“There’s a rumor going around. If you hear a whippoorwill singing on the day of the battle, it means you’re going to die. ... in the clear morning Georgia air, you could hear a whippoorwill singing loud and clear.” ~ Pvt. Sam Watkins
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There literally have been more than 50,000 books written on the American Civil War, having no peer when it comes to the vast tomes in print in the 150-plus years since its outbreak.
This month 149 years ago saw the fall of Atlanta to Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s determined, better fed, better armed and better led Union Army, in the less glamorous Western Theatre of the War Between the States.
Like Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg earlier in the final years of the conflict, it had huge ramifications in turning public opinion in the North from possible defeat to looming victory — and victory in the presidential election of 1864 for Abraham Lincoln.
Yet, all the political, economic and moral decisions being made around Sam Watkins and his fellow Confederate soldiers didn’t have the impact of the words he eventually penned after the war, in his now-famous book on the common soldier — “Company Aytch: Or, the Side Show of the Big Show.”
His reminisces are some of the best and most succinct to come from that awful conflict long ago.
That he was able to pen anything was more than a small miracle. He fought and campaigned in many of the epic and bloodiest battles of that war. The list is perhaps the most impressive of any soldier in any American war before or since.
Cheat Mountain, Shiloh, Corinth, Perryville, Murfreesboro, Chattanooga, Chickamauga, Missionary Ridge, Resaca, Kennesaw Mountain, New Hope Church, Atlanta, Franklin, Nashville and on and on — all vastly significant actions in our most significant trial by fire.
Transferred to the 1st Tennessee Infantry Regiment — Company H of the Maury Grays — in spring 1861, Pvt. Sam was able to recollect and account for his actions, and the actions of the common, private soldier, in a way few have ever put pen and ink to paper.
Of the 120 men from Maury County, Tenn., who enlisted in the spring of 1861 to fight for the Confederacy, Pvt. Sam was one of only seven alive when Gen. Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of Tennessee surrendered to Sherman in April 1865.
He and his fellows too often were ragged, hungry, dirty and foot-sore from countless miles of marching and fighting, in the worst of weather conditions and roughest terrain.
It was on the Kennesaw Line — imposing Confederate fortifications on Kennesaw Mountain, near Marietta, Ga. — that Pvt. Sam immortalized in words what eventually was immortalized in a song by the same name.
Blocking the Union path to Atlanta, Gen. Sherman’s combined Army of the Tennessee, the Cumberland and the Ohio made a massive frontal assault on the Confederates.
They were thrown back with heavy losses, but after weeks of fighting, still forced the Southerners to fall back toward Atlanta, and an eventual Union victory.
Fighting with the 1st and 27th Tennessee infantry regiments, and the Rock City Guards, Watkins wrote:
“Well, on the morning of June 27th (1864), the sun rose clear and cloudless, the heavens seemed made of brass, and the earth of iron, as they began to mount toward the zenith.
“Everything became quiet, and no sound was heard save a peckerwood on a neighboring tree, tapping on its old trunk. ... On the distant hills we could plainly see officers dashing about hither and thither, and the Stars and Stripes moving to and fro ... making preparations for the mighty contest.
“My pen is unable to describe the scene of carnage and death that ensued in the next two hours. Column after column of Federal soldiers were crowded upon that line. ... the whole force of the Yankee army was hurled against this point, but no sooner would a regiment mount our works than they were shot down or surrendered ... Yet, still the Yankees came.
“The sun beaming down on our uncovered heads, the thermometer being 110 degrees in the shade, and a solid line of blazing fire right from the muzzles of the Yankee guns being poured right into our very faces, singeing our hair and clothes, the hot blood of our dead and wounded spurting on us, the blinding smoke and stifling atmosphere filling our eyes and mouths ... made it a perfect pandemonium.
“Hell had broke loose in Georgia, sure enough.”
As the fighting ebbed, Pvt. Sam and his exhausted fellows had tongues parched and cracked for lack of water, faces blackened from powder and smoke.
“Poor Walter Hood and Jim Brandon were lying there among us, while their spirits were in heaven,” Sam wrote.
And he closes the book: “The tale is told, the world moves on, the sun shines as brightly as before.”
Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle. Go to his column blog at http://enid news.com/historicallyspeaking