Who'll Save the Left? The 19th Illinois and the Fight of January 2nd

    During the Civil War, the 19th Illinois Infantry gained a well-earned reputation as being the best drilled regiment in the Army of the Cumberland. Formed at the outset of the war with two companies of the Chicago Zouaves connected with Elmer Ellsworth, the 19th Illinois under Colonel John B. Turchin quickly developed the reputation as a crack unit, but until the Battle of Stones River, the regiment had not yet been tested in a serious battle. However, the regiment’s reputation had been seriously tarnished by its role in the sack of Athens in May 1862. (see story here) Turchin’s court-martial and dismissal in August 1862 led many in the regiment to feel that the regiment was laboring under a cloud of high command resentment and suspicion. Stones River gave the regiment a chance to salvage its reputation, and Colonel Joseph R. Scott was determined that the regiment’s sharp precision in drill would equate to an equally impressive performance in battle.

As part of Colonel Timothy R. Stanley’s brigade of General James Negley’s division, the 19th Illinois fought right in the midst of the Slaughter Pen on December 31, 1862, a field of limestone rocks and outcroppings in the middle of the cedar forest on the southern edge of today’s national battlefield. It is said that soldiers of the 19th  gave this sector of the battlefield its name, likening the field to a slaughter pen similar to what they had seen back in the Chicago stockyards. The 19th held firm and covered the retreat of Stanley’s brigade through the cedars, suffering heavy casualties, but proving that a regiment that drilled superbly could fight superbly, too.

The charge across Stones River on January 2, 1863 was one of the most dramatic moments of the entire battle. General James S. Negley's two brigades counterattacked across the river, their ranks soon intermingled as they plunged into the bitter cold waters of the river. Climbing the opposite bank, men in the front rank were struck by friendly fire from behind and determined Confederates in their front. But the ferocity of Negley's attack coupled with the pounding of 58 Federal artillery broke Breckinridge's division and by sunset it was all over. Breckinridge lost upwards of 1,800 men in his assault, a number that he and General Braxton Bragg bickered about afterwards in their official correspondence. 

Two days later, the 19th Illinois was again present at a critical moment on the battlefield, this time spearheading the Union counterattack on January 2, 1863 near McFadden’s Ford. Two brigades of the Union army posted on a ridge on the south side of Stones River were struck by General John Breckinridge’s assault (see story here) about 4 p.m. that afternoon, and General Negley reportedly rode up to his brigades and shouted, “Who will save the left?” Colonel Joseph R. Scott volunteered his 19th Illinois, then led the regiment across Stones River in their successful counterattack. Scott himself was struck down and later died of his wound, but the story of the 19th going into action that afternoon became the inspiration for the popular wartime song “Who’ll Save the Left?” (see link here) penned by George Root.

Private J.M. Tracy of Co. D left the most detailed account of what the 19th Illinois experienced during its two engagements during the Battle of Stones River. Tracy had just finished his freshman year at Northwestern University at Evanston when he elected to join up with the 19th Illinois in June 1861. The letter, originally written to his mother, was shared with the editors of the Chicago Tribune who published it in the January 26, 1863 edition of the newspaper.

 

Captain Knowlton H. Chandler, Co. F, 19th Illinois Volunteer Infantry
Killed in action January 2, 1863 at Stones River while saving the left

Murfreesboro, Tennessee

January 6, 1863

 Dear mother,

          After I recovered from my illness of which I wrote you, I overtook the regiment on the 30th ultimo in time to go into the fight. We did not have a very severe fight that day and lost only nine men. We had hardly anything to eat and our blankets were in the wagons miles in the rear. In the morning, we were up early and in line of battle. The firing soon became heavy on our right and as we saw Sheridan’s division drive the Rebels, we cheered heartily. Presently we found, by the sound of musketry, that the Rebels had turned our right and that Johnson had been partially surprised. He had lost his artillery and his veteran troops were diving way before the enemy.

Captain Alexander Murchinson, Co. B, 19th Illinois
Contused in back near his shoulder December 31, 1862

Further back towards our rear we heard firing, then our guns opened on the enemy. We changed front, fixed bayonets, and charged, but the foe fled before we advanced ten rods. We commenced firing and soon a storm of bullets whistled through our ranks. At the first fire, poor Corporal Daggy fell mortally wounded. He was of our company and Turchin’s pet. We had repulsed the enemy, but aid was wanted for the 27th Illinois; we faced to the right and walked over the 27th who were lying down and filed around the front of the 18th Ohio as coolly as though on dress parade while Scott rode at the head of the column amidst a storm of shot and shell.  Edgarton’s battery had been taken (see story here) and the Washington battery opened on us with shell. One shell cut off a large tree and it fell in our ranks, knocking down three men. Then word came that we were surrounded and cut off and must cut our way out.

Colonel Joseph R. Scott, 19th Illinois
Wounded in action January 2, 1863
Died of wounds July 8, 1863


We faced about, formed column, and rushed into the cedar swamp with fixed bayonets. Fortunately, the Rebels had left us a little space to get out of and we rushed through and formed on the left of Sheridan. Soon we moved to the front and commenced firing again. All at once, Sheridan’s men fell back and began to run, then Miller’s brigade came out of the woods in full retreat. Negley saw that unless something could stop the Rebels, all was lost. He ordered us to stand till the rest could form. The rest of our brigade had left us, and the 19th alone bore back the advancing Rebels. For nearly half an hour, we stood with the enemy in front and on both flanks. At last, we saw the 18th Ohio and 42nd Illinois had formed and Old Rosey was leading them to the charge. Then Colonel Scott gave the word to retreat, and we came out of the woods and retired to the center as reserves. We were engaged no more that day.

