The Road to Fort Sanders

This article is courtesy of Pvt Tom Vaselopulos, Co. A, 79th NY

Anyone familiar with the history of the 79th New York Volunteer Infantry, “The Cameron Highlanders”, are aware of the unit’s heroic defense of Fort Sanders in November, 1863.  But have you ever wondered how the unit got there?

The 79th New York was one of the most traveled units in the Federal Army, having fought in nearly every theater of the Civil War.  The unit fought its first major action in the eastern theater at the battle of Bull Run, near Manassas, VA.  The unit was then transferred to the Department of the South to fight in the amphibious campaigns in South Carolina, where they fought a heroic action at Secessionville, June 1862. 

Returning to the eastern theater the 79th New York was assigned to the IX Corp, Army of the Potomac and fought actions at Second Bull Run, Chantilly and then Antietam in 1862.  The Highlanders saw limited action at Fredericksburg to close out the year.  In March 1863 the unit as part of the IX Corp, was sent by ship and rail to Louisville, KY to join the Army of the Ohio in its anticipated campaign in eastern Tennessee arriving on March 26.  After making camp, and receiving four months back pay members of the unit made many visits to the town’s bars and parlor houses.  After a few days the unit was sent by rail to Lebanon, KY to establish camp.

On June 1st, the 79th had orders to return to Louisville for detached service, as the Highlanders were being transferred to the Army of Tennessee to participate in Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign.  They travelled by rail to Cairo, IL and then by the steamboat “Edward Walsh” down the Mississippi, where they landed at Young’s Point, MS on June 14th.

Upon landing the unit made camp and was awaiting the final assault on Vicksburg when it surrendered on July, 4th.  But there was still action for this fresh unit as Confederate General Joe Johnson was at Jackson, MS and threatening Grant’s rear.  The 79th was assigned to General William T. Sherman, their old Brigade Commander at Bull Run, and they proceeded to march to Jackson, MS, arriving there around July 8.  Sherman was in no hurry to attack Johnson, and he eventually decided to withdraw.  On July 16th the Highlanders entered Jackson to capture 150 “sleeping rebels”.  The 79th then proceeded to tear up railroad tracks before returning to Vicksburg.

On August 6th the Highlandersboarded the steamboat “Planet”, to return back to the Army of the Ohio and arrived back in Cairo, IL on August 12th.  After a two day rail trip the unit arrived in Cincinnati, OH.  From there the unit continued its train trip traveling through the cities of Paris and Lexington, KY before the rail line ended in Nicholasville, KY.  From there the unit marched almost two days to reach Camp Dick Robinson (near Hoskins Crossroads, KY) to rest and refit. Camp Dick Robinson had been established by General “Bull” Nelson in 1862 to recruit, equip and train Union volunteers from Kentucky.

On Sept 10th the Highlanders were on the move once again, marching towards Knoxville, crossing over both the Wildcat and Clinch Mountains, before making their way through the Cumberland Gap.  (This route is now part of US Route 25E.) The Highlanders reached Knoxville on September 26th.

On October 4th, the 79th marched to a tributary of the French Broad River, called Lick Creek fighting a skirmish there with advancing rebels there.  On October 10th, the Highlanders were part of Federal forces under General Edward Ferrero which engaged rebel forces at Blue Springs, TN.  The 79th took part of the attack that broke into the rebel line, causing heavy casualties, and advanced almost to the enemy’s rear before being checked, after dark, the rebels withdrew.

Returning to Knoxville on Oct. 14th, the 79th was camped near Loudon, TN.  The Highlanders were engaged in scouting and foraging expeditions around the Knoxville area. On Nov. 12th, pickets from 79th were driven back by rebel cavalry as part of General Longstreet’s campaign to re-take Knoxville.

General Burnside the commander of the Army of the Ohio, decided to have all units fall back to defensive positions established at Knoxville.  The Highlanders were one of the units selected to cover the withdrawal.  On Nov. 16th, the 79th was deployed across the Kingston Road (now the Kingston Pike) near Campbell Station (now Farragut, TN).  The Highlanders were assigned to support Benjamin’s Battery, stalled the rebel advance allowing Burnsides forces the time needed to make the march to Knoxville in safety.  After the action the 79th was withdrawn into the Knoxville defenses on Nov. 18th

The next day the Highlanders were once again assigned to support Benjamin’s Battery which was given the task of garrisoning Fort Sanders, the former rebel Fort Loudon.  The fort was renamed for General Sanders who was killed during a cavalry engagement during the withdrawal to Knoxville on Nov. 18th.

While assigned to Fort Sanders the Highlanders traded their rifles for shovels and were involved in improving the defensive works.  By this time the once 1,000 strong 79th New York, had been reduced to only 120 men.  From Nov. 19th to Nov. 28th, the Highlanders stood to in the Fort in face of the approaching rebel forces.  Working hard to improve the fort the unit took casualties from snipers awaiting the assault on the fort which took place on Nov. 29th.  The Highlanders withstood the attack earning the unit everlasting fame and one member of the 79th the Medal of Honor.

But that is another story.

Authors Note: Anyone traveling to the Perryville Battlefield in Kentucky, would be a short trip away from areas the 79th New York were stationed at.  Camp Dick Robinson no longer exists but a marker off US 27 marks the spot.  A few miles up the road from there is Camp Nelson, which has one original structure and a visitor center and displays that show camp life at that time.


“Thank God Lincoln had only one 79th Highlander Regiment” By Tony Mandara, Battles and campaigns, Crossfire, the magazine of the ACWRT – American Civil War Round Table

“Yankees in Kilts”, W. Mark McKnight, Civil War Times, December 1996

“The Seventy-ninth Highlanders, New York Volunteers in the War of the Rebellion, 1861-1865“, William Todd, 1886.


“Blue Bonnets O’er the Border, The 79th New York Cameron Highlanders”, William Mark McKnight, 1998.


Wikipedia articles on Camp Dick Robinson, Battle of Blue Springs, and the Knoxville Campaign




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