(December 19, 2016) The Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park provides this essay about Confederate Private Sam Watkins who participated in both battles and later wrote of his wartime experiences in his Co. Aytch memoir. At least three points in the article are at best misleading including one that is based upon questionable evidence and another that is undeniably false.
1. The anonymous park ranger portrays Watkins and his original Company H comrades as “privileged soldiers” because “nearly half” came from “slaveholding households” and Sam’s entire regiment brought “as many as fifty…[slaves]…into the field.” The essayist also implies that Sam had a sinister reason for only rarely mentioning blacks and slavery, noting that “the absence of slavery from [Co. Aytch] is staggering.” The ranger, however, fails to make several points that don’t support his innuendos.
First, he fails to disclose where he obtained the estimate that “as many as fifty” slaves accompanied Sam’s regiment. It is not from any of the sources cited in his bibliography.
Second, even if 50 slaves departed with the regiment, they amounted to less than 5% of the unit’s total men. It is, therefore, unsurprising that Sam rarely mentions them.
Third, if Sam correctly referred (as he wrote in Co. Aytch) to himself and many of his comrades as “webfoot” (i.e. barefoot) soldiers on the March into Kentucky, it seems that the well-shod Yankee soldier was more “privileged” as early as the second year of the war.
Fourth, after reading thousands of letters written by over 400 Confederate soldiers during the war, historian James McPherson verifies that—like Co. Aytch—they seldom mention slavery. Any conclusion about why they rarely discussed the topic is speculative and should be unmistakably identified as an opinion by responsible historians. The essayist’s characterization of it as a “staggering” omission suggests he does not recognize the Confederates as men of their time and is applying modern morality to the standards of 150 ago in a judgmental manner.
2. Sam makes only a solitary reference to having a slave in the war. Moreover, that reference involves an incident that may never have happened.
First, Sam’s reference to the slave is not in any of the sources provided in park ranger’s article.
Second, the true source is an article that Sam wrote for Confederate Veteran in 1893 about a snowball fight at Dalton, Georgia in 1864. It is presently available on pages 261-62 in Volume I of the magazine compendium.
Second, as a member of Maney’s Tennessee brigade he may not have been a participant in the fight between two Arkansas brigades. He may have only been describing something he witnessed or heard from others.
The same article later describes the death of a 14-year-old soldier whom Watkins said had never heard of Jesus. After Sam explained that Jesus would soon come to get the boy, the youth asked that Sam raise his hand in the air so that Jesus would see him. Sam propped the hand up with a bundle of bedding and went to sleep. When Sam awoke the boy was dead but his arm was still propped upright.
His Co. Aytch memoir contains other stories that seem to be his version of events he may have only witnessed or merely heard about second hand. Other episodes—such as a 14-year-old Southerner being ignorant of Jesus—are questionable and some were tall tales. In Co. Aytch, for example, he tells of coming upon a group of sentries, frozen dead, and still standing in place during the war’s first winter.
The CV article cited, however, is best known as the solitary reference that Watkins makes in all of his writings to his “Negro servant,” Sanker. He provides no information about Sanker other than to say that the slave put the boy noted above—who may never have existed—on a bunk.
historians moral critics eagerly point to Sam’s errors, exaggerations, and fables in attempts to discredit his writings, they are prone to take the solitary reference to Sanker as proof that Sam was accompanied by a slave for most, if not all, of the war. A true historian would require more evidence particularly regarding the length of time that Sanker might have accompanied Company H.
3. The NPS article erroneously claims that Co. Aytch never mentions any slaves that accompanied the First Tennessee Regiment. One refuting example is in Chapter 8 where Sam describes a visit by his father and mention’s the regimental commander’s servant by name, “Whit.” As noted, however, since blacks composed less than 5% of the men accompanying the regiment it is not surprising that Sam rarely mentions them.
Historians moral critics should not read too much into that. Sam does, for example, even provide a humorous story about interaction with black Union soldiers.
During the past fifty years Civil War
historians moral critics have increasingly dismissed narratives they judge to be consistent with the putative myth of the Lost Cause, which they accuse of perpetuating racism by minimizing slavery. Unfortunately the Watkins narratives are among the casualties, as are Sherman’s abuses of Southern civilians. But that’s another story, and a good one.