If anyone is looking for a good account of life as a soldier in the Civil War, I can attest that my students enjoyed the story of Sam Watkins, who served for four bloody years in the Confederate army. His story follows:
A Rebel Soldier’s War
“Don’t ask me to write history,” Sam Watkins warned readers in 1882. “I know nothing of history.” Instead, he would write about “what I saw and how I felt” during four years of service in the Civil War. “I propose to tell of the fellows who did the shooting and the killing, the fortifying and ditching [digging]...and who drew...eleven dollars per month and rations, and also drew the ramrod and tore the cartridge.”
His focus would not be generals and battle plans. His book would tell of the ordinary foot soldier.
Sam R. Watkins was born in Columbia, Tennessee on June 26, 1839. Twenty-one when the first shots of the war were fired, he enlisted as soon as he heard the news. “In my imagination, I am young again tonight,” he wrote twenty years later. “I hear the fife and drum playing Dixie...I see our fair and beautiful women waving their handkerchiefs and encouraging their sweethearts to go to war. I see the marshaling [gathering] of the hosts for ‘glorious war.’ I see the fine banners waving and hear the cry everywhere, ‘To arms! To arms!’”
Like all young men, Watkins was blind to what lay ahead. When news came, soon after, that the South had crushed the Yanks in the first battle at Bull Run, he and his comrades were disappointed. “We felt that the war was over, and we would have to return home without even seeing a Yankee,” he explained. “Ah, how we envied those who were wounded. We thought at the time that we would have given a thousand dollars to have been in the battle.”
The eager young soldier soon had a taste of “combat.” It came one night when he was standing guard. “While I was peering through the darkness,” he remembered, “my eyes suddenly fell upon the outlines of a man.” The more he stared the more certain he became a Yankee was closing in. “I could see his hat and coat—yes, see his gun.” Sam found himself in a “cold sweat” but called out, “Halt, who goes there?” When the shadowy figure failed to respond Watkins advanced. With a lunge he drove his bayonet “through and through” the enemy.
Too late he realized: “It was a stump.”
Sam and the 1st Tennessee Infantry soon had opportunity to shoot at targets that shot back. The chance came when they took part in the Battle of Shiloh (April 6-7, 1862). Not everyone who joins the army is a hero, of course. One man lost his nerve and shot off a finger to avoid taking part in the fight. Advancing past dead men “with their eyes wide open” Sam and the rest had trouble realizing what was happening. “It all seemed to me a dream,” he said. “I seemed to be in a sort of haze, when SIZ, SIZ, SIZ, the minie balls from the Yankee line began to whistle around our ears.”
The defeat which followed—as well as daily discomforts—taught Watkins what army life was all about. “War had become a reality,” he admitted. The men “were tired of it.” During one winter march freezing rain fell on the troops and “icicles hung from their clothing, guns and knapsacks.” Many suffered from frostbite. Sam’s feet froze. Later his skin “peeled off like a peeled onion.” Another time he told about marching on a hot day in Georgia. Dust in the road was so deep it was “like tramping in a snowdrift, and our eyes, and noses, and mouths, were filled with the dust that arose from our foot steps.” There was “a perfect fog of dust.” None of the men could see ten feet in front of their faces.
Like Confederate soldiers everywhere, the men of the 1st Tennessee discovered that their government would have a hard time supplying their most basic needs. “We became starved skeletons; naked and ragged rebels,” Sam remembered. Hardly the picture of glory he once imagined.
By summer of 1862, the men were filthy and “every soldier had a brigade of lice on him.” Besides playing poker to ease the boredom of camp life the boys held lice races and bet on results. A bug was placed on each man’s plate and the first to crawl to the edge was declared winner. All was well until Sam realized one fellow was cheating and heating his plate! The first desertions occurred, as enthusiasm for military life began to fade. Sam watched two teenage soldiers (“beardless boys” he called them) executed by firing squad after trying to sneak away from camp.
