Monday, January 19, 2015

Book Review: "Co Aytch. A Sideshow of the Big Show" by Sam R. Watkins

Sam R. Watkins, CSA
If you have any interest in the War of the Rebellion and haven't already read "Co Aytch," then you owe it to yourself to go out and get it now (see bottom of this article for a link to the free, ebook version online).  

Crane's "Red Badge of Courage," Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," or "Chickamauga" are all stirring accounts of combat from the eyes of an infantryman in the War Between the States.  But if you really want to know what it was like to be a foot soldier in the Civil War,  read "Co Aytch" by Sam R. Watkins.

Watkins was a member of the First Tennessee Regiment or "Maury Grays" which numbered 120 members at the time he enlisted when he was twenty-one years old.   Twenty years later, he wrote "Co Aytch,"to tell of the fellows who did the shooting and killing, the fortifying and ditching, the sweeping of the streets, the drilling, the standing guard, picket and videt, and who drew (or were to draw) eleven dollars per month and rations, and also drew the ramrod and tore the cartridge."  

Watkin's memoirs are absolutely riveting.  He fought in battles at Shiloh, Perryville, Chickamauga, Resaca, Kennesaw Mountain, Atlanta, Nashville and many other locales.  He actually saw Jackson and Lee in the midst of battle.  At the end of the war only seven of the original 120 members of Company H had survived and only 65 out of 1,200 of the entire First Tennessee Regiment remained.

Even a dry, factual account of Watkin's life would make for amazing reading.  But his writing style and vivid imagery combined with the unique events he experienced first-hand make his memoirs an unforgettable read.  For example:
My pen is unable to describe the scene of carnage and death that ensued in the next two hours.  Column after column of Federal soldiers were crowded upon that line, and by referring to the history of the war you will find they were massed in column forty columns deep; in fact, the whole force of the Yankee army was hurled against this point, but no sooner would a regiment mount our works than they were shot down or surrendered, and soon we had every "gopher hole" full of Yankee prisoners.  Yet still the Yankees came.  It seemed impossible to check the onslaught, but every man was true to his trust ... 
Talk about other battles, victories, shouts, cheers, and triumphs, but in comparison with this day's fight, all others dwarf into insignificance.  The sun beaming down on our uncovered heads, the thermometer being one hundred and ten degrees in the shade, and a solid line of blazing fire right from the muzzles of the Yankee guns being poured right into our very faces,singeing our hair and clothes, the hot blood of our dead and wounded spurting on us, the blinding smoke and stifling atmosphere filling our eyes and mouths, and the awful concussion causing the blood to gush out of our noses and ears, and above all, the roar of battle, made it a perfect pandemonium ... 
I have heard men say that if they ever killed a Yankee during the war they were not aware of it.  I am satisfied that on this memorable day, every man in our regiment killed from one score to four score, yea, five score men.  I mean from twenty to one hundred each.  All that was necessary was to load and shoot.  In fact, I will ever think that the reason they did not capture our works was the impossibility of their living men passing over the bodies of their dead.  The ground was piled up with one solid mass of dead and wounded Yankees.  I learned afterwards from the burying squad that in some places they were piled up like cord wood, twelve deep.
One of my personal takeaways from reading Co Aytch was that General Braxton Bragg was even more of a liability for the Confederacy than I'd previously thought.  When serving under him, troop morale was brought to an all-time low by constant hangings, brandings, and even execution of deserters.
Almost every day we would hear a discharge of musketry, and knew that some poor, trembling wretch had bid farewell to mortal things here below.  It seemed to be but a question of time with all of us as to when we too would be shot.  We were afraid to chirp.  So far now as patriotism was concerned, we had forgotten all about that, and did not now so much love our country as we feared Bragg.  Men were being led to the death stake every day.
There are so many things in this account that history books fail to mention and the passage of time has obscured. If you're like me and want to know "what it was like," this truly is a must read account.

You can download a free, ebook version of Co Aytch. here.

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