Tag Archives: Sam Watkins

Fake History at the National Park Service?

(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.

nps-shield

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.

While many 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.

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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.

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Free Sample Chapter of Illustrated and Annotated Co. Aytch

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.

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Review of My Illustrated & Annotated Version of “Co. Aytch”

My first book was released by Westholme Publishing back in May 2013. It is an illustrated and annotated version of the memoirs of Confederate Private Sam Watkins, entitled Co. Aytch (rebel vernacular for “Company H”).In the fall of 2013 Civil War News reviewed the book. The reviewer is Frank J. Williams who is the Founding Chair of the Lincoln Forum and President of the Ulysses S. Grant Association. Williams was also Chief Justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court until he resigned five years ago.

Judge Williams’s review is provided below:

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