Former Governor Isaac Stevens offers his services to the U.S. Army in the Civil War on May 22, 1861.

  • By Jack and Claire Nisbet
  • Posted 8/01/2011
  • Essay 9895

On May 22, 1861, Isaac I. Stevens (1818-1862), Washington Territory's former Governor and congressional delegate, offers his services to the U. S. Army to fight in the newly declared Civil War.

To Serve the Union

After an absence of 19 months in Washington, D.C. as a congressional delegate, Isaac Stevens had returned to Washington Territory in mid-April, 1861, two weeks before news of the fall of Fort Sumter reached the Northwest. At the time, he was engaged in a vigorous campaign for nomination as the Democratic candidate for a third term as the territorial delegate to the U.S. Congress. When procedural maneuvers by his political opponents squashed his chances at the nomination, he immediately made plans to return East to join the Union forces.

A native of Massachusetts, a graduate of West Point, and a veteran of the Mexican-American War, Stevens believed that his experience would be of valuable service. In a May 22 letter to Simon Cameron (1799-1889), the Secretary of War, he wrote: "I have the honor to offer my services in the great contest now taking place for the maintenance of the Union in whatever military position the government may see fit to employ them ... . I need not add that, throughout this unhappy secession controversy, I have been an unwavering and stalwart Union man" (Stevens, 316)

That same day, he also wrote a personal note to James Nesmith (1820-1885), the senator from Oregon, who was then in Washington, D.C. asking him to personally inform the War Secretary of the sincerity of his offer. "I am afraid," Stevens wrote, "there is to be a protracted contest. I want to see the rebellion crushed out. The policy of conciliation, to which I adhered as long as it presented the least hope, has not only been exhausted, but it has been contemptuously rejected by the South. The war ought to be prosecuted with the utmost vigor ... . Nothing can be worse than anarchy" (Stevens, 317).

On June 17, he sailed for San Francisco aboard the steamer Cortez. En route he wrote to one of his former commanding officers, General Joseph Totten (1788-1864):

"I feel and know that I can do good service. Educated at the public expense, my country has a right to my services. This secession movement must be put down with an iron hand. Anarchy and interminable civil wars will be the inevitable, logical consequence of yielding to it" (Stevens, 318).

The general forwarded Stevens's letter to the Secretary of War along with a glowing endorsement:

"With a high order of talent, his great characteristics of promptness, boldness, and energy cannot fail to mark prominently any career that may be opened to him as a soldier, and I trust the government will at once avail itself of his high qualifications by assigning him a position that will give full play to powers so well suited to the present wants of the country" (Stevens, 318).

Fighting on the Union Side

But upon his arrival in Washington, D.C., in July, Stevens discovered to his dismay that there was no immediate appointment for such an outspoken Democrat, and not until August did he receive a commission as colonel of the 79th New York Highlanders, stationed near the Potomac River.

His abilities and experience were soon recognized, and his command "became a model for others to imitate" (Richards, 363). By the end of September, President Lincoln had promoted Stevens to brigadier general in recognition of his "energy, demonstrated military skill and judgment, aptitude for command, and especially his aggressive boldness" (Hemphill, 123).   

A year later, in September 1862, after another promotion, Major General Stevens was killed in the Battle of Chantilly.

Sources: John A. Hemphill, West Pointers and Early Washington (Seattle: The West Point Society of Puget Sound, Inc.); Kent D. Richards, Isaac Stevens: Young Man in a Hurry (Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1993); Hazard Stevens, The Life of Isaac Ingalls Stevens, Vol. 2 (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1901).

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