Dear Parents or Guardians,
With this letter I would like to introduce myself as your child’s new U.S. History teacher. Hopefully this academic term will be an exciting one for both the students and me. I have planned numerous activities for the upcoming semester to not only make class fun but also educational. Success will ultimately lie with not only me, but with the student and you. My expectations are very high and average will not cut it.
If you have any questions, or if any issues arise, please contact me at Bon Lin Middle School or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org . I will be glad to speak with you at any time. I look forward to working with your child this year. I also anticipate meeting you and learning how I might be of assistance to you and your child.
Although the battle of Perryville, Ky., was fought on Oct. 8, 1862, initial troop deployments occupied the preceding day while local residents pondered whether they should stay or leave. Much of the opposing lines were in plain view of one another. Upon drawing picket duty on the eve of the battle, a Confederate private named Sam Watkins of the First Tennessee was surprised to discover a Union guard, also on duty, just across the road. As Sam explains, that night they were not enemies.
We 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.
The anecdote comes from Watkins’s memoir, “Co. Aytch” (as in “H”), which appeared after the war and offers an unparalleled look at the life of a rank-and-file Southern soldier. Still, beyond a small circle of Civil War devotees, Sam Watkins was unknown until about 20 years ago, when Ken Burns’s groundbreaking “Civil War” series made him famous.
Watkins continually reminds readers that his memoir is not history. “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.”
Of the 120 men enlisting in his company in 1861, Watkins was one of only seven remaining upon its surrender two weeks after Appomattox. Such endurance speaks volumes about the young man’s chronicle. During the war he was falsely arrested once, suffered three gunshot wounds and captured – and escaped – three times.
Though “Co. Aytch” was his prime contribution to American letters, Watkins proved a first-rate storyteller. After abandoning Corinth, Miss., in 1862, the Confederates moved to nearby Tupelo, where they remained for seven weeks. Such idleness invited diversion, of which gambling was a certainty. Bored soldiers would wager on anything.
In an anecdote that ranks alongside Mark Twain’s famous story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” Watkins explained that
Our principal occupation was playing poker, chuck-a-luck and cracking lice. (Chuck won and luck always lost.) The boys would frequently have a louse race. There was one fellow (Dornin) who was winning all the money … We could not understand it … The lice were placed in plates … and the first that crawled off was the winner. At last we found Dornin’s trick; he always heated his plate.
Most of the book, though, is much more somber, told with a modern sensibility that resembles the work of World War I poets and novelists. “A private,” he wrote, is but “a machine that works by the command of a good, bad, or indifferent engineer and is presumed to know nothing.”
In struggling to make sense of the war, Watkins develops his own code of fighting. “I always shot at privates. It was they that did the killing,” he wrote. “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.”
On the evening after the battle of Chickamauga, Watkins experienced a heart-rending sight that underscored the consequences of such shooting. He and another soldier named William A. Hughes were with a detail of soldiers looking for wounded. Presently, 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 and William A. Hughes was crying.
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.”
Evidently Watkins shared a simple 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. One Sunday 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.
Presently, Yankee bullets started to thwack into trees and thud into the occasional soldier. “And the parson at that moment put spurs to his horse and was seen to lumber to the rear and almost every soldier yelled out. ‘The parson isn’t hungry and never eats his supper.’”
Shakespeare writes of combat transforming soldiers into a “band of brothers,” who become more motivated to fight for one another than any political cause. Similarly, during the hasty retreat from Missionary Ridge at the battle of Chattanooga, in November 1863, Watkins describes how four rebels demonstrated brotherly affection in a manner that would be unthinkable – even today – 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 got up a litter and carried him … to Chickamauga Station … The next morning Dr. J.E. Dixon told us … it would be useless to carry him further [because] it was utterly impossible for him 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.
Earlier in 1863, while the army was preparing fortifications they would never use at Chattanooga, Watkins’s father paid a visit. The soldiers were living on parched corn. Since Sam was ashamed to offer such a meal, he introduced his father to the regimental commander, Colonel Fields, 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 oil cloth and announced, “Master, dinner ready,” Watkins recalled. “He 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 Gen. John Bell Hood – was advancing toward its namesake state in hopes of forcing Gen. 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.’
Indeed, Watkins’s eye for humor amid the fighting is spot on. One evening Watkins 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.
While Sam and the federal sentinel were friendly the night before Perryville, Sam fought savagely the following day. Few works from the Civil War capture the horror and pathos of the front-line soldier as well as Watkins’ reminiscence of that day:
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.
Watkins’ memoirs was first serialized in the Columbia, Tenn., Herald from 1881 to 1882, and was first published in book form in 1882. Watkins settled on a farm outside Columbia, where he died in 1901.