(September 25, 2017) Provided below is my speech about Confederate Private Sam Watkins to the Palm Coast Civil War Roundtable.
Margret Mitchell who authored Gone With the Wind once said of Confederate Private Sam Watkins:
Perhaps he did not contribute enormously to our store of information about 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.
The chief aim of my annotated and illustrated version of Co. Aytch is to add the context that Ms. Mitchell felt was missing from Sam’s 1882 memoir. In contrast, there is little to be added to the humor, passion, and tragedy of Sam’s writings, which at times rise to a standard approaching 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 explained, “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.”
Mark Twain first achieved fame seven months after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox with “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” a story about a shrewd frontier gambler who tricks a California prospector. The miner owns a pet frog that has out-jumped every competing 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.
Watkins 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 would bet 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.
Unlike Twain’s, Watkins’s literature would go almost unnoticed for over a century. After his memoir was serialized in the Columbia (TN) Herald in 1881–82, fifteen hundred copies were printed as books. 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, Collier Books opportunistically published it along with seven other out-of-copyright Civil War books, such as the memoirs of Union Generals Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman. However, in Ric and Ken Burns’s groundbreaking 1990 PBS documentary, The Civil War, Watkins’s memoir was quoted frequently and as a result the book has become quite popular.
Watkins came from a prosperous family and had some formal education. His memoir includes a number of Latin phrases. There are also multiple references to Shakespeare and Greek mythology, as well as numerous biblical ones. Sam was born in the summer of 1839, in Maury County, Tennessee, which is about forty-five miles south of Nashville. When he was twenty-two he enlisted in a company of Confederate soldiers that adopted the name “Maury Grays.” They were officially designated Company H of the 1st Tennessee Regiment.
Originally about one hundred men joined the company, but when it surrendered almost precisely four years later, only seven of the initial soldiers remained, including Watkins. During the war, Sam was wounded three times. He was also captured three times, but returned to his comrades by escaping. 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. Sam’s death in 1901 at age sixty-two may have been premature as a lingering consequence of such deprivations.
Although Watkins was unmarried when he marched off to war, he had a sweetheart named Jennie Mayes who was his 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 clerked 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 in1880 where he started work on the memoirs.
Eventually he had eight children, and the older ones recalled seeing him writing late at night and early mornings. They remembered he sometimes laughed and sometimes cried, depending on 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.
Evidently Watkins shared a simple religious faith with most of the common soldiers. Seemingly crude to a modern reader, it was nonetheless a type that could quickly detect false devotion in others, no matter how elaborately disguised. The battle of Chickamauga provides an example. One Sunday shortly before the battle a distinguished preacher was invited to address the troops, a visit Watkins satirized in his memoir:
God is an abyss of light, a circle who is everywhere and His circumference is nowhere. Hell is a dark world made up of spiritual sulfur and other ignited ingredients.’
When the old fellow got this far I lost further run of his prayer … I don’t think anyone understood him but the Generals … About this time we heard the awfullest racket … tearing through the woods toward us … a mad bull … running and knocking down the divine … (bringing) the services to a close without the Doxology.
This same brave Chaplin rode with us at…Chickamauga, exhorting the boys to be brave [and] aim low…’Remember boys that he who is killed will sup tonight in Paradise’. Presently bullets started to smack into nearby trees…”and the parson put spurs to his horse and was seen to limber to the rear and almost every soldier yelled out, ‘The parson isn’t hungry and never eats his supper.’”
Yet Sam could also tell the poignant side of soldier life. On the evening after the battle of Chickamauga in northern Georgia, he experienced a heartrending 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.
Several times Watkins narrowly missed becoming the object of such bereavement himself. Once during hand-to-hand combat at the battle of Kennesaw Mountain, a Yankee rushed me and said, ‘You have killed my two brothers and now I’ve got you’ … I heard a roar and felt a flash of fire and saw … William A. Hughes, grab the muzzle of the gun, receiving the whole (blast) … He died for me.
Watkins watched as litter carriers took Hughes away. The dying soldier kept telling them, “Give me Florence Fleming,” his name for his rifle, which was engraved on it with silver lettering. “It was the last time I saw him,” Watkins wrote. “But I know away up yonder … in the blue vault of heaven … we will sometime meet at the marriage supper of the Son of God.”
Shakespeare writes of combat transforming soldiers into a “band of brothers” who become more motivated to fight for one another than any political cause. Thus, during the hasty retreat from Missionary Ridge at the battle of Chattanooga in November 1863, Sam describes how four Rebels demonstrated brotherly affection for a comrade in a manner that would have been unthinkable under almost any other circumstances:
We saw poor Tom Webb lying . . . shot through the head, his blood and brains smearing his face and clothes, and he still alive. . . . We did not wish to leave the poor fellow in that condition and [four of us] got a litter and carried him . . . to Chickamauga Station. . . .
The next morning Dr. J. E. Dixon . . . told us that it would be useless for us to carry him any further [because] it was utterly impossible for him ever to recover. . . . To leave him where he was we thought best. We . . . bent over him and pressed our lips to his—all four of us. We kissed him goodbye.
Despite such experiences, Sam’s persistent eye for humor almost never failed him. One evening he and the louse-racing champion, T. C. Dornin, were instructed to infiltrate the nearby Union picket line and gather information about the opposing army. His identity obscured by darkness, Watkins pretended to be a federal infantryman as he quizzed a Union sentinel.
‘Captain, what guard it this?’ He answered, ‘Nien bocht, you bet,’ is what I understood him to say. ‘What regiment are you from?’ ‘Iet du mein got Donnermetter stefel switzer.’ I had to give up—I had run across the detail of a Dutch regiment.
