Samuel Rush Watkins was a private in the Confederate Army, a twenty-one-year-old Southerner from Tennessee who knew about war but had never experienced it firsthand.. "With the immediacy of a dispatch from the front lines, here are Watkins' firsthand observations and recollections, from combat on the battlefields of Shiloh ("On Sunday morning, the order was given for the whole army to advance, and to attack immediately. The fire opened - a ripping, roaring boom, bang!") and Chickamauga ("We debouched through the woods, firing as we marched. The Yankee line was about two hundred yards off. In ten minutes we were face to face with the foe") to encounters with Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee, from the tedium of grueling marches to the terror of fellow soldiers' deaths, from breaking bread with a Georgia family to confronting the enemy eye to eye.
This cheerful and spunky memoir is one of the underground classics of Civil War literature, long cherished by students of the great conflict. Today's YAs and college students will like it fully as much. Sam Watkins was a young college student living in Columbia, Tennessee when the war clouds began to gather. When Tennessee prepared to secede from the Union, Watkins and his friends enlisted in a local infantry regiment, the Bigby Grays, and marched gaily off to war. The Grays soon morphed into Company H [Aytch] of the First Tennessee Infantry Regiment, and the gallant frolic swiftly became a grim and protracted struggle. Watkins stayed with his company until the end and fought through the battles of Shiloh, Corinth, Perryville, Murfreesboro, Chattanooga, Chickamauga, Missionary Ridge, and half a dozen others. He was wounded three times but managed to survive the war, and in 1881 he began to pen his memoirs. Numerous personal memoirs have come out of the Civil War, but this one deserves a special place. Not many of these accounts were written by enlisted men, and very few privates lived through such long and varied service. Of the 120 men who formed Company H, for example, only seven lived through the war. And very few memoirs, whether by officer or enlisted, have such literary merit. Watkins crafted his story with a good deal of artistic grace and style, presenting his experiences as a subplot within the larger drama of the war. He sprinkled his narrative with well-chosen examples of wit and irony, pathos and suspense. Readers will encounter a fair amount of Victorian-era floweriness, but also a series of unforgettable anecdotes and personality sketches. For those of us clinging to ourtattered copies of Watkins' story, it is good to see it reappear in a new paperback edition. This one includes a valuable introduction by M. Thomas Inge, a history and a chronology of the First Tennessee, maps, and a half-dozen articles which Sam Watkins wrote in later life. KLIATT Codes: SA*Exceptional book, recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 1999, Plume, 274p, 21cm, map, index, 99-14337, $13.95. Ages 16 to adult. Reviewer: Raymond L. Puffer; Ph.D., Historian, Edwards Air Force Base, CA, May 2000 (Vol. 34 No. 3)