Getting Bitten by the Bait: The 21st Illinois at Stones River

It was about 4 o’clock in the afternoon of Tuesday, December 30, 1862. The location was just northwest of Murfreesboro, Tennessee where the advance elements of General Alexander M. McCook’s corps were pushing the outer line of the Confederate Army of Tennessee such as to take position for the night. Confederate resistance stiffened the further south and east McCook’s men pushed and by late afternoon, with the short winter day quickly turning to darkness, the scene was set for the sharp opening clash of the Battle of Stones River.

Colonel John Washington Shields Alexander, 21st Illinois Volunteer Infantry

In the vanguard of McCook’s thrust were two regiments of Colonel William P. Carlin’s brigade of General Jefferson C. Davis’ division, the 21st Illinois and the 15th Wisconsin. As Carlin’s brigade continued to push forward, it was soon far out in front of the two other brigades of Davis’ division, and despite pleas from Colonel Carlin to the other two brigade commanders to come forward and close the gap, Carlin’s brigade soon stuck out like a thumb in the eye of the awaiting Confederates. Advancing under the covering fire of the 2nd Minnesota Battery, the leading edge of that thumb was the brigade skirmish line led by Lieutenant Colonel Warren McMackin of the 21st Illinois who was out in front with Co. G of his regiment and a company of the 15th Wisconsin. Among the officers of Co. G was First Lieutenant Abraham Songer whose account of the resulting fight appears on the blog courtesy of David T. Dixon.

“In the afternoon, my company was ordered forward as skirmishers with a company of the 15th Wisconsin. After advancing a short distance, perhaps 300 yards, we were saluted by a volley from the Rebel skirmishers but soon had them on the run, my company losing its first man (Frank Walker) in battle. In moving forward, we came to a high cedar rail fence in a diagonal line to ours which divided the company. The captain crossed the fence with the right of the company, and I followed with the left or advanced with the left along the fence until we reached a level timber land. The brigade followed in two lines with the 21st Illinois and 15th Wisconsin in front followed by the 38th Illinois and 101st Ohio. The direction I had taken brought me in front of the 15th Wisconsin,” Songer wrote.

“But a line of Rebel infantry with a 12-pdr Parrott gun battery [Captain Felix Robertson’s battery] was waiting for us behind a fence hid by small brush. When the 21st Illinois and 15th Wisconsin got right up near the skirmish line, the Rebels opened fire with a terrible fury. The 21st Illinois charged up near enough to silence the artillery, but the infantry fire was more than they could stand, so both regiments fell back a short distance and held their line until dark, suffering heavily. My company was first in the Battle of Stones River in inaugurating the battle. After dark, we moved back some distance where we rested for the night,” he concluded.

Map depicting the position held by General Jefferson Davis' division at nightfall of December 30, 1862. The 15th Wisconsin and 21st Illinois had lost 175 men in their attempt to take Felix Robertson's battery at the Widow Smith House that afternoon. 

Private John Russell of Co. G was among the men who Songer led at Stones River and offered his own perspective of this action in a letter he wrote to his sister on January 14, 1863. “We were ordered to drive the Rebel skirmishers out of the woods which we advanced to do and soon were engaged with them. We drew their fire and then advanced on a run. Soon we drove them from their hiding places and fired at them as they ran behind trees to load. As soon as loaded, we again advanced on the run in a zig-zag course so as to prevent the Rebels from taking aim. They fired at us and ran again, we firing at them as they ran. We kept it up till they were driven back to their lines,” he wrote.

“The 15th Wisconsin and the 21st were then ordered to charge the Rebel lines which they did. I with several of our boys were in front of the 15th Wisconsin as they came up and we fell into their lines. The Rebel lines were broken, and we were moving on in the full tide of victory when we were opened upon by a masked battery on the right. We were ordered to fall back which we did about 150 yards. Our company, as the line fell back, took up the line of skirmishers and held the ground till night. A group of our boys were within 30 yards of the Rebel lines which position we held until we had shot all of our 60 rounds of cartridges away. I told the boys we had better fall back on the 15th Wisconsin for them to hold the ground, so I went back to get some relief. I went back to the 15th and told the Major that we were out of ammunition and wanted him to send some men to relieve us. He called for some to volunteer to go and soon they were ready. I deployed them and ordered them to advance on a run and keep under cover of the trees as much as possible. The balls flew by me on both sides and between my legs apparently by the double handful yet by the mercy of God, none were permitted to harm me,” Russell commented.

Lt. Col. Warren E. McMackin
21st Illinois Infantry

Sergeant William Wallace Hensley of Co. C of the 21st Illinois, a member of the color guard, contended that the Rebel battery “proved to be bait thrown out for us. It quickly went back and about 600 yards back the Rebel line lay and had a masked battery. It was in a grove of large oak trees and it was a dark cloudy day and just in front of them was a lane and two high rail fences which they threw down to out of the way of the artillery. It was so dark that we could not see where they were. We were in an open pasture on a small ridge and their artillery opened on us with grape and canister. Their second shot sent a ball about the size of a hen egg through the chest of the man to my left. Then we were ordered to lay down and fire. When one of their cannons would fire, the red blaze would show them in the dark and I would tuck my head to the ground till the balls would scatter all around us. About 50 feet in front of me was a pile of rails and I thought that if I would get there, the rails would offer some protection. I quickly crawled to them and was firing and loading as fat as I could but once when I went to load my gun, I found I had no ramrod. In my haste, I had shot it away.” Hensley turned around thinking he could pick up a ramrod from a fallen comrade but was stunned to find himself alone. “I was there fighting the whole Rebel army by myself. At dusk I went to see how the color guard was getting along. There were only five boys with the flag that day and all of them were wounded, all slight wounds except the flag bearer John Hunter who had a bad wound through the shoulder.”

The late afternoon charge on the Confederate battle line near the Widow Smith House by the 21st Illinois was a bloody debacle, and a charge made on Colonel John W.S. Alexander’s own initiative. As remembered by Colonel Carlin, the 21st Illinois came under a crossfire of artillery not only from the battery they were directly charging but from another battery located 250 yards further east. “His command was moving with a shout at the double quick step within 80 yards of the battery, already abandoned by its cannoneers, when a very heavy fire was opened on it by infantry which lay concealed behind fences and outhouses on the right and left of the battery. This fire killed and wounded a large number of the 21st Illinois and threw the left companies into some disorder,” Carlin noted. The regiment, numbering nearly 700 men when it undertook the charge, lost nearly 150 men in less than an hour, and limped back to Carlin’s line sadder if wiser.

Colonel John W.S. Alexander explained what happened in his official report of Stones River. “After advancing slowly and steadily for a time in passing  over a rocky piece of ground with occasional large trees and many small cedars shutting off the view to some extent of the surface immediately to me front, my attention was attracted by the discharge of a Rebel battery hitherto unknown before my right wing and directly in line of my march. It was apparently within the same enclosure and 50-80 yards distant; it was followed instantly by a very heavy volley of musketry from infantry concealed behind rail fences and log buildings near a farmhouse. A destructive fire weas returned by my men upon the instant which caused the enemy to recoil and the battery to start in retreat. I ordered me men to move forward and fix bayonets with a view to charge the battery and was upon the point of giving the necessary command when, the smoke lifting from the heavy volleys of musketry, I observed that the battery was further to the front than I had supposed and that the space was obstructed by two heavy rail fences, the position flanked by extensive cover to our left and fully occupied by infantry. While my attention was directed to the right of my line, the extreme left, under a misapprehension as to an order given and under a furious fire of musketry at short range, was thrown into temporary confusion. Under the circumstances, my line was retired 50-80 yards and ordered to lie down in front and to the right of Captain Hotchkiss’ battery [2nd Minnesota] while it replied to the Rebel battery. My men in the meantime occupied every available cover and hotly contested the ground with a strong force of Rebel sharpshooters after the Rebel battery was driven from its last position and until it was too dark to distinguish between friend and foe,” he wrote.


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