Sometimes Sam might have been telling stories that he had heard from others but merely put himself into the narrative. One example is his description of getting friendly with a Union sentry the night before the Battle of Perryville, Kentucky. The opposing lines were not close enough to permit the following narrative, but it could have happened on another battlefield to someone else:
We [two enemy sentries] got very friendly … and made a raid upon a citizen’s pantry where we captured a bucket of honey, a pitcher of sweet milk, and three or four biscuits. The old citizen was not home—he and his whole household had gone visiting … In fact, I think all of the citizens of Perryville were taken with a sudden notion of promiscuous visiting about this time; at least they were not home to all callers.
Conversely, his description of the First Tennessee Regiment’s participation in the actual fighting the next day is a mixture of confusion and horror that leaves little doubt about its authenticity.
While we were marching through a cornfield they opened their war dogs upon us … from one end of the line to the other seemed to be a solid sheet of blazing smoke and fire. Here General Maney’s horse was shot. From this moment the battle was a mortal struggle. Two lines of battle confronted us. We had killed all in the first line and were charging over the second when … their third and main battle line … poured their deadly fire.
It was death to retreat now … we were soon in hand-to-hand fighting, using the butts of our guns and bayonets. The guns were discharged so rapidly, it seemed the earth itself was in volcanic uproar.
The next morning a wounded comrade … asked me to lay down beside him. When I awoke the poor fellow was stiff and cold in death.
Like other soldiers, Sam was constantly hungry on the march back to Tennessee from Kentucky. Since the enemy did not pursue them aggressively, the soldiers could purchase goods from farmers who offered items for sale along the side of the road. Alternately they might confiscate goods from Union-loyal citizens. Shortly after his unit crossed the Tennessee state line where the expected rations failed to appear, Sam “struck out through the country” in search of food.
I had gone but a short distance before I came across a group of soldiers clambering over something. It was Tom Tuck with a barrel of sorghum that he had captured from a good Union man. He was selling it out at five dollars a quart. I paid my five dollars, and by pushing and scrounging I finally got my quart. I sat down and drank it; it was bully…it was not so good…it was not worth a cent…I was sick, and have never loved sorghum since.
The next year while the army was preparing fortifications they would never use at Chattanooga, Sam’s father paid a visit. The soldiers were living on parched corn. Since Sam was ashamed to offer such a meal, he introduced his dad to the regimental commander, Colonel Feilds, who invited the two to have dinner with him.
Shortly thereafter, an African-American cook dumped a frying pan full of parched corn on an oilcloth and announced, “Master, dinner ready,” Watkins recalled. “He [the regimental commander] was living like ourselves—on parched corn.”
Watkins’ memoir rarely speaks of African-Americans or slavery. However, after the fall of Atlanta, the Army of Tennessee—then commanded by Lieutenant General John Bell Hood—was advancing toward its namesake state in hopes of forcing Union Major General William T. Sherman to backtrack. Along the route, Hood destroyed railroad track north of Atlanta to cut Sherman’s supply line.
At Dalton, Ga., a 750-man federal garrison that included 500 African-Americans guarded the track. The federal commander, badly outnumbered, felt compelled to surrender, but wanted assurances that the African-Americans would be fairly treated. Hood would make no promises, but in the end the blacks were put to work tearing up railroad track. As Watkins described it:
We marched the black rascals out. They were mighty glad to see us and we were kindly disposed to them. We said, ‘Now boys, we don’t want the Yankees to … blame you; so let’s us just go out here on the railroad track, and tear it up, and pile up the crossties, and then pile the iron on top of them and we’ll set the thing a-fire and when the Yankees come back they’ll say, ‘What a bully fight (you) did make.’
Although I’ve discovered no separate account to support Sam’s story at Dalton, there is no doubt that about 500 black soldiers were surrendered to the Confederate army there and there are no reports a racial massacre. Moreover, it seems plausible that Hood would use the captured blacks as laborers to tear up railroad track.
During one idle period in Tennessee Sam and some comrades “made a raid” on a farmhouse where they spied a fat hog. They decided to steal the hog by having two of the soldiers, which included Sam, distract the inhabitants of the house with a visit. Nobody was home except an old lady and her widowed daughter. But the women invited Sam and his comrade to lunch when the old lady disclosed that she had three sons in the army and two had been killed. Presently distant gunfire informed Sam that the hog had been killed. When he returned to the rest of his group Sam
…did not know how to act…The hog was cooked, but I did not eat a piece of it. I felt that I had rather starve, and I believe that it would have choked me to death if I had attempted to eat it.
A short time later an old citizen from Maury County visited me and gave me some money my dad sent. After getting the money…I could not rest. I took some back to the old lady and said:
“Madam, some soldiers were here a short time ago, and took your hog…I wish to pay you for it.”
“I would much rather have the hog.”
“Madam, that is an impossibility, your hog is eat up.”
The old lady’s eyes filled with tears. She said that she was perfectly willing to give the soldiers everything she had, and if she thought it had done us any good, she would not charge anything for it.
“Well, Madam, here is a hundred dollar, new issue, Confederate bill.”
I laid the money on the table and left. I have never in my life made another raid upon anybody else.
I am not familiar with any Civil War personality more worthy of respect for his commitment to his “band of brothers” and the civilians who depended upon them than Sam Watkins. Co. Aytch is one of the finest military memories ever written. Both general readers and historians can enjoy Sam’s story, “a better book,” as Margret Mitchell claimed, “there never was.”