Sam Watkins’ “Company Aytch”

This entry is part 3 of 10 in the series Southern Diaries, Letters and Memoirs
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Sam WatkinsSam Watkins’ “Company Aytch: or, a Side Show of the Big Show” shows us the the Civil War in the Western Theater at the ground level. Watkins was a member of the Confederate States Army serving first in the “Bigby Greys” of the 3rd Tennessee Infantry. Shortly thereafter he transferred to First Tennessee Infantry, Company H (the “Maury Greys”) in the spring of 1861.

Sam Watkins was born in June 1839 near Columbia, Maury County, Tennessee, making him in his early to mid-twenties during the war. He was educated at Jackson College in Columbia.

Watkins served in the Confederate Army from the start of the war until the very end, surrendering with the rest of the Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of Tennessee in April 1865.

In between, he was at most of the major battles in the Western Theater: Cheat MountainShilohCorinthPerryville, Murfreesboro (Stones River), Shelbyville, ChattanoogaChickamaugaMissionary RidgeResacaAdairsvilleKennesaw Mountain (Cheatham Hill)New Hope Church, Zion Church, Kingston, Cassville, AtlantaJonesboroFranklin, and Nashville.

Watkins had the dubious distinction of being one of only seven men who survived the war of the original 120 men who enlisted in Company H in 1861. Of the 3,200 men who fought in the First Tennessee Infantry from the beginning of the war to the end, Watkins was one of only 65 men left standing at the surrender.

An enlisted man throughout the war, he began his service as a private and rose to the rank of fourth corporal for picking up a Union flag from the battlefield during the Battle of Atlanta, July 22, 1864.

Soon after the war ended Watkins began writing his memoir of his life during the war. Initially, it was serialized by the Herald newspaper in Columbia, Watkins hometown. In 1882, it was published in book form with an initial printing of 2,000.

Historians have said that “Company Aytch” is one of the very best books written by a common soldier detailing life in the field. Watkins had an engaging style that skillfully captures every aspect of the war and his life as a soldier. His observations were used extensively by Ken Burns in the Civil War mini-series.

Watkins has handed down his description of a soldier from his reminisces of 1861:

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 the 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. 

After his first battle at Cheat Mountain in western Virginia, Watkins made an interesting observation about his aims during a battle:

I always shot at privates. It was they that did the shooting and killing, and if I could kill or wound a private, why, my chances were so much the better. I always looked upon officers as harmless personages…. If I shot at an officer, it was at long range, but when we got down to close quarters I always tried to kill those that were trying to kill me. 

After the Battle of Perryville, Watkins wrote about the weariness of the long march:

Along the route it was nothing but tramp, tramp, tramp, and no sound or noise but the same inevitable, monotonous tramp, tramp, tramp, up hill and down hill, through long and dusty lanes, weary, wornout and hungry. No cheerful warble of a merry songster would ever greet our ears. It was always tramp, tramp, tramp.

After the Battle of Chickamauga, Watkins wrote about his impressions of the battlefield:

The Confederate and Federal dead, wounded, and dying were everywhere scattered over the battlefield. Men were lying where they fell, shot in every conceivable part of the body…. In fact, you might walk over the battlefield and find men shot from the crown of the head to the tip end of the toe. And then to see all those dead, wounded and dying horses….

Reader, a battlefield, after the battle, is a sad and sorrowful sight to look at. The glory of war is but the glory of battle, the shouts, and cheers, and victory.

After a visit to a field hospital in Atlanta, Watkins recorded his thoughts:

It was the only field hospital that I saw during the whole war, and I have no desire to see another. Those hollow-eyed and sunken-cheeked sufferers, shot in every conceivable part of the body; some shrieking, and calling upon their mothers; some laughing the hard, cackling laugh of the sufferer without hope, and some cursing like troopers, and some writhing and groaning as their wounds were being bandaged and dressed….

On the supposed glory of war:

Ah! reader, there is no glory for the private soldier…. The officers have all the glory. Glory is not for the private soldier, such as die in the hospitals, being eat up with the deadly gangrene, and being imperfectly waited on. Glory is for generals, colonels, majors, captains, and lieutenants. They have all the glory, and when the poor private wins battles by dint of sweat, hard marches, camp and picket duty, fasting and broken bones, the officers get the glory. The private’s pay was eleven dollars per month, if he got it; the general’s pay was three hundred dollars per month, and he always got his.

Watkins’ description of the Battle of Franklin begins with:

The death-angel gathers its last harvest.

Kind reader, right here my pen, and courage, and ability fail me. I shrink from butchery. Would to God I could tear the page from these memoirs and from my own memory. It is the blackest page in the history of the war of the Lost Cause. It was the bloodiest battle of modern times in any war. It was the finishing stroke to the independence of the Southern Confederacy. I was there. I saw it. 

Finally, Watkins made it quite clear that “Company Aytch” was not a history of the war. “I do not pretend to write the history of the war,” he wrote. Rather, he wanted to “tell of the fellows who did the shooting and killing, the fortifying … ditching … drilling, and standing guard, for eleven dollars a month and rations.”

Watkins died on July 20, 1901 at the age of 62 in his home in the Ashwood Community. He was buried with full military honors by the members of the Leonidas Polk Bivouac, United Confederate Veterans, in the cemetery of the Zion Presbyterian Church near Mount Pleasant, Tennessee.

The song “The Kennesaw Line” describes the fighting at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain on the morning of June 27, 1864. The words are adapted from Watkins’ “Company Aytch” describing the action that morning.

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