By Sam R. Watkins
During these years marking the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War there has been renewed interest in personal narratives of the conflict. One of the best-known accounts was by Samuel Rush Watkins, who wrote his memoirs of the time he spent in the First Tennessee Infantry, Company H, also known as the Maury Greys. Watkins served throughout the war and was one of the very few survivors of his group; of all those who had enlisted with Company H, fewer than 10 were still alive at the time of General Johnston’s surrender to General Sherman. Watkins is certainly capable of dramatic recollections of the events that took such a heavy toll on his comrades, as in his memories of the horrific battle of Franklin, Tennessee:
“Forward, men! The air loaded with death-dealing missiles. Never on this earth did men fight against such terrible odds. It seemed that the very elements of heaven and earth were in one mighty uproar. Forward, men! And the blood spurts in a perfect jet from the dead and wounded. The earth is red with blood. It runs in streams, making little rivulets as it flows. Occasionally there was a little lull in the storm of battle, as the men were loading their guns, and for a few moments it seemed as if night tried to cover the scene with her mantle. The death-angel shrieks and laughs and old Father Time is busy with his sickle, as he gathers in the last harvest of death, crying, More, more, more! while his rapacious maw is glutted with the slain.”
However, Watkins is equally adept at humorous accounts of camp life and wry observations on his place as a common soldier:
“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.”
Or there is his account of when he was promoted from private to corporal:
"Why, hello, corporal, where did you get those two yellow stripes from on your arm?"
"Why, sir, I have been promoted for gallantry on the battlefield, by picking up an orphan flag, that had been run over by a thousand fellows, and when I picked it up I did so because I thought it was pretty, and I wanted to have me a shirt made out of it."
There are many accounts of the Civil War by those who lived it, but few books will give a modern reader such a vivid picture of what it was like from day to day in the eyes of an ordinary soldier, albeit one with extraordinary powers of description. Come and have a look at our 1882 edition in Southern History, or check out one of the circulating copies in the system. Or take a look at the online version.
No matter which version you choose, make Sam’s acquaintance as soon as possible. For anyone with an interest in the Civil War, Co. Aytch is a must-read.
Mary Anne Ellis
Southern History Department