We slept again without blankets and in great doubt. Rosecrans had become desperate and had the bridges in our rear burned so that we must fight or die, for there was no thought of retreat with him. New Year’s Day we were not engaged but stood ready all day. The next morning, we were moved to the left and stood listening to the firing until it became quite severe. Then General Rosecrans rode up and asked for General Palmer; he was not to be found. Rosecrans galloped up to Colonel Stanley who commanded our brigade and said, “Colonel Stanley, save our left if you can.” Stanley commanded “by the left flank, march” and away we went. “By the right flank march, deploy column!” And forward we went.

We lay down for a moment and fired, and then up and forward right through the river, though a Rebel division disputed the passage. Colonel Scott rushed in without stopping and Adjutant Bangs was beside him urging on the men. Scott put his cap on his sword and shouted “Forward!” I rushed out with one or two others from the cover and went ahead to Scott. For a moment, half a dozen of us drew the Rebel fire and nearly all were shot. I received a shot in the hand but fought on. Scott soon fell wounded in the leg, then we fought for revenge. We ran forward and drove the Rebels in perfect terror before us.

Captain Presley N. Guthrie
Co. K, 19th Illinois

The Rebels fought with the courage of desperation- even their wounded fought, and we had to kill them for even with a bayonet at their breasts they would not surrender. These were the Louisiana and Florida regiments. Many of the Tennessee men, however, were glad to surrender. One of them lay on the ground badly wounded. I came to the tree where he lay to shelter myself while loading. The poor fellow raised up and said, “Go in, I’m glad to see you make ‘em run! I’m a conscript. They forced me into the 20th Tennessee. Hurrah for the Union.” You may be sure I was cheered by this. Just after this, we charged on a Rebel battery and took it.

 

“We took four guns from them and the colors of the 19th were planted on the Rebel gun for once and I stood with my hand on it. They had another battery about 40 rods from it and they threw shells at us wholesale, but we brought the battery off with us.” ~ First Lieutenant William Jackson, Co. B, 19th Illinois

 

I saw the color sergeant standing behind a tree and I told him to give the flag to me if he was afraid to go forward with it. He said he dared to go as far as I, so we rushed forward and formed in the open field under a storm of shot and shell. The Rebel batteries poured in grape and canister but shot too high. We formed in line to make a charge, but it was so dark that we had to discontinue the fight. We took our positions, stacked arms, and went back to get blankets out of the knapsacks of the dead Rebels. 

Captain William Inness, Co. C, 19th Illinois Infantry

We took, each man, what blankets we wanted and also some haversacks. I got one well-filled with biscuits, nice ham, sugar, and coffee, and had a good supper. We took the colors of the 20th Tennessee. The ground was heaped with the Rebel dead and as we looked over the field by the light of torches for our fallen comrades, the scene was terrible. We lost 124 men out of the 340 in this fight. On Monday we entered Murfreesboro and it is one hospital: every house is full of Rebel wounded.

 J.M. Tracy

 

"To perpetuate the of the glory of the brave men of the 19th Illinois and their companions in arms who fell at Murfreesboro"


Who’ll Save the Left

Words by R. Tompkins, Music by George R. Root

 

Through two long days the battle raged in front of Murfreesboro,

And cannon balls tore up the earth as plows turn up the furrows,

Brave soldiers by the hundreds fell in fierce assault and sally,

While bursting shell hiss’d screamed and fell like demons in the valley.

First Lieutenant Washington L. Wood, Co. C, 19th Illinois
Severely wounded in the hand

The Northman and Southron met in bold defiant manner,

Now victory perched on Union flag, and now on Rebel banner.

But see! Upon the Union’s left, bear down in countless numbers,

With shouts that seem to wake the hills from their eternal slumbers.

 

The Rebel hosts whose iron rain beats down our weaker forces,

And covers all the battle plain with torn and mangled corpses,

Still onward press the Rebel hordes more boldly, fiercer, faster,

But Negley’s practiced eye discerns the swift dread disaster.

 

“Who’ll save the left?” his voice rang out above the roar of battle,

“The Nineteenth!” shouted Colonel Scott amid the muskets’ rattle,

“The Nineteenth be it! Make the charge!” quick as the word was given,

The Nineteenth fell upon the foe as lightning falls from Heaven.

Over the stream they went into the fight, cutting their way left and right,

Unheeding the storm of the scattered and fled,

Leaving heaps upon heaps of their dying and dead,

And the shout that went up from the set of the sun,

Told the charge was triumphant, the great battle won,

Told the charge was triumphant, the great battle won.

 

Sources:

Letter from Private J.M. Tracy, Co. D, 19th Illinois Volunteer Infantry, Chicago Tribune (Illinois), January 26, 1863, pg. 2

Letter from First Lieutenant William Jackson, Co. B, 19th Illinois Volunteer Infantry, Stark County News (Illinois), February 5, 1863, pg. 1


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