On a different occasion, Watkins saw another deserter from a different regiment executed. The poor fellow was required to ride in a wagon, seated on his own coffin. When he reached the gravesite where he would be shot, he asked for a drink of water. Then he asked for a little more, “as he heard that water was very scarce in hell, and it would be the last he would ever drink.” Tied to a post, the soldier let loose a fountain of cursing. The officer in charge gave the order to fire. The deserter was silenced forever.
That fall, General Braxton Bragg led Watkins and a large Rebel army north into Kentucky. Sam remembered how “the ladies waved their handkerchiefs and threw us bouquets” as the regiment passed. With a true soldier’s eye he added, “I thought they had the prettiest girls that God ever made.” Wine and cider and good food were set out for the men and “the boys felt like soldiers again.”
Little did they realize they were headed for a savage battle at Perryville (October 8, 1862). The night before, Sam took a turn on guard near enemy lines. He and a Yank sentry [guard] struck up conversation. Then they made a deal. Together the “enemies” raided an abandoned house and “captured a bucket of honey, a pitcher of sweet milk, and three or four biscuits.”
They ate well that night.
The next day they and their comrades set about the business of killing each other. The Tennessee boys advanced against heavy blue opposition. “Two [Yankee] lines of battle confronted us,” Sam explained. “We killed almost everyone in the first line, and were soon charging over the second.” The gray units ran into a third line, with cannon blazing in support. An “iron storm passed through our ranks,” Watkins remembered, “mangling and tearing men to pieces.”
Like most regiments that day, the 1st Tennessee suffered terribly, losing 350 killed, wounded and missing. (Sam took a bullet through his hat. A second punctured his canteen.) Though Northern forces suffered 4200 casualties, compared to 3400 for the South, the Rebel army was forced to retreat.
Watkins described the result:
I helped bring off our wounded that night. We worked the whole night. The next morning about daylight a wounded comrade, Sam Campbell, complained of being cold, and asked me to lie down beside him. I did so, and was soon asleep; when I awoke the poor fellow was stiff and cold in death. His spirit had flown to its home beyond the skies.
He totaled the cost among friends:
Joe Thompson, Billy Bond, Byron Richardson, the two Allen boys—brothers, killed side by side—and Colonel Patterson, who was killed standing right by my side. He was first shot through the hand, and was wrapping his handkerchief around it, when another ball [round bullet]struck and killed him. I saw W. J. Whittorne, then a...boy of fifteen years of age, fall, shot through the neck and collarbone. He fell apparently dead, when I saw him all at once jump up, grab his gun and commence loading and firing...I heard him say, “D—n ‘em, I’ll fight ‘em as long as I live.” Whit thought he was killed, but he is living yet. We helped bring off a man by the name of Hodge, with his under jaw shot off, and his tongue lolling [hanging] out. We brought off Captain Lute B. Irvine. Lute was shot through the lungs and was vomiting blood all the while, and begging us to lay him down and let him die. But Lute is living yet. Also, Lieutenant Woldridge, with both eyes shot out. I found him rambling [wandering] in a briar-patch.
When the sun went down the exhausted Rebel army retreated, marching through the night. “If we halted for one minute, every soldier would drop down, and resting on his knapsack, would go to sleep.” Sam was in a gloomy mood. “Where are so many of my old friends and comrades, whose names were so familiar at every roll call, whose familiar ‘Here’ is no more?” he asked. “They lie yonder at Perryville, unburied, on the field of battle.” Thinking of dead friends, he took comfort in religion, adding: “Their spirits seemed to be with us on the march, but we know that their souls are with their God.”
