Isaac Ingalls Stevens was born on March 25, 1818, in North Andover, Massachusetts. He was the first son and third of seven children of Isaac Stevens and Hannah Cummings. Stevens’s father was a moderately successful farmer.
A slightly built and sickly child, Stevens was very close to his mother, who died on November 3, 1827, as the result of a carriage accident. Stevens’s father married Ann Poor two years later, but the child and his stepmother were never close.
Stevens worked on the family farm and in his uncle’s nearby weaving mill as a youth. He also attended local schools, including the Franklin Academy, in North Andover. As a teenager, he studied at Phillips Academy in Andover, where he excelled at mathematics.
U.S. Military Academy Cadet
In 1835, Stevens secured an appointment to the United States Military Academy. Among his classmates at West Point was future Union Army General-in-Chief Henry Halleck. Stevens graduated from the Academy in 1839, ranked first in his class of thirty-one cadets.
U.S. Army Officer
Following his graduation from West Point, Stevens received a commission as a second lieutenant on July 1, 1839, and joined the Corps of Engineers. Promoted to first lieutenant on July 1, 1840, Stevens spent the next sixteen years assisting with many engineering projects, most near the East Coast.
While stationed at Fort Adams, near Newport, Rhode Island, Stevens met Margaret Lyman Hazard, the daughter of Benjamin Hazard, a prominent local political figure. A romance developed, and the couple wed on September 8, 1841. The marriage produced five offspring, including Hazard Stevens, a Civil War Union brevet brigadier-general, and Congressional Medal of Honor recipient.
Like many West Point graduates and future Civil War officers, Stevens took part in the Mexican-American War (April 25, 1846-February 2, 1848). During that conflict, Stevens received a brevet promotion to captain on August 20, 1847, for gallant and meritorious conduct in the Battles of Contreras and Churubusco. Less than a month later, on September 13, 1847, officials brevetted Stevens to major for gallant and meritorious conduct in the Battle of Chapultepec, where he received a serious gunshot wound to the foot.
After the Mexican-American War, Stevens spent two more years working on engineering projects for the army. On September 14, 1849, the army placed him in charge of the Coast Survey Office in Washington, D.C. Responsible for mapping the nation’s newly gained territories, Stevens’ duties also included lobbying members of Congress. Stevens developed close relationships with many of the nation’s leading political figures, including future President Franklin Pierce.
Two days before Pierce assumed the U.S. presidency on March 4, 1853, Congress established the Washington Territory in the Pacific Northwest. On March 16, 1853, Stevens resigned his military commission, and President Pierce appointed him as governor of the freshly created territory.
Stevens’s new position also included the title of Commissioner for Indian Affairs for the Washington Territory. Stevens also requested and received authorization from Secretary of War Jefferson Davis to complete a survey for determining the best route for a northern railway connecting the Mississippi River to Puget Sound.
Stevens’s tenure as territorial governor was contentious, especially regarding the handling of American Indians and the land that white settlers coveted. He arranged for a series of councils with native leaders that resulted in the drafting of several treaties—many of which the government broke. Eventually, Stevens found himself embroiled in litigation and armed conflicts between the natives and settlers, prompting some unhappy residents to petition President Franklin Pierce for Stevens’s removal. Pierce stopped short of recalling Stevens, but he issued a reprimand. In 1857, the Indian situation gradually quieted down and territorial voters disentangled Stevens from the mess when they elected him as their delegate to Congress. Stevens represented the residents of the Washington Territory in Congress for the next four years.
Stevens played a prominent role in the split of the Democratic Party prior to the 1860 presidential election. He represented Oregon at the party’s first convention at Charleston, South Carolina, where delegates proved unable to agree upon a candidate. When a majority of delegates nominated Stephen A. Douglas at a second convention in Baltimore, Stevens joined a splinter group that nominated John C. Breckinridge to represent the newly formed Southern Democratic Party.
When the American Civil War began, Stevens volunteered his services to President Abraham Lincoln and the Union. Possibly suspicious of his political affiliations, however, military officials did not offer Stevens a commission in the Union army until after the federal defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run (July 21, 1861).
Service in South Carolina
Commissioned as a colonel in the volunteer army, Stevens assumed command of the 79th New York, known as the “Highlanders.” A few months later, on September 28, 1861, officials promoted Stevens to the rank of brigadier general of volunteers. In November, he took part in the capture of Port Royal Sound, South Carolina during the Port Royal Expedition (November 3-7, 1861). On June 16, 1862, Stevens’s brigade suffered heavy casualties during the Union defeat at the Battle of Secessionville, the only Union attempt to capture Charleston, South Carolina, by land during the American Civil War.
Northern Virginia Campaign
In July, the army sent Stevens to Virginia to command the 1st Division of the 9th Corps of the Army of the Potomac. The 9th Corps was attached to Major General John Pope‘s newly formed Army of Virginia during Confederate General Robert E. Lee‘s Northern Virginia Campaign. Stevens’s brigade was in the thick of the action during the Union disaster at the Second Battle of Bull Run (August 28, 1862-August 30, 1862).
Death at the Battle of Chantilly
As the federal army retreated toward the safety of the defensive fortifications surrounding Washington, Lee ordered General Stonewall Jackson to turn Pope’s right flank and to get between the Union army and the capital. Jackson’s immediate goal was to occupy Jermantown and block the Warrenton Turnpike leading to Washington. On September 1, 1862, Stevens made a forced march to get between Jackson and Jermantown.
When Jackson received reports of Stevens’s movement, he dispatched Major General A. P. Hill‘s division to determine the strength of the Union force assembling in front of him. As the two sides skirmished during a steady drizzle around four o’clock, Jackson began deploying his soldiers at the edge of a woods overlooking a cornfield on the Reid Farm.
At roughly 4:30 p.m., Stevens sent a request to the rear for reinforcements and then ordered his division forward to engage the Rebels. Almost simultaneously, the rain intensified into a severe thunderstorm. During the assault, Stevens came upon his son, Captain Hazard Stevens, who had been wounded. After sending his son to the rear, Stevens continued to advance. When his standard-bearer fell at about 5 p.m., Stevens took up the flag and urged his troops forward. Almost immediately, the general received a gunshot wound to the head, killing him instantly. Although Stevens lost his life at the Battle of Chantilly, his act of bravery was highly instrumental in enabling the Army of the Potomac to escape disaster.
After the battle, Stevens’s men retrieved his body and sent it to Washington, DC. Stevens was buried at Island Cemetery, Newport, Rhode Island. In March 1863, officials posthumously promoted Stevens to major general to date from July 18, 1862.