Review of Company H: A Confederate Soldier’s Memoirs, by Samuel R. Watkins

27 Dec

Sam Watkins’ Company H is easily the most famous of all Civil War soldier memoirs. The eminently quotable Watkins offers a plethora of homespun and pithy observations, all delivered in a humble, straightforward style by an unassuming private who seemed to be at every significant action in the long and storied history of the Confederate Army of Tennessee. Of course, the fact that his quotes have appeared in seemingly every major Civil War television documentary and countless books have launched his book, originally published in the 1880s, into the category of essential reading in a large number of courses on Civil War history in colleges and universities for decades. In truth the book is so well known among those interested in Civil War history that a traditional formal review here is unnecessary. But after visiting the site of his grave during a trip to visit the nearby battlefield of Franklin, Tennessee, we wanted to offer some thoughts and observations on this familiar text after listening to it in its entirety for the first time in audiobook form.

One thing to understand about Watkins’s work is that it is relatively narrowly focused. As he reminds readers often, every few pages in fact, his writings are solely recitations of things he personally observed, and he makes little attempt to paint the larger picture of the war outside of the individual sectors of the battles in which he participated. His accounts of virtually every battle conclude with some variation of a note that if readers want to know more about grand strategies and tactics, they should “consult the histories.” But despite the clearly limited scope—sometimes requiring readers to either have a better understanding of the big picture than perhaps Watkins himself did, the book contains some of the best personal descriptions of the chaos of combat experience that one is likely to find. Few writers convey the essences of the sights, sounds, and emotions of Civil War combat than Watkins. His numerous close calls, occasional injuries, and haunting descriptions of seeing friends shot down around him and of shooting enemy combatants are unvarnished but provocative.

One thing that we did not realize about the book was that it contained a good amount of information on Watkins’s diverse experiences in camp and away from the army, whether on leave, in a hospital in Montgomery, Alabama, and various other events which we had seldom seen quoted. While most are not incredibly enlightening, some are humorous, such as his adventure in climbing to the top of the Alabama capital building—or rather his effort to climb back down from the cupola. Perhaps most revelatory as it relates to the experience of soldiers in general are Watkins’s mentions of camp politics, his opinions of various generals, and his philosophy concerning how wars are fought and remembered. Watkins clearly felt that the burdens of the war, indeed likely all wars for that matter, fell disproportionately on enlisted men, while privileged officers were remembered as heroes for deeds their troops actually performed. We found of utmost interest his candid assessment of army morale as it varied under the leadership of various generals such as Joseph Johnston and John Bell Hood, as he pulls no punches in his evaluations of the abilities of each and care for the soldiers under their charge. He relates how he and his fellow soldiers thought highly of Johnston, for example, while clearly distrusting Hood, whom he believes was little more than a butcher and a hack even as he salutes him for his courage.

Another aspect of the book we did not realize until reading it in its entirety is just how uneven is his coverage of different battles. About half of the book concerns the fighting around Atlanta in the spring and summer of 1864, events which obviously made an especially strong impression on him and were seared into his memory. Some of Watkins’s most vivid memories seem to concern the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain, a maelstrom of brutal fighting in soaring summer heat which witnessed death on a scale Watkins experienced in no other contest. The very fact that some events receive more coverage than others in and of itself helps readers better appreciate that the war as viewed from the perspective of the soldiers who fought it might be very different from what we might otherwise assume by looking at the timelines of milestone events with which we are now so familiar.

We both had to wonder how it was that this ordinary soldier found himself in a position to observe so many key leaders in so many critical moments throughout the war, and how he managed to live through his experience of participating in the thickest of fights at the front lines from the beginning to the end of the war. He writes of seeing Joe Johnston before pivotal battles, observing the dead body of Leonidas Polk after killed by cannon fire, and of seeing John Bell Hood after his army’s failure following the loss of Atlanta. We have no reason to doubt the veracity of the claims, but we have to wonder if his personal observations might have been augmented by strong memories of the accounts of compatriots in some instances. The book was written as a series of articles in his hometown newspaper some twenty years after the war, after all. Regardless, the fact remains that Company H is one of the iconic pieces of literature about the war written from a firsthand perspective and is worth the time of anyone interested in its history.

JMB/CPW

2 Responses to “Review of Company H: A Confederate Soldier’s Memoirs, by Samuel R. Watkins”

  1. John Sledge December 28, 2022 at 5:53 AM #

    That stone is obviously pretty recent. Wonder what the original looked like?

    • The Historians Manifesto December 28, 2022 at 8:28 PM #

      Good question. Have never seen the original, but I am sure it is much less elaborate. There is an interpretive panel at the gravesite, but it makes no mention of the original marker.

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