|Ruth Hill McAllister at the grave of Sam Watkins, her great-grandfather.|
Confession: I have not read Company Aytch, Confederate soldier Sam Watkins’ classic memoir, which puts me in a minority among my Civil War friends, acquaintances, and hangers-on according to an informal poll. I promise to rectify that, especially now that I have a copy of the latest version, signed by Watkins' great-granddaughter.
|This image of Sam Watkins hangs in Ruth Hill McAllister's|
house. Watkins died in 1901.
Behind us stands historic Zion Presbyterian Church, Watkins’ longtime place of worship built, in part, by slaves. And steps from his grave stands one of those ubiquitous (and addictive) Civil War Trails tablets. It includes this quote from Company Aytch:
"America has no north, no south, no east, no west. The sun rises over the hills and sets over the mountains, the compass just points up and down, and we can laugh now at the absurd notion of there being a north and a south. We are one and undivided."
Too bad today's America is not "one and undivided." But that’s a discussion for another day. Ruth, as sweet a lady as you’ll ever meet, invites me to her 19th-century house. There, I enjoy two slices of McAllister's freshly baked banana coffee cake with sweet tea, bond with her rambunctious but friendly dog, and chat about one of the Civil War’s more fascinating characters.
|Visitors leave tokens of remembrance on Sam Watkins' gravestone in Columbia, Tenn.|
|Historic Zion Presbyterian Church, which Sam Watkins attended, still holds services.|
Thirty-one years ago -- yikes! -- Ruth's family was glued to the TV for Burns' mini-series, which may have shaded the truth a bit (see: "Gettysburg/Confederates shoes story") but opened the eyes of millions to America's greatest conflict. (Lord, I can't get enough of former newspaperman Charles McDowell's Watkins voiceover.)
|An ancient family Bible includes a list of Watkins births.|
Watkins, who died in 1901, never dominated family discussions while McAllister was growing up. But her father had a habit of writing down notes from conversations with his mother -- Watkins' daughter, Ruth's grandmother -- about him on the backs of envelopes. Some of those scribblings are stuffed in the nooks and crannies of McAllister's beautiful house. (Ruth also has the ancient, Sam Watkins-signed family Bible, a neat relic to examine.)
Samuel Rush Watkins, who was promoted from private to corporal in 1864, seemed to be everywhere in the Western Theater -- battles at Shiloh, Perryville, Murfreesboro/Stones River, Nashville, and elsewhere. But it’s his folksy, often-eloquent writing (and razor-sharp sense of humor) that leaves me slightly in awe. A few Watkins-isms:
- "A soldier's life is not a pleasant one. It is always, at best, one of privations and hardships. The emotions of patriotism and pleasure hardly counterbalance the toil and suffering that he has to undergo in order to enjoy his patriotism and pleasure. Dying on the field of battle and glory is about the easiest duty a soldier has to undergo."
"I always shoot at privates. It was they who did the shooting and killing, and if I could kill or wound a private, why, my chances were so much the better. I always looked upon officers as harmless personages."
A close-up of Sam Watkins' gravestone -- and metal CSA
marker next to it -- in Zion Presbyterian Church Cemetery
in Columbia, Tenn.
- "General [Braxton] Bragg was a disciplinarian shooter of men, and a whipper of deserters. But he was not any part of a General. As a General he was a perfect failure."
- "The lice and the camp itch were the greatest luxuries enjoyed by the private soldier. Ah, reader, they were luxuries that were appreciated. A good scratching was ecstasy. It was bliss."
- "The majority of Southern soldiers are today the most loyal to the Union. Many disown the Southern cause and have buried in forgetfulness all memory of the war.
|Ruth Hill McAllister gave me a copy|
of Company Aytch. Signed it, too.