A Band of Gypsies: The 19th Tennessee and the Fight for the Slaughter Pen

    By the time of the Battle of Stones River, the 19th Tennessee was one of most well-traveled regiments in the Army of Tennessee having moved through half of the states of the Confederacy in a year including Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Georgia. Raised around Knoxville in the early days of the war, the 19th was placed under the command of Brigadier General Felix Zollicoffer and was among the first Confederate regiments to occupy Cumberland Gap. The 19th Tennessee first smelled powder during the October 22, 1861 battle for Camp Wild Cat in Kentucky (see here) but was not actively engaged in the fight. A few months later, the 19th took part in the Battle of Mill Springs (see here) and suffered a loss of 34 men.

Following Zollicoffer’s defeat, the regiment retreated from southern Kentucky to Murfreesboro and then to Corinth, Mississippi where it joined up with the rest of Albert Sidney Johnston’s army. The regiment took part in the Battle of Shiloh as part of General Breckinridge’s division and lost heavily during the engagement. It took part in the siege of Corinth and retreated with the army to Tupelo, Mississippi until being sent to Vicksburg on June 28, 1862. The regiment took part in several expeditions around Vicksburg before being sent further south to participate in Breckinridge’s attack on Baton Rouge, Louisiana on August 5th. It, along with Breckinridge’s division, was later sent north and followed a lengthy railroad journey that took them from Mississippi to Mobile, Montgomery, Atlanta, and finally Chattanooga in the fall of 1862, and eventually joined up with Bragg’s Army of the Tennessee at Murfreesboro in time to take part in the Battle of Stones River.


A pair of well-dressed Tennessee privates pose in seven button frock coats with their muskets and bayonets while the soldier on the left appears to be holding a small pepperbox revolver. Pepperbox revolvers quickly lost their popularity in the 1850s as manufacturers such as Colt and Remington developed true revolvers. It is possible the gun was simply a photographer's prop. The trim around the collar would be a dark blue indicating these soldiers as infantrymen. 


Once at Murfreesboro, the 19th was reassigned to General Alexander P. Stewart’s brigade of Benjamin Cheatham’s division of Polk’s Corps; the brigade consisted of the 4th/5th Tennessee Consolidated 24th Tennessee, 31st/ 33rd Tennessee Consolidated along with Stanford’s Mississippi battery. The regiment went into action with 382 officers and men and lost 127 in the desperate fighting of December 31st

Numbered among the lost was Major Rufus A. Jarnagin, who went by the nickname Ruf (“roof” not “ruff”) who was mortally wounded while leading the left wing of the regiment into the Cedars. Dr. W.J. Worsham in his regimental history of the 19th Tennessee wrote that Jarnagin had served his first year as a private in the ranks, but when the regiment was reorganized at Corinth in May 1862, he was elected to the rank of major. "Jarnagin was a noble officer, and brave soldier, although small in stature he was every inch a man; he was liked by all, kind and generous," Worsham noted. “Major Jarnagin was ever at his post and in the midst of battle received wounds which hurried him to the grave,” reported the Knoxville Register. “His friends could give him but little assistance at the time, but he was soon taken to the town and cared for as best the occasion would allow. It became proper for the army to fall back, leaving Murfreesboro in the hands of the enemy. Major Jarnagin was in such condition as to render his removal impracticable and was therefore left in the lines of his foes beyond the reach of assistance and consolation of his friends. Nothing definite could be learned of his last days nor of the precise time of his death. His family and friends only know that he gave his life in defense of his home and country and poured out his life’s blood on the altar of liberty.”

Colonel Francis M. Walker led the regiment during the battle and penned a note to Ruf’s father back in Knoxville remembering his major’s courage, gallantry, and devotion to the Bible. “He read his Bible quite often and exhibited many evidences of a Christian faith and was pious and moral in all his conduct and conversation,” Walker noted. Walker’s after-action report is one of the best written accounts of the action in the Slaughter Pen from the perspective of a Confederate soldier and it is included here in its entirety from the O.R.

 

"Old Straight" A.P. Stewart became Lieutenant General Stewart by war's end. A solid and steady commander well-respected by his men, Stewart eventually led a corps under Hood and finally the remnant of the Army of the Tennessee during the Battle of Bentonville in March 1865. His brigade was one that finally cracked the Federal line in the cedars. 

No. 203

Report of Colonel Francis M. Walker

19th Tennessee Volunteer Infantry

 

SHELBYVILLE, TENN., January 10, 1863

About sunrise Monday morning, December 29, the 19th Tennessee Regiment, under my command, moved on the left of your brigade to a position previously selected on the north bank of Stone's River, where we were posted in line of battle as the extreme left regiment of the brigade. The regiment numbered in line 348 privates and non-commissioned officers, 30 company officers, 3 field officers, and adjutant; aggregate, 382. We remained at the point above mentioned in line until 9 a.m. Wednesday, uninterrupted except by the occasional explosion near us of a stray shell from the enemy's batteries, when we moved forward in line with the brigade to the attack, in support of the front line of the corps, we being in the second line. On our way we met many stragglers and wounded men from the front lines retiring to the rear, the former demoralized, the latter disabled. The first we tried to turn back, urging them to renew their efforts; the last we could but pity.

