The 79th NYSM was inspected by the Adjutant General of New York on October 25, 1859 with 223 officers and men present, and on the eve of the Civil War had a strength of 300, mostly first- or second-generation Scots. For war service the strength was increased to 795 men of various ethnic backgrounds.
It is not clear if all of the pre-war companies (six companies of about 50 men each) were given the full-dress uniform with kilts. In common with other pre-war militia units, each company may have had a different uniform, and each soldier probably was issued various orders of dress. Whereas the full dress uniform consisted of Glengarry (Scottish cap), tunic, kilt, sporran (hairy purse), hose (socks), and buckled shoes, a second uniform consisted of kepi (typical Civil War cap), tunic (the same as the full dress tunic), tartan trousers, and normal Army shoes. When the regiment went to war in 1861 it was this second uniform which was worn. Numerous photographs and engravings show that the full-dress tunic and tartan trousers were worn on active service. As the war progressed and these unique items wore out they were replaced by standard Army-issue blue trousers and navy blue “sack coats”. By mid-war the 79th NYSM was scarcely distinguishable from any other Union regiment.
The dress uniform as shown in pre-war photographs, and the Gettysburg uniform:
It is the pre-war full dress uniform that concerns us here. When I began researching the uniform (including a trip to Gettysburg) I was struck by how strongly the various sources coincided. Usually in historical research one is met with a variety of conflicting evidence and some sort of theoretical compromise has to be created. However, all pre-war sources pertaining to the uniform of the 79th New York agree. These sources consist of the only three photographs known of members of the 79th NY in kilts (shown here) and the uniform in the Gettysburg museum. The photographs speak for themselves. In the case of the Gettysburg uniform I am greatly indebted to Lee Phillips who was given permission to examine, photograph, and make diagrams of what is possibly the only extant complete pre-war uniform. Ancillary sources include the famous engraving which appeared in Harper’s Weekly in 1861, and the illustration on an 1861 recruiting poster (though these are artistic interpretations and have to be viewed with caution).
What is striking about the uniform is that every item is unique, not resembling anything made in Scotland for military or civilian use, nor resembling anything worn by any other American unit. The full dress uniform consisted of:
Glengarry: The shape of the Glengarry is different than those of today, being somewhat taller. These tall Glengarries were in vogue in Scotland for a short time after the Glengarry’s invention in the 1840’s and must have seemed old-fashioned to a Scot in 1859. The color is the typical dark blue with red tourie (yarn ball on top). However, the dicing (checked) pattern is unique, having two rows of squares in red/white/blue. All Scottish-made Glengarries have either three rows of dicing or no dicing. The cap badge is a small brass New York State seal. One photo shows metal numerals “79” worn on the front along with a metal thistle badge. The Gettysburg Glengarry has “79” over “NY” on the side in place of the New York State seal badge.
Tunic: This is also unique to the 79th NY. While the three-button three-pointed cuffs were worn by other New York units the collar and “skirts” are unique. The collar features red patches bordered by zigzags of white piping resembling lighting bolts (the “wings of Mercury”). The flaps or skirts around the bottom of the tunic appear to be a vague attempt at the “Inverness flaps” of a Scottish doublet, though the front panels of the tunic are each of one piece from the collar to the bottom of the flap, merely being “cut away” to accommodate the sporran. Removable elaborate fringed epaulettes were usually worn in full dress. The tunic itself had no shoulder straps. No collar badges were worn. This tunic was also worn on active service (with trousers and kepi) as is shown by the photographs of 79th NY members taken prisoner at First Bull Run, and sketches of 79th NY members wounded in hospital.
Kilt: About 200 kilts were made by New York tailors. These were machine-sewn throughout and contained six yards of Cameron of Erracht tartan. The back had 12 “box pleats” and were neither sewn “to the stripe” nor “to the tartan” but appear as if a half-hearted attempt to pleat “to the tartan” were being made. The tartan was not centered on the front panel, nor was the fringe aligned to the tartan. The strap on the wearer’s left does not go through a slot in the kilt as on Scottish-made kilts, but buckles internally, a system perhaps unique to the kilts of the 79th New York. I am indebted to Matthew Newsome, a kilt maker who has examined an original 79th New York kilt, for this information.
Sporran: Though not completely dissimilar to any Scottish sporran the 79th sporran is again unique: white horse or goat hair, three black tassels in black leather cones, and a uniquely shaped black leather cantle. Like other mid-19th century sporrans it is somewhat larger than those made today.
Hose: Red-and-white diced “full hose” were common to a number of Scottish regiments, but those of the 79th New York had unique plain white turnovers. The garter ribbons are typical of the 1810-1850 period, worn over the turnovers.
