Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Civil War Reenacting: A Soldier's Memoir - Samuel Rush Watkins

By Matthew Pizzolato

Samuel Rush Watkins
One of the reasons that I reenact is to gain an understanding in some small way of the hardships the soldiers endured and to try to experience life as they would have lived it, but perhaps the best way to achieve an understanding of the experiences that civil war soldiers lived through is to read some of the first hand accounts that they left behind.

Co. Aytch: A Side Show of the Big Show by Sam Watkins has long been heralded as one of the best.

Sam Watkins enlisted in the Third Tennessee in 1861 but soon transferred to Company H, "The Maury Greys," of the First Tennessee Infantry. Of the 120 men who enlisted in the company at the start of the War, Sam was one of seven who remained alive when the Army of Tennessee was surrendered to General William Tecumseh Sherman in April of 1865.

Sam served with distinction throughout the War taking part in several major battles including Shiloh, Corinth, Murfreesboro, Shelbyville, Chattanooga, Chickamauga, Missionary Ridge, The 100 Days Battles, Atlanta, Jonesboro, Franklin, and Nashville.

His constant thought throughout the war was to return and marry his sweetheart Jennie, which he did after the War's end and raised a family through the difficulties of Reconstruction. It was not until 1881 that he began writing his memoir at the urging of his family so that his children and grandchildren would know of his experiences. It was originally serialized in the Columbia, Tennessee Herald newspaper and published in book form in 1882.

Sam's memoir is regarded as one of the preeminent sources regarding the life of a soldier. There are similarities between his memoir and The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane that suggests Crane may have used Co. Aytch as a source or at least had read it.

Sam's writing has been called Twain-like because of his lively and witty style and teachers still use his book as a teaching source. Samuel Rush Watkins passed away on July 20, 1901 at the age of 62 in his home in the Ashwood Community and was buried with full military honors by members of the Leonidas Polk Bivouac, United Confederate Veterans.

Below is an excerpt from his memoir:

I was in every battle, skirmish and march that was made by the First Tennessee Regiment during the war, and I do not remember of a harder contest and more evenly fought battle than that of Perryville…

I stood picket in Perryville the night before the battle -- a Yankee on one side of the street, and I on the other.  We got very friendly during the night, 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 biscuit.  The old citizen was not at home – he and his whole household had gone visiting, I believe.  In fact, I think all of the citizens of Perryville were taken with a sudden notion of promiscuous calling about this time; at least they were not at home to all callers.

At length the morning dawned.  Our line was drawn up on one side of Perryville, the Yankee army on the other.  The two enemies that were soon to meet in deadly embrace seemed to be eyeing each other.  The blue coats lined the hillside in plain view.  You could count the number of their regiments by the number of their flags.  We could see the huge war dogs frowning at us, ready at any moment to belch forth their fire and smoke, and hurl their thunderbolts of iron and death in our very midst.

I wondered why the fighting did not begin.  Never on earth were our troops more eager for the engagement to open…About 12 o’clock, while we were marching through a corn field, in which the corn had been shocked, they opened their war dogs upon us.  The beginning of the end had come…from one end of the line to the other seemed to be a solid sheet of blazing smoke and fire.  Our regiment crossed a stream, being preceded by Wharton’s Texas Rangers, and we were ordered to attack at once with vigor…From this moment the battle was a mortal struggle.  Two lines of battle confronted us.  We killed almost every one in the first line, and were soon charging over the second, when right in our immediate front was their third and main line of battle from which four Napoleon guns poured their deadly fire.

We did not recoil, but our line was fairly hurled back by the leaden hail that was poured into our very faces.  Eight color-bearers were killed at one discharge of their cannon.  We were right up among the very wheels of their Napoleon guns.  It was death to retreat now to either side.  Our Lieutenant-Colonel Patterson halloed to charge and take their guns, and we were soon in a hand-to-hand fight – every man for himself – using the butts of our guns and bayonets…Such obstinate fighting I never had seen before or since.  The guns were discharged so rapidly that it seemed the earth itself was in a volcanic uproar.  The iron storm passed through our ranks, mangling and tearing men to pieces.  The very air seemed full of stifling smoke and fire which seemed the very pit of hell, people by contending demons…

Co. Aytch: A Side Show of the Big Show is available on Amazon, if'n you're interested.

Matthew Pizzolato's short stories have been published online and in print. He is a member of Western Fictioneers and his work can be found in the Wolf Creek series as well as his own publications, THE WANTED MAN, OUTLAW and TWO OF A KIND. 

He is the Editor-in-Chief of The Western Online, a magazine dedicated to everything Western. He can be contacted through Twitter @mattpizzolato or via his website: 


  1. Except that was no reenactment; it was the real deal. Cannon take a terrible toll on human flesh, and war surely takes a terrible toll on the human psyche, then or now. It is good to remember what our boys have gone through on our behalf.

  2. Thank you for sharing this excerpt. I knew of the work but had not read any of it. The horror of what they went through, and so many did not return. So sad, and yet the men who fought on either side, such courage that we need to honor. Doris