Provided below is a free copy of the Introduction for my Illustrated and Annotated version of the Sam Watkins memoir titled Co. Aytch — Phil Leigh
Perhaps Mr. Watkins did not contribute enormously to our store of information about [Civil War] military strategy and campaigns, but he certainly left a record to show what the dryly humorous foot soldier thought about it all…A better book there never was.
Margaret Mitchell, Author: Gone With the Wind
The chief aim of this version of Co Aytch—Rebel vernacular for “Company H”—is to add the context that Ms. Mitchell felt was missing. Specifically, many of the approximate 250 annotations and all of the maps and illustrations are intended to help readers visualize the events, people, and places Sam experienced in his four years as an ordinary Confederate soldier, mostly in the western theater.
In contrast there is little to be added to the humor and feeling of Sam’s writing, which at times climbs to a standard resembling Mark Twain. Partly that’s because Sam is telling a true story and genuine adventures are often more compelling than fictional ones. As someone once cleverly put it, “It’s not an adventure until something goes wrong.” If nothing else, Sam’s memoir is a thorough documentation of how routinely war planning “goes wrong.” Presumably, as his dedication indicates, Co. Aytch also reflects Sam’s determination to honor his comrades by helping posterity appreciate their sacrifices.
Mark Twain first achieved notoriety seven months after Appomattox with “The Celebrated Jumping Frog a Calaveras County.” It’s a story about a shrewd frontier gambler who tricks a California prospector. The miner owns a pet frog that has out-jumped any frog in the county. While the miner is occupied catching a new frog for the gambler to wager against his champion, the gambler feeds the prospector’s frog buckshot. When the miner returns, the speculator declares the freshly caught frog a suitable contender and places his wager. To the dismay of all—save one—the champion frog won’t budge and the cheater wins.
Sam tells of a similar, but true, incident several years earlier when his Confederate army was idled for seven weeks in Tupelo, Mississippi. To overcome boredom the soldiers wagered on most anything, including how fast lice would run off of a tin plate. One soldier was constantly winning until the others figured-out he always heated his plate before a race.
Yet Sam could also tell the poignant side of soldier life. On the evening after the battle of Chickamauga, he experienced a heart rendering sight. He was with a detail of soldiers looking for wounded when they were approached by a group of women with lanterns also searching for survivors.
…coming to a pile of our slain, we had turned over several…when one of the ladies screamed…ran to the pile…and raised (a) man’s head, placed it in her lap and began kissing him…saying ‘Oh, they have killed my darling, darling, darling! Oh, mother, mother, what must I do? …My darling! Oh, they have killed him, they have killed him!’ I could witness the scene no longer. I turned and walked away.
Unlike Twain’s, the Watkins literature would go almost unnoticed for over a century. After the memoir was serialized in the Columbia, Tennessee Herald in 1881-82, fifteen hundred copies were printed as books. Hardcover versions sold for $1.25 and paperbacks for $0.75.
Between the author’s death in 1901 and the Civil War Centennial in the early 1960s, Co. Aytch was seldom reprinted and always in small editions. In 1962 Colliers opportunistically published it along with seven other out-of-copyright Civil War books such as edited versions of the Grant and Sherman memoirs. However, since 1962 Colliers alone has published over twenty-five print runs, mostly due to the popularity the book earned from frequent quotes in the groundbreaking Public Broadcasting Civil War documentary in the early 1990s by Ric and Ken Burns.
Sam was surprisingly educated for a Private. His memoir includes a number of Latin phrases. There are also multiple references to Shakespeare and Greek mythology as well as numerous biblical ones. But his spelling would have benefitted from computerized checking and his paragraphs are often tediously long. I have only seldom corrected his spelling, but have often broken-up big paragraphs.
Watkins was born in the summer of 1839 in Maury County, Tennessee, which is about 45 miles south of Nashville. When he was twenty-two years old, he enlisted in a company of Confederate soldiers that adopted the name “Maury Greys”. They were officially designated Company H of the First Tennessee Regiment.
Originally about 100 men joined the Company, but when it surrendered almost precisely four years later, only seven of the initial soldiers remained, including Sam. Sam was wounded three times during the War. He was also captured three times, but returned to his comrades by escaping instead of participating in a formal prisoner exchange or a parole violation. He fought in nearly all of the major battles of the principal Confederate army west of the Appalachians. Examples include, Shiloh, Perryville, Murfreesboro (Stones River), Chickamauga, Lookout Mountain, Missionary Ridge, the 120-day Atlanta Campaign, Franklin, and Nashville.
Aside from fighting, Sam endured the constant hardships of marching and camping in an ill-provisioned army. Like most of his fellow soldiers he was often barefoot and hungry. It was especially hard to stay warm in winter. Nonetheless, like Harold Keith’s fictional Rifles for Watie—which draws upon thorough interviews with twenty-two aged Civil War veterans during the Great Depression—Sam’s memoir provides convincing evidence that a soldier’s “…business was to starve to death, take guff from the officers, march all night, and be shot to pieces in the daytime without ever opening his mouth in protest.” Sam’s death in 1901 at age 62 may have been premature as a lingering consequence of such deprivations.