          Some 400 yards from our first position, we came to the position previously occupied by the front or first lines the day before, and where they had thrown up a temporary breastwork of loose stone and timber. At and behind this the regiment halted for half an hour or more under a heavy fire from some unseen batteries in our front. At this point, while my men were lying behind the loose wall of rock, a shell struck the latter near the center of my left wing, wounding, by the fragments of shell and shattered rock, 6 of my men, all of whom were disabled and 1 of whom soon after died. Moving from this point we came to the Wilkinson pike, up which we moved by the left flank near 300 yards, when, again resuming the movement to the front, we moved forward through a field to the top of a slight elevation, where the battery which had been playing on us is believed to have been posted. But just when we were resuming the march to the front and crossing the Wilkinson pike we could distinctly see by the action of the men in the front line (for we had now come in sight of them) that they were on the eve of being driven back, if, indeed, they had not already entirely given way. Many of them were falling back, and all seemed disorganized. But our line promptly moved up to their support and crossed the field to the elevation. Here, for the first time, we could see the evidence of the conflict in the field beyond the elevation. Numbers of dead and wounded were lying about, both Confederate and Federals, horses, and arms, and equipment, and here we first felt the fire from the small arms of the enemy.

          Pushing forward, we crossed the field and entered the thick cedar woods in which the enemy had taken shelter. In the edge of this wood we came up with three or four pieces of the battery which they had vainly endeavored to withdraw. These are believed to have been the guns posted on the elevation in the field above mentioned, and from which we had received the injury while at the rock wall in the woods. As we entered the woods the enemy gave us a most galling fire, but we moved steadily forward, driving them farther into the thick wood, and now we passed the various pieces of artillery which they were trying to remove, but which, on our approach and under our fire and from loss of horses, thickness of timber, &c., they were forced soon to abandon. These we left in our rear and pressed upon the heavy lines of their infantry, under whose fire we were exposed.

Some 200 yards farther into the woods the enemy appeared in great force, rather to my left. They here poured in upon me a most effective and murderous fire. This we returned with all the vigor and rapidity possible, gradually moving forward, swinging, according to orders, a little from left to right. This constant and severe fire continued for near an hour, when, but the persistency and accuracy of our fire, our steady and resistless advance, the obstinacy of the enemy was at last overcome, and, giving way, a perfect rout ensued. Their retreat was rapidly followed up by us through the woods for several hundred yards, and through and old field, through which a ravine and also the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad ran, within which and behind the embankment of the railroad the enemy took refuge. At these points they were beyond the reach of our small arms. We pursued no farther than the edge of this field. But before reaching their safe retreat, while they passed through the woods and field, hundreds of them paid the penalty with their lives for their rash act of invasion and wicked occupation of an unoffending country. The marks on the arms and equipment picked up on the field from which we drove the enemy, as well as the statements of prisoners captured, show conclusively that the brigade or division which we fought was regular troops.

          By your direction, the entire brigade halted at the edge of the field, for at the time, and all the time of our advance, through the woods, there appeared no support upon our left. It is believed if a battery could have been put in position near the point occupied by my left, the enemy could have been shelled from their shelter in the ravine and behind the railroad, and the day might thus have been more completely ours. Six or eight thousand men seemed to be striving for the mastery, in confusion, in this field, and would have been easily driven into the woods beyond.

          But a battery was out of the question, for we could scarcely get through parts of the woods through which we came. We remained in position here until near night, when we retired with the brigade to the rear a few hundred yards, for rest. We moved back to the front each succeeding day, keeping skirmishers in front near the edge of the field for three days, but no casualties or engagement of note further occurred until we moved with the brigade in retreat on the evacuation on Sunday morning.

          In the engagement my men captured about 50 prisoners, who were sent to the rear. We also brought from the field about three hundred guns besides our own, some of the men bringing off three. The loss of the regiment in killed and wounded was 127 as will appear from the accompanying report* of my adjutant. My major (Rufus A. Jarnigan) was mortally wounded while leading the left wing in a charge. Captain J. G. Frazier, Company D, was killed instantly at the head of his company. Lieutenant S. G. Abernathy fell at this post. No braver or more gallant officers than these have given their lives to their country in this war.

          I hope, sir, that the conduct of the men and officers of this regiment in the engagement at Murfreesboro and the days and nights of duty and exposure connected with it has been satisfactory to you. I can complain of none of them myself but might compliment many of them in terms of high encomium. I might with propriety mention the case of Corporal Mayson, of the color-guard, who, when the color-sergeant was wounded and the colors fell from his hand, instantly seized it in exultation, bearing it as a beacon to the regiment through the storm of the battle; and of Orderly Sergeant Joseph Thompson, who, upon reaching the edge of the field where the brigade halted, ran forward, overtaking the retreating enemy, seized a prisoner and started back with him, but this person being shot down in his hands he relinquished him; back to the lines of the still-retreating enemy, and seized a second prisoner, whom he brought off safely.

          Before closing this report, sir, I beg leave to congratulate you upon the successful and skillful manner in which your brigade was maneuvered and kept together, and, through you, I congratulate our division, corps, and other commanders for our successful operations against greatly superior numbers. I hope, sir, that yours and their success may never be less marked or less safe to yourself in all future engagements with our enemies.

 

Very respectfully, general, yours, &c.,

 Francis M. WALKER,

Colonel 19th Tennessee Regiment

 

Sources:

“Maj. Rufus A. Jarnagin,” Knoxville Register (Tennessee), March 10, 1863, pg. 3

Official report of Colonel Francis M. Walker, 19th Tennessee Infantry

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