|Sam Watkins of Columbia, Tenn., joined Co. H of the 1st Tennessee Regiment in May 1861 to fight for the Confederacy. After participating in battles from Shiloh in 1862 to Nashville in 1864, he was one of only seven of 120 recruits in his company to survive. Of the 4,000 men who served in this Northern Tennessee regiment, only 65 returned four years later.Some 20 years after the war, Watkins set down his memoir, considered one of the best accounts of a soldier’s experience in the Civil War. Although published in 1882, the narrative remains fresh.
Now Philip Leigh, in this new edition, has provided an introduction and annotations that add immeasurably to the classic’s depth.
Because Watkins was unusually literate, this book is invaluable for anyone seeking to understand the life of a wartime soldier – whether Union or Confederate. In recording his experience as a private in Co. H, he creates a unique personal narrative since he remained with his regiment through Gen. Joseph E. Johnson’s surrender to Gen. William T. Sherman at Greensboro, N.C., in 1865.
While his reminiscences came late, Watkins was aided by a formidable memory and a willingness to recount his story. Without the benefit of a diary, his account is conveyed in an understandable manner – creating humor on one page and grief on the next. His anecdotes are compelling, not only with images of combat, but the shooting of deserters, sleeping sentinels and malingerers.
Moreover, his observations are astute – especially regarding the plight of generals. For example, in viewing Gen. Braxton Bragg after the disaster at Missionary Ridge in Chattanooga, Watkins comments, “Poor fellow, he looks so hacked and whipped, and mortified and chagrined at defeat, and all along the line, when Bragg would pass, the soldiers would raise the yell, ‘Here is your mule; bully for Bragg, he’s h-l on retreat.'”
Watkins’ point of view compares favorably to Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage and remains required reading. Philip Leigh’s annotations, maps and illustrations clearly assist readers in viewing the events, people and places in context. As for Sam Watkins, he remained an unrepentant Confederate to the end.
Frank J. Williams
Frank J. Williams is founding Chair of The Lincoln Forum and President of the Ulysses S. Grant Association