“The die was cast, the war declared, and every person, almost, was eager for the war and we were afraid it would be over and we were not in the fight.”
So said Private Sam Watkins of Columbia, Tennessee, after he enthusiastically volunteered to join the new Confederate Army. Sam was twenty-one years old and had been raised on a family farm where he worked beside five slaves owned by his father. This was a simple farm, not a plantation, so everyone pulled their share of the necessary work. That said, he noted that he was hopeful slavery would end “in time” and that he was unsure about secession; however, he believed the Southern states had other valid grievances against the federal government in Washington and felt honor bound to support the Confederacy.
So Private Sam Watkins marched off to what he expected would be a brief, but necessary, and very exciting, war.
He arrived with his Company H of the First Tennessee Regiment at Manassas Junction (called Bull Run by the Yankees) two days after the first great battle of the Civil War; which was a resounding Confederate victory. He said; “We felt that the war was over and we would have to return home without even seeing a Yankee soldier. Ah, how we envied those who were wounded…so we could have returned home with an empty sleeve. Our courage on display for all to see. But the battle was over and we were left out.”
Like many soldiers before him, Sam Watkins seemed disappointed that he had somehow missed out on the grand adventure of going to war. However, also like almost all soldiers before him, his first taste of battle quickly changed his perspective.
On April 6, 1862, Sam Watkins found himself on the banks of the Tennessee river, near the Mississippi border. He could hear Union pickets on the other side a few hours before dawn, but on orders, Sam and the other Confederate scouts kept silent. About an hour later, at day break, Watkins’ unit charged at an unsuspecting Union encampment.
The place was called Shiloh, Hebrew for “a place of peace” after a small white church in the area; however, the battle of Shiloh had nothing to do with peace, and became one of the bloodiest of the war.
At first Sam was optimistic and excited. “The fire opened, the air was full of balls and deadly missiles. The litter corps carried off the wounded. We were driving them!”
Sam was right. The Confederate forces pushed the Union army back and the first day was a decided victory for Sam and the other southern boys; but they did lose their respected leader, Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston, who was mortally wounded. Sam Watkins wrote about the scene. “We saw (him) surrounded by his staff, but we did not know he was dead. The fact was kept from the troops.” Sam and the other Southern soldiers revered General Johnston and his staff was concerned his loss might demoralize the men who, at the time, were successfully pressing the Union forces.
At the close of the first day, even Union General Ulysses S. Grant admitted that the Confederates had gained the upper hand, but he added, “We will lick ‘em tomorrow.”
Sam Watkins wrote; “Now those Yankees were whipped, and according to all the rules of war, they ought to have retreated. But they didn’t.” The following day, Grant drove the Confederate forces back and claimed the battles at Shiloh as a Union Victory. One hundred thousand men had fought over those two days and the casualty rate (dead, wounded and missing) was horrific, at over 25 percent of all combatants. And Sam saw many of them fall!
Both North and South would now begin to realize the real cost of Civil War.
While Sam Watkins survived to fight again, his enthusiasm was now gone. He said that he saw one very young Confederate soldier deliberately shoot himself in the hand to escape the tumult and added, “I now knew this war would last, and last, and last.”
After Shiloh, the Confederate Army was faced with the end of the original one year enlistments for over 200,000 of their soldiers and the Southern government took two controversial steps to keep the forces viable. First, they unilaterally extended all enlistments and then also instituted a draft. But, in a move that infuriated Watkins and other poor soldiers, exemptions were granted to anyone who owned more than twenty slaves and permitted wealthier soldiers to pay a substitute. Sam wrote; “…. a soldier was simply a machine, a conscript. All our pride and valor had gone, we were sick of war and cursed the Southern Confederacy. There was raised the howl of “rich man’s war, poor man’s fight.”
By the end of 1862, Watkins found himself in Tennessee under the command of General Braxton Bragg who became notorious for the poor treatment of his men. Watkins wrote “not a single soldier in the whole army ever loved or respected him.” Bragg often had soldiers flogged, held on display in shackles, and even executed, with only a whisper of a courts martial.” Another Confederate General, Nathan Bedford Forrest later said of Bragg, “He is a damned scoundrel” and refused to serve under him.
But Sam Watkins and his fellow soldiers did not have that choice.
Watkins wrote, “We were crushed. He (Bragg) loved to crush the spirit of his men. We were on less than half ration. At the acme of our privations, we were ordered into line to be reviewed by Jefferson Davis. When he passed, he was greeted with ‘send us something to eat, Masa Jeff, I’m hungry’ and other unwelcomed comments. I see no prospect for peace. The Yankees can’t whip us and we can never whip them.”
While still in Tennessee, on November 24, 1862, Union and Confederate forces again clashed but Grant had overwhelming strength and caused sections of the Southern lines to break into retreat. Watkins wrote; “A column of Yankees came right over where I was standing, I was trying to get out of their way but the more I tried the more in their way I got.” Somehow, Sam Watkins again survived to fight another day.