Shoes: These are neither colonial-style with functional buckle, nor the Scottish “Mary Jane” style worn today. They resemble loafers with a decorative (non-functional) buckle. This type can be seen in photos of Scottish officers in “Levee Dress” in the 1850-1870 period.
Belt: The group photo shows the typical Civil War black leather belt with brass oval buckle (bearing the letters “US” or “SNY”), while the photo of James Berry shows a tall rectangular buckle bearing the letter “B” (referring to Company B).
The Albany uniform:
There exists a somewhat different uniform on display in Albany, New York which is thought to be post-war (the 79th New York National Guard was not dissolved until 1876). The tunic and sporran are not quite the same as the pre-war type, and the Glengarry and hose-tops appear to be Scottish-made items quite unlike those worn by the 79th NYSM from 1859-1861. It is this uniform, and not the pre-war Gettysburg uniform, which has been photographed for a number of Civil War picture books (“First Blood” page 137 and “Memorabilia of the Civil War” page 10, both by William C. Davis).
Incorrect depictions of the uniform in various books:
The 79th New York’s uniform has been misrepresented in a number of books, especially “Uniforms of the Civil War” by Philip Haythornthwaite. In the illustration the Glengarry, tunic, kilt, sporran, hose, and garter ribbons are incorrect, and in the text the tunic and sporran are incorrectly described. Photographs of prisoners in kilts are mentioned: no such photographs are known to exist. The author alleges that kilt aprons were worn: kilt aprons did not appear until the Boer War, 40 years after the Civil War. Haythornthwaite, suspiciously, gives no sources for any of his ideas. “Combat Uniforms of the Civil War” by Mark Lloyd is scarcely better. In the illustration the Glengarry has bizarre red/white/pink dicing and the jacket is wrong in several details. Part of the jacket’s red piping has attached itself somehow to the sporran. However, the footwear is correctly shown. The text describes a uniform quite different than the one shown in the illustration and even more removed from what the 79th NY actually wore. While containing much of interest, “Blue Bonnets Over The Border” by William McKnight presents a fuzzy picture of the 79th NY’s uniform in which concrete evidence and pure conjecture are given equal weight. At least McKnight has a bibliography, which reveals that among his sources are the fanciful books by Haythornthwaite and Lloyd. It is in this way that misinformation is repeated by those who do not choose to be guided by the evidence. I should point out that McKnight or his publisher switched the captions to the photos of 79th New York uniforms displayed in museums (pages 145 and 146). Just what purpose the absurd and inaccurate modern drawings in all of these books are supposed to serve, when period photographs exist which show the uniform in wonderful detail, is hard to fathom.
Dissimilarity to the uniform of the 79th Foot (Cameron Highlanders) of Scotland:
Note that not a single item of the uniform of the 79th New York State Militia’s 1859-1861 full dress uniform resembles any part of the uniform of the 79th Foot (Cameron Highlanders) of Scotland, with the exception of the tartan (as we have seen, the construction of the kilt is quite different). I often see items of the Scottish Cameron Highlanders incorrectly worn on the uniform of the 79th New York by Civil War re-enactors, such as collar badges, cap badges, spats, kilt covers, and even the “blue hackle”, which was not adopted by Scotland’s Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders until 1940, making it an anachronism of nearly a century!
Did the 79th New York have pipers? The controversy:
Most serious students have come to the conclusion that the 79th New York did not have their own pipers or pipe band. Some contend that the “Pipe and Drum Corps” (whatever that may have been) of New York’s Caledonian Club provided music for the 79th New York on occasion. The photograph of the 79th New York marching down a New York street on July 4, 1860 shows what appears to be three pipers marching in front, their pipes held to the side with drones facing forward in the military “pipes down” position. Though it is possible that these are officers holding swords, on close examination I believe them to be pipers. If they are indeed pipers they are wearing the same uniform as the regiment except that their tunics seem to have three rows of buttons, a common distinction for musician’s uniforms in the Civil War. Adding to the uncertainty is a post-war (1890) engraving of Colonel Laing of the 79th New York State National Guard: his tunic, thought closely resembling the pre-war dress tunic, has three rows of buttons.
My 79th New York Dress Uniform: I have long been fascinated by this unique Scottish-American regiment, the only unit in United States military history to be issued the kilt. It was difficult to put together the uniform as almost everything had to be custom-made.
The tunic was beautifully tailored by Scottish Modern Enterprises of Archer, Illinois and the sporran was wonderfully crafted by L&M Highland Outfitters of Nova Scotia. The authentic 79th New York style shoe buckles were provided by MacKenzie Frain LTD of Dalzell House, Motherwell, Scotland. Both the tunic and sporran were based on diagrams by Lee Phillips made directly from the Gettysburg uniform. I feel that it is very appropriate to wear this uniquely American uniform when piping for US military functions.