Watkins, Sam R. Co. Aytch: A Civil War Narrative. Touchstone; Reprint edition, 2008.
Co. Aytch: A Civil War Narrative is an account of the American Civil War told by a common soldier, Sam R. Watkins. Watkins was a private in Company H, First Tennessee Regiment of the Confederate Army. Originally, these memoirs were published serially in the Columbia Herald in 1881-1882. Co. Aytch was eventually produced as a whole in 1882, first edition. Students, historians, and avid readers will enjoy Watkins’ humor throughout his memoirs. Soldiers from any era would feel a kinship to Watkins as he describes following orders that at times made little sense. There are parts of Watkins’ history that are flawed and biased by personal opinion but the reader will fully enjoy this accounting of soldierly life stripped bare. It is realistic, personal, and depicts the life of a common soldier without all the romantic dramatics so often portrayed in the movies. One cannot study war without studying the men who took us there, but especially the men who fought in them. This is a day to day study of an average Confederate soldier. Watkins’ describes war from a viewpoint as few have, from April 14, 1861, to April 26, 1865. The reader will walk with him through the countryside and bloody battlefields. Through his eyes, witness hunger, cold, desperation and joy, brash young men, hope, defeat, and with the Confederate cause and a heavy dose of pride, as a constant backdrop.
The author of this singular work, Sam R. Watkins, was born in Maury County, Tennessee in 1839. His published memoirs are often quoted as a primary source for the common Confederate soldier. He received his formal education from Jackson College in Columbia. Originally, Watkins was enlisted with the Bigby Grays of the 3rd Tennessee Infantry but in the spring of 1861 transferred to the First Tennessee Infantry, Company H, or Maury Grays. Watkins passed away at the age of 62 on July 20, 1901. He was buried with full military honors by members of the Leonidas Polk Bivouac, United Confederate Veterans at Zion Presbyterian Church near Mount Pleasant, Tennessee. Interestingly, singer-songwriter Don Oja-Dunaway wrote one of his most famous folk songs, “Kennesaw Line” quoting exact lines from Sam R. Watkins. Oja-Dunaway has been a mainstay performer at the Milltop Tavern, Augustine, Florida for over twenty years.
Watkins begins his story with this oft-reprinted description of a soldier. “A private soldier is but an automaton, a machine that works by the command of a good, bad or indifferent engineer, and is presumed to know nothing of all these great events. His business is to load and shoot, stand picket, videt, etc., while officers sleep, or perhaps die on the field of battle and glory, and his obituary and epitaph but “one” remembered among the slain, but to what company, regiment, brigade or corps he belongs, there is no account; he is soon forgotten.” (p. 10) This is the reason for Sam Watkins infamy. To be able to glimpse what the common soldier endures during a war, and despite these hardships continues to persevere, is something every avid historian or student should relish reading. What would the great generals of war do without these men? It would be as pointless as a queen bee without her soldiers.
Watkins’ regiment was sent to the Shenandoah Valley and eventually was assigned under Stonewall Jackson. That first year saw them always on the move. In January 1862, Watkins recalls the cold winter while marching to and from Romney. He writes “the storm king seemed to rule in all of his majesty and power.” (p. 17) Men had icicles hanging about their person, and many froze to death on the side of the road. Watkins himself spoke of losing a layer from the bottom of his feet, which he never fully recovered. The soldiers became disheartened and mutinous toward their leader Stonewall Jackson and called him “Fool Tom Jackson” blaming him for everything from the cold weather to the long marches. (p. 17)
Watkins was a toughened soldier by the time his regiment fought at Shiloh. His descriptions of how euphoric he and the men felt as they were finally given the order to charge are filled with electric description. This was the largest battle he had fought into date and it is evident in his writing what a toll the telling of it still had on him. The excitement of victory lasted through April 6 when the Federal’s line finally broke before they retreated. Watkins briefly mentions negro body slaves helping their masters to loot the Union camp, but only as an inconsequential fact, nothing more or less. April 7 would see the Confederates scrambling in retreat after Grant, with his reinforcements, made a surprising comeback.
Watkins shares a soldier’s life, trials, and tribulations throughout the rest of the war, and the marching, the hunger, the misfortunes, and humor that comes from the monotony of simply being in an extended fight. He speaks of killing men, and of friends being killed. Through his eyes, the reader experiences Corinth, where he writes, “From this time on till the end of the war, a soldier was simply a machine, a conscript.” (p. 28) The author moves us through the war where the battle at Perryville is described in detail, the retreat out of Kentucky with the promise of rations never fulfilled, and entering Knoxville barely clothed. Amusing stories pepper the tedious marches, like a foot race, failed attempts at cooking mussels, and a cringe-worthy bit about his attempt at eating rat.
After the Battle of Chickamauga, with the Federal’s routed, Watkins and his fellow soldiers remain on the battlefield all night. He writes of Confederate and Federal soldiers, dead or wounded, scattered the breadth of the field. His descriptions are hard to read with the graphic detail but show the consequences of such a war. “Reader, a battlefield, after the battle, is a sad and sorrowful sight to look at.” (p. 75)
Watkins finished his story with “The Last Act of the Drama,” the Confederate surrender. Out of the original 120 men who enlisted in Company H, Watkins was one of seven survivors, and of the First Tennessee’s original conscripts numbering 1,250, on the 26th of April, 1865, only sixty-five remained.
Sam candidly pokes fun at the “brass,” and seemed to have a particular dislike for staff officers whom he called “yaller dogs.” Watkins has no use for cowards, and even chaplains made his list. There is no doubt that he loathed Bragg, admired Joseph E. Lee, and though he liked Hood, felt he was a complete failure as a general. Co. Aytch has had meticulous notes complete with the inaccuracies by the author, especially by noted American Civil War authority Bell Irvin Wiley, author of The Life of Johnny Reb. Wiley shows that errors abound because of Watkins’ own prejudices where he exaggerated the faults of some while applauding those of others. However, Watkins clearly lets the reader know that his memoirs are tarnished by several years of separation. Where his memory is faulty or he feels one might want a broader explanation, he refers them to read about it elsewhere. Watkins notes that while writing these stories, “I have written only of what I saw.” (p. 128) A certain amount of prejudice and opinion would be expected. Sam Watkins was a Southern man and a Confederate soldier for the entirety of the Civil War, his thoughts and words would certainly be colored by his surroundings.
Sam’s memoirs are often used to teach students and are some of the most colorful writings from a common soldier in the field. Watkins has no trouble engaging his audience even today because of how deftly he is able to describe the misery of the experience, but also the pride of he and his fellow men. The reader can feel his tension directly before a skirmish or battle, his disdain for some in the bureaucracy, and his loyalty despite it. Throughout, the author allows the reader to meet the regular folks he encountered during the long marches, and each friend he lost along the way.
It seems strange that Watkins chose, for whatever reason, to exclude slavery from his book. Several men, from his company, were in fact from slave-owning households, with his father, Frederick, owning a reported one hundred plus. Perhaps, readers now consider it an obvious exclusion but Watkins may not have felt that this book on army service should be about anything else and decided to strictly keep to war experiences. One has to contemplate whether the subject of slavery would have added or taken away from his words. This was not a debate on which side was in the right, or really even the reason behind the Union split, but simply an infantry company at war, and how he lived during the four years. Without a doubt, this book will give the reader insight into the life of a common foot soldier rarely seen, and a deeper appreciation of what these men lived and died for.
If you enjoyed this review please support my site and use the link below to buy your copy now!