January 24, 2010

The Life of Isaac Ingalls Stevens

By the time the Civil War started, Isaac Ingalls Stevens (1818-1862) had already lived quite a successful public life. At forty-three years old, the diminutive Stevens had served as a US Congressman as well as the first governor of the Washington Territory (1853-1857). His education had been obtained at West Point, where he graduated first in his class of 1839 and then went on to serve in the corps of engineers. During the 1846-48 war with Mexico, his bravery earned him several brevet promotions. Following the war, Stevens wrote a book about his exploits titled Campaigns of the Rio Grande and Mexico, with Notices of the Recent Work of Major Ripley (New York, 1851), which is a rare book in its own right.

Once the war came about, Stevens obtained a commission as colonel of the 79th New York Infantry, also famously known as the Cameron Highlanders, who were well known for wearing their Scottish kilts on dress parade (though not in battle). A promotion to brigadier general soon followed as did a transfer to the South Carolina coast where Stevens and his men took part in actions at Port Royal and James Island. He continued to climb the command ladder and by the time the battle of Secessionville took place, Stevens held division command. That command was transferred back to Virginia as part of the IX Corps under John Pope during the ill-fated Northern Virginia Campaign of 1862. On September 1, 1862, only two days following the Union disaster at Second Bull Run, Stevens was shot in the head and killed instantly while leading his men in a charge at the Battle of Chantilly. By that time, Stevens was considered to be one of the brightest stars in the Union officer corps. Following his death, he was posthumously promoted to major general effective as of July 1862.

Also present and wounded at the Battle of Chantilly was Stevens’s son, Hazard (1842-1918), who, like his father before him, was serving with the 79th New York. In the decades following the war, Hazard would set about writing his father’s biography, which was ultimately published in 1900 by Houghton Mifflin as a two-volume hardcover set. According to George H. Tweney, "In some respects, this is a somewhat biased account of the life of the first Territorial Governor of Washington Territory. It covers all details of Stevens' life, including his career in the Mexican War, as Commissioner of Indian Affairs and Governor, as Indian negotiator, explorer, railroad surveyor, and one of the principal figures in the settlement and growth of the northwest." On the other side of the coin, David Eicher writes in his Civil War bibliography (#583) that the work “draws on official documents, contains many excerpts of letters, focuses primarily on military matters, and maintains objectivity.” While that may be the case, the reader is almost two-thirds of the way through volume two before the Civil War commences.

The first edition was bound in heavy blue cloth with the spine lettering and top edge of the sheets in gold gilt. The title page and copyright page should both state 1900 as the year of publication. In conducting research for this post, I discovered the pictured copy, which is the only set I’ve ever seen in dust jacket. As all serious collectors will know, the presence of those jackets, though quite plain, will add substantial value to the set. This is the preeminent work on Stevens and written by one who was in position to know what we wrote of. An important work and desirable book for any collector of the Civil War or Pacific Northwest.

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