Sam’s regiment “celebrated” New Year’s Eve by taking part in a brutal three-day battle at Murfreesboro, Tennessee (December 31, 1862-January 2, 1863). The fight started badly for the Rebels. As Watkins saw it, Southern generals must have been drinking. The plan of attack they came up with seemed stupid. “They couldn’t see straight,” Sam remarked with bitterness. “They couldn’t tell our own men from Yankees. The private could, but he was no general, you see. But here they were—the Yankees—a battle had to be fought. We were ordered forward…We marched plumb into the Yankee lines, with their flags flying.”
All around him, Watkins watched men killed or wounded. He was hit in the arm by a large shell fragment. At first, he felt like his arm “had been torn from my shoulder.” Then he was hit again in the same arm by a bullet. He headed to the rear for medical attention. Soon after, he passed another wounded soldier. “I remember…first noticing that his left arm was entirely gone. His face was as white as a sheet.” Watkins would have offered to help, but the poor fellow suddenly “dropped down and died without a struggle or a groan. I could tell of hundreds of such incidents…but tell only this one, because I remember it so distinctly.”
After fighting ended, and after Watkins was patched back together, he took a tour of the battlefield:
I came across a dead Yankee colonel [one rank below general]. He had on the finest clothes I ever saw, a red sash [cloth belt] and fine sword. I particularly noticed his boots. I needed them, and had made up my mind to wear them out for him. But I could not bear the thought of wearing dead men’s shoes. I took hold of the foot and raised it up and made one trial at the boot to get it off. I happened to look up, and the colonel had his eyes wide open and seemed to be staring at me. He was stone dead, but I dropped that foot quick. It was my first and last attempt to rob a dead Yankee.
As the months dragged by Watkins was troubled by the treatment received by ordinary soldiers. When the Confederate Congress passed laws allowing owners of twenty slaves to go home he grumbled: “It gave us the blues.” “Rich man’s war, poor man’s fight,” he and others called it. A war over slavery—when owners could get out of fighting—and men like Sam had to remain! He was bothered because officers could resign and go home if they didn’t like the way they were treated. “That was honorable,” Sam said sarcastically. “A private soldier could not resign...and if he deserted, it was death.”
For most officers, especially General Bragg, then army commander, Watkins had little use. “The generals risked their reputation,” he commented. “The private soldier risked his life.” During battle he rarely bothered shooting at higher-ups. “I always shot at privates. It was they that did the shooting and the killing, and if I could kill or wound a private, why, my chances were so much the better. I always looked at officers as harmless [and]...I always tried to kill those that were trying to kill me.”
Actual fighting made up a small part of a soldier’s life. Problems of supply were a daily concern. Often the men were “thirsty for tobacco.” Coffee and sugar were almost unknown. Food was in short supply. Once the soldiers caught a rat in camp and prepared it for dinner. “We skinned him, washed and salted him, buttered and peppered him, and fried him. He actually looked nice,” Sam recalled. “The delicate aroma of the frying rat came to our hungry nostrils...even our mouths watered to eat a piece of that rat.” When time came to dig in Sam lost both appetite and nerve. “It was my first and last effort to eat dead rats.”
Another time the boys gathered mussels [like clams] from a river and fixed them for supper. “We tried frying them,” he explained, “but the longer they fried the tougher they got... Then we stewed them, and after a while we boiled them, and then we baked them...We tried cutting them up with a hatchet, but they were so slick and tough the hatchet would not cut them.”
Nothing worked. So the men went hungry once more.
One day Sam had the opportunity to eat dinner with a farmer and his family. The food was fine, but the soldier’s attention was drawn to the host’s two daughters. They were pretty girls, Watkins recalled. “I think at the time I would have given ten years of my life to have kissed one of them.”
Few soldiers have witnessed more bloodshed. But during the Battle of Chickamauga (Sept. 19-20, 1863), Sam at least had a laugh. It seems a minister had come out to camp to encourage the fellows to fight harder. He told the soldiers that the people of the South were behind them, ready to fight the Yankees in this world and “chase their frightened ghosts” through hell in the next. He promised the men that if they died in battle they would “sup [eat] tonight in Paradise.” “Well, parson, you come along and take supper with us,” called out one of Sam’s comrades. A sudden explosion caused the reverend to cut short his talk and put spurs to his horse. “The parson isn’t hungry!” several men shouted. Insults followed the fleeing rider until he was out of sight.
Then blood began to flow. Bullets, Sam said, “whistled around our ears like the escape valves of ten thousand [steam] engines.” Bob Stout, one of his friends, was standing nearby when Watkins paused to poke fun. Stout had predicted he would die this day. Watkins was glad to tell him he was so far wrong:
He [Stout] did not reply, for at that very moment a solid shot [cannon ball] from the Federal guns struck him between the waist and hip, tearing off one leg and scattering his bowels [intestines] all over the ground. I heard him shriek out, ‘O, O, God!’ His spirit had flown before his body had struck the ground.
After the shooting ended Sam watched as a woman searched the battlefield for her husband. Finding his corpse [body] at last, she cradled his head in her lap “and began kissing him and saying, ‘O, O, they have killed my darling, my darling!’” Watkins could stand it no more and walked away sadly.
Looking back after twenty years, Sam could find no glory in war. “I see [instead] broken homes and broken hearts.”
With death all about, the soldiers often found comfort in prayer. One day ten men were kneeling together at an outdoor church service. As Sam explained, they poured “out their souls in prayer to God, asking Him for the forgiveness of their sins, and for salvation of their souls, for Jesus Christ their Redeemer’s sake.” Without warning, a nearby tree, badly damaged in an earlier fire, “fell with a crash right across the ten [men], crushing and killing them instantly.” Watkins, a deeply religious man, explained the tragedy so: “God had heard their prayers. Their souls had been carried to heaven.”
In the final days of 1863 powerful Yankee armies pressed Rebel forces backwards. Watkins and his friends began to sense they might meet defeat in the end. At the Battle of Missionary Ridge (November 24) the men in gray suddenly gave up and their battle lines melted. Rebel soldiers fled “gunless, cartridge-boxless, knapsackless, canteen-less...and swordless and officerless, and they all seemed to have the ‘possum grins.’”
The next summer Northern forces under General William Tecumseh Sherman drove Southern armies into Georgia. The situation was desperate and the soldiers rarely had time to rest. “It was battle, battle, battle, every day, for one hundred days,” Watkins said with only slight exaggeration. During one fight he and his comrades were given the task of defending an “octagon house” against enemy assault. Firing from doors and windows the Southern boys put up a tremendous resistance. “The Yankees cheered and charged, and our boys got happy,” Sam explained. Captain Joe Lee borrowed Sam’s rifle to fire at a Northern officer in the distance. “He raised it to his shoulder and pulled down [pulled the trigger] on a fine-dressed cavalry officer, and I saw that Yankee tumble.”
When the shooting ended thirty dead and wounded littered the wrecked home. Sam described the scene:
Fine chairs, sofas, settees, pianos and Brussels carpeting being made the death-bed of brave and noble boys, all saturated [soaked] with blood. Fine lace and damask curtains, all blackened by the smoke of battle. Fine bureaus and looking glasses and furniture being riddled by the rude missiles of war. Beautiful pictures in gilt frames, and a library of valuable books, all shot and torn by musket and cannon balls. Such is war.
For concentrated destruction the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain (June 27, 1864) surpassed anything Watkins had seen. Under a cloudless sky, with temperatures above 100°, Yankees lines smashed again and again at dug-in Rebel defenses. Sam remembered: “A solid line of blazing fire right from the muzzles of the Yankee guns being poured right into our very faces, singeing [nearly burning] our hair and clothes, the hot blood of our dead and wounded spurting on us.” “Hell had broke loose in Georgia, sure enough,” commented another gray soldier.
Still, Union attackers were in a hopeless situation:
All that was necessary was to load and shoot. In fact, I will ever think that the reason they did not capture our works [defenses] was the impossibility of 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.
Watkins, himself, fired 120 times. His gun grew hotter and hotter from use. At times his powder “flashed” [exploded] in the barrel before he could finish loading. His commander fell, shot through the head, “only wounded, and one side paralyzed.” Meanwhile, the Northerners “seemed to walk up and take death as coolly as if they were automatic or wooden men, and our boys did not shoot for the fun of the thing.”
When Sherman’s units finally gave up the attack, Sam had time to study his comrades. Almost every man in Company H was wounded or had bullets through their clothing. Most were soaked in sweat, others covered in blood. Many vomited from sunstroke [heat exhaustion]. Sam himself barely cheated death. When a Yankee was about to shoot him at close range a friend grabbed the enemy soldier’s gun barrel. Receiving “the whole contents in his hand and arm,” he died instead.
Throughout the war his faith in God and love for his girlfriend, Jennie, kept Sam going. When the army camped near his home one night Watkins and a friend took a chance and snuck off. “We put our sand paddles [feet] to work,” he laughed and off they went to visit their sweethearts. That evening Sam asked Jennie to pray for him: “because I thought the prayers of a pretty woman would go a great deal further ‘up yonder’ than mine would.”
One letter from his girl especially pleased him. He said later he read it “over five hundred times, and remember it today.” When he was wounded near the end of the war Jennie wrote:
My Dear Sam,
I write to tell you that I love you yet, and you alone; and day by day I love you more, and pray, every night and morning for your safe return home again. My greatest grief is that we heard you were wounded and in the hospital, and I cannot be with you to nurse you...Sam, please take care of yourself for my sake, and don’t let the Yankees kill you. Well, good-bye, darling. I will ever pray for God’s richest and choicest blessings upon you. Be sure and write a long, long letter—I don’t care how long, to your loving and sincere
Jennie’s boyfriend did his best. But the carnage [terrible death and destruction] continued. “It seemed that the hot flames of hell were turned lose in all their fury,” Sam wrote after the Battle of Atlanta.
When the Rebel army was forced to give up the city and retreat again a feeling of despair spread among the soldiers. Sam explained:
They were broken down with their long days’ hard marching—almost dead with hunger and fatigue. Every one was taking his own course, and wishing and praying to be captured. Hard and senseless marching, with little sleep, half rations, and lice, had made their lives a misery. Each one prayed that all this foolishness might end one way or the other. It was too much for human endurance. Every private soldier knew that such things as this could not last. They were willing to ring down the curtain, put out the footlights and go home. There was no hope in the future for them.
By now the Confederacy was doomed. Yet the fighting continued. During the Battle of Franklin (December 15-16, 1864) the men of the First Tennessee advanced in the face of an “avalanche of shot and shell.” The air was full of “death-dealing missiles” and “the blood spurts in a perfect jet from the dead and wounded. The earth is red with blood. It runs in streams, making little rivulets [tiny rivers] as it flows.” General Patrick Cleburne was “pierced with forty-nine bullets” and the loss of life horrified even a veteran soldier. Watkins, who was wounded in the foot and ankle, could see the army’s spirit was broken. At one point Confederate soldiers began to retreat. Then they panicked. They went to pieces and ran. Trying to stop the fleeing troops was like trying to halt a “river with a fish net.”
Even Sam was ready to give up. It seemed as if “God and the whole world were against us.”
Watkins had been lucky so far, and his angels were not about to desert him. During the fight, he and two comrades were surprised and almost captured when they stumbled into an enemy position. When the Yankee boys opened fire and cut down the soldier next to him, Sam took off.
As I started to run, a fallen dogwood tree tripped me up, and I fell over the log. It was all that saved me. The log was riddled with balls, and thousands, it seemed to me, passed over it. As I got up to run again, I was shot through the middle finger of the very hand that is now penning these lines, and the thigh.
Later, he counted several bullet holes in his clothes and found he had a boot “full of blood.”
