Co. Aytch

In recent years, I’ve fallen out of the habit of reading books; I now spend most of my time on Wikipedia.  Now that I’m working (or not working, as is currently the case) from home, I thought it time to rectify this error.  In honor of the sesquicentennial (and as research for the podcast by which I’m planning to observe it) I’ve been trying to tackle my personal library of Civil War books.

One that has been in my library – and woefully neglected – for decades is Sam Watkins’ famous Co. Aytch, whose original subtitle “A sideshow of the big show” seems to have been dropped.  This is a shame, as it’s a terrific précis of Watkins’ memoirs. He repeatedly warns us that he was but a lowly “high private”, and was but one of the millions of faceless men and boys who fought the war.  Like all old soldiers, he revels in his anecdotes and tall tales, and sombrely recounts some of the horrors he witnessed.

To do this is but a pastime and pleasure, as there is nothing that so much delights the old soldier as to revisit the scenes and battlefields with which he was once so familiar, and to recall the incidents, though trifling they may have been at the time.

His unmilitary descriptions of battle and tactics are humorously rendered in sound effects and grumbles, as befits a soldier of the line.

After marching four or five miles, we “about faced” and marched back again to within two hundred yards of the place from whence we started. It was a “flank movement,” you see, and had to be counted that way anyhow. Well, now as we had made the flank movement, we had to storm and take the Federal lines, because we had made a flank movement, you see. When one army makes a flank movement it is courtesy on the part of the other army to recognize the flank movement, and to change his base. Why, sir, if you don’t recognize a flank movement, you ain’t a graduate of West Point.

Watkins is good at relaying colorful asides about life in the Rebel ranks. This passage illustrates both the private soldiers’ contempt for staff officers (something you’d never hear about in the books by the “big bugs” under whom he served) and how Sam wasn’t above usurping their privileges when it suited him:

[The average staff officer and courier were always called “yaller dogs,” and were regarded as non-combatants and a nuisance, and the average private never let one pass without whistling and calling dogs. In fact, the general had to issue an army order threatening punishment for the ridicule hurled at staff officers and couriers. They were looked upon as simply “hangers on,” or in other words, as yellow sheep-killing dogs, that if you would say “booh” at, would yelp and get under their master’s heels… In fact, later in the war I was detailed as special courier and staff officer for General Hood, which office I held three days. But while I held the office in passing a guard I always told them I was on Hood’s staff, and ever afterwards I made those three days’ staff business last me the balance of the war. I could pass any guard in the army by using the magic words, “staff officer.” It beat all the countersigns ever invented. It was the “open sesame” of war and discipline.]

One of the best reasons to read the memoir is for the feel of living alongside Watkins and his comrades. Between the horrors of battle, the soldiers had some memorably enjoyable times, and Watkins – a cad and a cutup – would’ve made for a fun companion across four years of hard marching. He certainly was across 200 pages.

As long as I was in action, fighting for my country, there was no chance for promotion, but as soon as I fell out of ranks and picked up a forsaken and deserted flag, I was promoted for it… And had I only known that picking up flags entitled me to promotion and that every flag picked up would raise me one notch higher, I would have quit fighting and gone to picking up flags, and by that means I would have soon been President of the Confederate States of America.

There’s a reason Watkins’ story is so heavily quoted in narratives and documentaries about the war.  This is a tale told far less often, and far more endearingly, than the dry, dusty military memoirs.  Every Civil War bookshelf needs some Sam Watkins.

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