Sunday, July 11, 2021

A visit with great-granddaughter of Sam Watkins of Co. Aytch

Ruth Hill McAllister at the grave of Sam Watkins, her great-grandfather.

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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.
On a steamy Tennessee afternoon, Ruth Hill McAllister and I meet in-person for the first time, at Zion Presbyterian Church Cemetery in Columbia, where the remains of her famous ancestor rest along with his wife, Jennie. Clearly, Watkins – one of the “stars” of Ken Burns’ 1990 Civil War documentary – is not forgotten. Atop the 1st Tennessee veteran’s gray-granite marker sit tokens of remembrance left by visitors: pennies, nickels, dimes – even a pen knife, which seems a bit odd. 

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.
“My parents just hoped to live long enough to see the special,” Ruth tells me. (They did.) "...we felt honored [Sam] was a part of it."

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."
  • A close-up of Sam Watkins' gravestone -- and metal CSA
    marker next to it -- in Zion Presbyterian Church Cemetery
    in Columbia, Tenn.
    "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."
  • "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.
Initially published in 1882, Company Aytch sold for $1.25 in hardback, 75 cents in paperback. Watkins even gave away some of the 1,500-book printing run as wedding gifts. He intended to republish the book, marking up a first edition with changes, corrections, and additions in a "sometimes indecipherable scrawl," according to McAllister. But her great-grandfather never did publish another edition.

Ruth Hill McAllister gave me a copy
of Company Aytch. Signed it, too.
That marked-up treasure remained with Ruth's Uncle Paul for decades. Immediately after his death in 1997, however, no one could find it. Her cousin Jenny eventually discovered the pencil-smudged, brittle copy in a box. Later, when Jenny asked Ruth if she were interested in buying it from her, McAllister was "delighted" and paid a "handsome price." It's now in a bank vault.

The latest edition, the only authorized one that includes Watkins' changes, corrections, and additions, was published in 2011, with Ruth's impetus. "It is my sincere hope," McAllister writes in the introduction to that edition, "that historians and other readers will find it of some interest and benefit." Before my departure, Ruth gives me a copy as a gift.

Now if you will please excuse me, I have some reading to do.

-- Have something to add (or correct) in this post? Email me here.

6 comments:

  1. In my library, but not read - now it's time. Thanks for the read John.

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  2. It’s quite a book, and Sam was quite a guy. He seemed to have really developed a balanced acceptance of the trauma he experienced. He’s one of a handful of CW veterans I would really like to have met! Thanks for sharing this!

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  3. Around 1970, a teacher decended from Sam Watkins (and for the life of me can not remember her name!!) let me read his typed notes for the book. At 17 and a history buff, I was honored to get to read it.
    But at that young age, I had no idea just HOW rare a privilege it was to actually touch the draft. Now I would have read it in an enclosed environment with white cotton gloves!

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  4. What a thrill to have met Ms. McAllister and to receive a great gift.

    The book is a great read. Especially poignant are Sam's recollections of the carnage at Franklin.

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  5. Watkins is always an enjoyable read and I re-read it just about every year,

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  6. Ditto... one of the top reads on the American Civil War.

    I recently scored a copy of Ruth's updated version and read it again. Good on her for all her fine work and effort. she has definitely produced an excellent addition to grace my bookshelf.

    Rob

    FNQ,Au

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