, he reluctantly called upon the Highlanders. Colonel Morrison called up the men for one last time, and they marched forward to drive the Confederates from the field. Wilcox later said, " Highlanders, you have once more saved my division."
Following their service, the 79th reformed to serve as provost guard for the duration of the war.