Although Sam was unmarried when he marched off to War he had a sweetheart named Jennie Mayes who was the same age. When the two were teenagers their families owned adjacent farms. Two of the most touching entries in Co. Aytch are a poem and letter from Jennie, which Sam read “500 times.” They married shortly after the War and Sam started clerking at his father-in-law’s general store. Within a dozen years they had seven children and Sam owned a general store in Columbia. Just before the end of the 1870s their oldest child died of typhoid, which was thought to have originated from the household’s source of potable spring water. Consequently, Sam moved the family to a farm outside of town in 1880 where he started work on the memoirs.
Eventually he had eight children and the older ones recalled observing him writing late at night and early mornings. They remembered he sometimes laughed and sometimes cried, depending upon what he was writing. He continued to write thereafter with stories appearing in magazines like Confederate Veteran and Southern Bivouac in addition to articles in local newspapers. Jennie lived until 1920.
Occasionally Sam refers to other companies in his regiment by their nicknames. Just as Company H was informally known as “The Maury Greys” the other companies of the First Tennessee had unofficial monikers. Examples include the “Rock City Guards”, “Martin Guards” and “Rutherford Rifles”.
Since Sam presumes readers are familiar with Confederate army organization, a brief description is warranted for the uninitiated.
The basic unit is a company, which at the beginning of the War was typically composed of one hundred soldiers. However with attrition over the years, particularly severe among the Confederates, the number would shrink. A Captain normally commanded a company.
A regiment is composed of ten companies thereby equally about a thousand troops. It is normally under the command of a Colonel. Sam’s regiment was the First Tennessee, which originally totaled 1,100 soldiers. By the time of its final surrender, Sam’s regiment had only 125 remaining. Four to six regiments were aggregated to form a brigade, commanded by a Brigadier General.
The original leader of the First Tennessee was Colonel George Maney. After the battle of Shiloh in April 1862, he was promoted to Brigadier General and Colonel Hume Feild took command of the regiment, which became one component of Maney’s Brigade. (Sam repeatedly misspells Feild’s name as Field. It is one of the few spelling corrections I make.)
Due to illness and other factors to be explained, Maney left the army after the fall of Atlanta in September 1864. Thereafter, until his mortal wounding at the battle of Franklin, “Maney’s Brigade” was led by General John Carter who was succeeded by Hume Feild. Maney died the same year as Sam, but one of his daughters married a former Civil War officer of the Fifteenth Massachusetts. As a result of attrition, the First Tennessee regiment was combined with the 27th Tennessee after the battle of Murfreesboro that straddled the 1862-to-1863 New Year.
A division consisted of three-to-four brigades and typically was led by a Major General. “Maney’s Brigade” was assigned to various divisions depending upon the battle. During the heart of the War at battles such as Perryville, Stones River, Chickamauga, and the Atlanta campaign, it was a part of Major General Benjamin Cheatham’s division. At Chattanooga it was briefly part of William ‘Hell Fighting Billie’ Walker’s division.
Two to three divisions could be combined to form a corps typically led by a Lieutenant General. Leonidas Polk was one of Sam’s corps commanders, but following Polk’s death Cheatham’s division was a part of Lieutenant General William Hardee’s corps until Hardee left the Army of Tennessee after the fall of Atlanta. An army, such as the Army of Tennessee, or the Army of Northern Virginia, is comprised of two or more corps and led by a full General like Robert E. Lee, Joseph E. Johnston, or Braxton Bragg.
At various times the First Tennessee was a member of different Confederate armies. Early in the War it was a part of the Army of the Northwest in the present state of West Virginia. Upon returning to the western theater to fight at Shiloh it was incorporated into the Army of the Mississippi. After Bragg led that army on an invasion into Kentucky in the summer of 1862 he combined it with a smaller force from east Tennessee thereby creating the Army of Tennessee. This last name is the one most commonly identified with the army Sam Watkins fought for. It battled Union armies for almost precisely two years at Murfreesboro, Chickamauga, Chattanooga, Dalton, the Atlanta Campaign, Franklin, and Nashville.
For reasons I cannot explain, I’ve had a near lifelong interest in the American Civil War. Ancestors fought on both sides. But for those who chose the Confederacy the War is particularly unforgettable for at least two reasons.
First, most of the battles and physical destruction occurred in southern states. Second, the damage among southerners from casualties alone was far greater than most contemporary Americans appreciate. There were 300,000 deaths among white southerners as compared to a population of 6 million translating to a death ratio of five percent. If applied to America’s 2012 population, the comparable implied deaths would be 15 million. By comparison, American deaths during World War II were less than half a million. As traumatic as the Civil War death ratio was for the country as a whole, it was more than three times more impactful in the south than in the north.
At different times my highest regard for Civil War participants has been reserved for famous leaders such as Lincoln, or Lee. But upon reading—and re-reading—Sam’s memoir I am familiar with nobody surviving the War worthy of greater respect for commitment to his “band of brothers” and the civilians who depended upon them.
My four Civil War Books: