How does a man keep his humanity in one of the worst conflicts in American History?
About the Author
Samuel Watkins was born in June, 1936 and fought as a soldier in the 1st Tennessee Regiment throughout the majority of the civil war. It should be noted that his regiment entered the war with 3,200 men, and ended with merely 65. His book, Co. Aytch (the “Co.” is pronounced as “company”) is a series of his own recollections of life as a soldier. Though the author passed in July of 1901, his lives on as a notable piece of historical literature.
Real, Brutal and Gritty
“It is well war is so terrible – otherwise, we would grow too fond of it.”
-Robert E. Lee
When one watches a documentary or movie about the civil war, the level of violence shown is a muted version of the reality Watkins recalls. As a soldier, he is able to give readers a firsthand glimpse into the brutality of war, something that at times, is difficult to read. For those who may flinch and get faint at the site of blood donations and needles, this book may prove too much. Though there are lighter, gentler topics, the author is giving an account of the life a soldier involved in the bloodiest war in American History; a large amount of the book is centered on the battles and fighting that took place during the conflict.
Watkins takes readers with him through the terrors of battle, and morbid images of wounded and dead comrades pepper the pages of his book. He does not shy away from describing the unfiltered graphic details of combat, putting readers right alongside him in the front lines.
When recalling his first time in combat – which happened to be at Shiloh, one of the biggest battles of the war – Watkins vividly describes his experience:
“I had heard and read of battlefields, seen pictures of battlefields, of horses and men, of canons and wagons, all jumbled together, while the ground was strewn with dead and wounded… Men were lying in every conceivable position… It all seemed to be a dream; I seemed to be in a sort of haze.”
Though Watkins goes into even more detailed depictions of what he sees, I deemed it too much for this review. However, if you can handle the violence, than I highly recommend simply accepting it and reading through it.
Individual Stories Sewn Into a Quilt of a Book
The formatting style of this book may catch some readers off guard. Unlike one long continuous journal or narrative like many historic non-fiction works, this one is rather a compilation of various stories. In his opening chapter, he writes how he “write[s] entirely from memory”. The “old soldier” does “not pretend to write a history of the war” but rather states that he is only telling the story of the common soldier, a figure who he claims is often overlooked.
Watkins gives accounts, both brief and extensive, of events ranging from pivotal battles, like Chickamauga, to men betting on foot races. There is an air of authenticity in Watkins’ tales and the only embellishment he uses is the same type your grandfather would when telling you a story of his youth; one may very well find themselves moved by his simple, genuine disposition. It’s as if readers are conversing with the writer, for Watkins often address readers directly as “reader.” Inevitably, the style can be somewhat difficult to understand when the writer attempts to explain technicalities, but overall, such a homespun quilt of stories is really quite enjoyable.
Forest Gump of the Civil War
I’m not at all saying Watkins is a somewhat slow, country bumpkin. However, his character can be easily likened to (and thus better understood by modern readers) that of “Forest” in the film Forest Gump. Though this soldier of the confederacy finds himself in a conflict that ripped the fabric of a country, families, and culture apart, he does not share the bitter hatred towards his enemy that was an all too common sentiment during the war. He is a fellow that values life as sacred, and does not seem to enjoy or in some cases, even want to do the killing that soldiers must do. He shows remorse in regards to violence and writes of feeling deeply, for both comrade and enemy alike.
This gentle disposition can be witnessed all throughout his book. At one point, Watkins writes about defending a position from an enemy charge, and credits his foes for their resolute determination: “They seemed to walk up and take death cooly… and our boys did not shoot for the fun of the thing. It was, verily, a life and death grapple.”
Another aspect of the book I found especially touching was how the writer gives short, simple and affectionate eulogies for his fallen comrades. Though many men in war have no more emotion for the death of a man than they do for that of an insect, Watkins’ tone, and the tone of his book are quite different.
Watkins’ book is very much about war and death but it is also about how a man can maintain his humanity even in the worst of circumstances. Though Watkins is a good soldier who fights bravely, he never ceases to care and feel deeply, for both friend and foe. He truly demonstrates what it means to be, in Abraham Lincoln’s words, one of the “better angels of our nature.”
Though I thoroughly enjoyed it, Co. Aytch was definitely no Iliad or Tale of Two Cities. However, I think that there are few books so realistically violent, yet at the same time, paint such a beautiful portrait of the human spirit. Is the book gruesome, and the style difficult to comprehend at times? Yes. However, I think that these qualities only enhance the reader’s experience and give the book the nostalgic feel it possesses; in fact, I think that’s exactly how Watkins would have wanted it to be.