The coming of spring in 1865 promised better weather. But almost everyone realized the South could not hold out much longer.
Watkins described what was left of Confederate forces:
The once proud Army of Tennessee had degenerated [in]to a mob. We were pinched by hunger and cold. The rains, and sleet, and snow never ceased falling from the winter sky, while the winds pierced the old, ragged, gray-back Rebel soldier to his very marrow. The clothing of many was hanging around them in shreds of rags and tatters, while an old slouch-hat covered their frozen ears. Some were on old raw-boned [skinny] horses, without saddles.
Watkins, his regiment, and the remains of the Rebel armies were finally forced to surrender in April 1865. Now he took time to count the sad cost his regiment had paid. “If I remember correctly, there were just sixty-five men in all, including officers, that were paroled that day.”
Of all the hundreds who had served bravely in the 1st Tennessee, but a handful remained at the end.
Words to Know:
Rations: food for one day.
Ramrod: long rod used to pack gunpowder and a ball [one “round” or shot] in the barrel of a musket or rifle.
Cartridges: gunpowder in paper wrappers. Soldiers tore off the top with their teeth and poured powder down the barrel.
1st Tennessee Infantry: regiments on both sides were organized by state. So the 1st Tennessee would be 1,000 men from that state.
Minie ball: the first pointed bullet used in this country. It “cut” through air and was much more accurate.
Brigade: a brigade is a unit made up of three or four regiments.
Desertions: soldiers who quit the army without permission.
Coffin: casket; box to bury a dead person.
Casualties: the total of killed, wounded and “missing in action.”
Knapsack: A sack carried on a soldier’s back.
Private: the lowest rank in the army.
Resign: turn in an official request to be relieved of duty.
Army of the Tennessee: the main Rebel army, charged with defending Kentucky, Tennessee and Georgia most of the war.
Degenerated: reduced to a worse condition.
Marrow: living cell tissue found inside the bones.
If anyone is interested in a cleaner copy of this reading visit my website at TpT, Middle School History and Tips for Teachers, and download Watkins’ story. Did I mention: it’s free?
These readings on the Civil War may also be of interest:
The Battle of Bull Run: My students could relate to the inexperience of most of the young men in the fight—and a couple of young women.
Diary of John Ransom: Ransom spent the last part of the war in Andersonville. I put this reading together after I retired; I’m not sure how students would react. Ransom’s story sound similar to tales of the Holocaust.
Elisha Rhodes’ Civil War: Ken Burns also used Rhodes as a main source in his series on the war. This reading makes a perfect companion piece to the story of Sam Watkins.
Gettysburg: Human Interest: A few oddities and details about the battle that might interest students.
“Terrible Beyond Description:” This is an in-depth look at the Battle of Gettysburg. I wrote this after I retired.
Gettysburg: Two of the Wounded: In this selection I try to humanize the carnage of the battle, or any other battle in any other war. I believe it lends itself to an excellent writing assignment, designed to make students think about soldiers as real human beings.
Civil War: What Did the Soldier Care About? Again, this is designed to show the soldier of this era as an ordinary individual.
Recollections of a Private Soldier: Frank Wilkeson joined the Union Army at age 15, just in time to experience brutal fighting under General Grant in 1864-65.
 His book, Co. Aytch: Or, a Side Show of the Big Show, was written in 1882. (The “Company Aytch” is Sam’s way of saying Company H, one of ten companies that made up the First Tennessee.
 One exception was Colonel Hume R. Field, commander of his regiment. Watkins described him as a man with “the nerves of a rock or a tree,” “the bravest man, I think, I ever knew.”
 This would be an eight-sided house, a style popular before the war.
 He joked about another close call, when his own men fired at him one night in the dark. Sam dove for cover. Pressing as close to the earth as he could, he laughed, “I do not think that a flounder [fish] or pancake was half as flat as I was that night.”