By June 1863, Bragg had finally been relieved of command and Watkins was serving under General Joseph E. Johnston; who was loved by his troops but was despised and only tolerated by Jefferson Davis. Sam Watkins, in contrast to his mistrust and dislike for General Bragg, now wrote of General Johnston; “I do not believe there is a soldier in his army but would gladly die for him; everything was his soldiers and he would feed his soldiers if the country starved.”
The mission for General Johnston, and therefore the mission for Sam and his fellow soldiers, was to keep General Sherman’s Union forces from capturing Atlanta, Georgia. General Johnston fortified his positions at Kennesaw Mountain, which was on a direct route to Atlanta, and Sam Watkins waited for what was expected to be fierce battle.
General Sherman considered skirting Kennesaw and marching on to Atlanta by a much longer route; however, he decided to attack then and there and made an unwise series of charges that became a killing field. Sam Watkins was positioned on a rocky point which became known as “the dead angle” because the Confederate riflemen were able to fire down on the exposed Union forces. Sam wrote; “I have heard men say that if they ever killed a Yankee they were not aware of it. I am satisfied that on this day every man killed from twenty to a hundred each. All that was necessary was to load and shoot. My pen is unable to describe the scene of carnage and death that ensued for the next two hours. Yet still the Yankees came.” But Sherman’s attacks ultimately failed and Sam’s unit had held their position.
The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain was a clear Confederate victory; inflicting serious losses on General Sherman’s forces and delaying his planned assault on Atlanta. However, the victory did not diminish Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s dislike for General Johnston and the General was removed from command. Davis either did not realize, or did not care about, the demoralizing effect it would have on soldiers like Watkins who revered Johnston. Sam recalled, “The news came like a flash of lightening, staggering and blinding everyone. Old Joe had taken command of the Army of the Tennessee when it was crushed and broken. He was more popular with his troops every day. Farewell old fellow. We privates loved you because you made us love ourselves.”
Sam Watkins later marched from Georgia back into Tennessee in late 1864 under the command of Confederate General John Bell Hood, who Watkins respected for his battlefield courage, but wondered if Hood’s army had much fight left. “We were willing to go anywhere or follow anyone who would lead us. We were anxious to flee, fight or fortify. I have never seen an army so confused and demoralized. The whole thing seems to be tottering and trembling.”
Sam also witnessed the constant desertions by young Confederate soldiers who simply walked back home where they knew their families were desperate. Sam understood and sympathized but stayed with his unit. “My head and my feet said to go home, but my heart said to stay”
Then on December 5th, Union forces attacked Hood’s weakened army at Nashville and the end was chaotic. “The army was panic stricken. The woods everywhere were full of running soldiers. Our officers were crying ‘Halt, Halt’, but no one stopped.” When he finally rejoined with other stragglers, Watkins recalled, “The ground was frozen and our soldiers were poorly clad, while many, yes many, were entirely barefooted. Everything, and nature too, worked against us.”
On April 26, 1865, Sam Watkins First Tennessee Regiment surrendered at Greensboro, North Carolina. “The day we surrendered our regiment…was indeed a sad sight to look at. A mere squad of noble and brave men gathered around the tattered flag that they had followed in every battle through the long war. It was so bullet riddled and torn that it was but a few blue and red shreds.”
For Sam Watkins, and other young men on both sides, the great war was ending and they could head home. However, for too many others, the war had ended earlier as nearly one million soldiers perished. Of the 120 men who enlisted with Sam in 1861, only seven survived the war and, of the 3,200 who became part of his regiment throughout the war, only sixty-five came home without major wounds. Sam returned to Columbia, Tennessee and rebuilt his family farm. He wrote a memoir and, in a play on the spelling of his unit Company H, titled his book “Co. Aytch; A Side Show to the Big Show” based on his many vivid memories.
He later wrote; “Were those things real? Did I see those brave and noble countrymen of mine laid low in death? Did I see our country laid waste and in ruin? Did I see the ruins of smoldering cities and deserted homes? Surely they are the vagaries of mine own imagination. But, if only they were!
Our Cause was lost from the beginning. Our people were divided upon the question of Union and secession. Our Generals were scrambling for who ranked. The private soldier fought and starved and died for naught. Other pens than mine will have to chronicle their glorious deeds of valor and devotion. We shed a tear over their flower strewn graves. We love their memory yet.”
But, then, concluding, he wrote; “The United States has no North, no South, no East, no West. We are one and undivided.”
One hundred and fifty years ago, after a horrible conflict of region against region, Sam Watkins affirmed the values of one nation of United States. It is left to our generations to assure that Sam Watkins’ conclusion, that “We are one and undivided” remains true. Time will tell if we are up to the task.
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