Co. Aytch is the memoir of Sam R. Watkins, a private soldier of the Confederacy during the Civil War, written twenty years after the war ended. Most of what we learn of the Civil War is from the perspective of generals. This account is from the common soldier, who knew little of the larger picture, yet did the majority of the brute fighting.
Watkins has an easily understandable writing style and a good sense of humor. The set up of the book, with various disconnected pieces of memory in each chapter, almost reminds me of Tim O’Brien’s fictional novel The Things They Carried. Unfortunately, for some reason I can’t explain, only some of Watkins’ recollections evoke emotion from me.
Watkins often, perhaps even too often, reminds the reader that he is writing twenty years after his time in the army, so his memory fails him. As well, there are many things he simply never knew to begin with, so he refers the reader to the history books. Sometimes he even gets things completely off base, such as a name, which is corrected in a footnote. I did find it odd that he sometimes quotes speeches seemingly word for word with this faulty memory of his.
Certainly, I don’t expect everything to be accurate. If it were a diary written during the war I wouldn’t expect it all to be true either. We all tend to embellish and misremember things even if they happened yesterday. However, Co. Aytch is still a good look into the life of a common soldier during the Civil War.
We read of the energy, the patriotism, and the belief that what they are doing is right that these young men feel at the start of the war. The war will be glorious, they believe, as most soldiers do before experiencing battle for the first time. Unlike the indifference many citizens felt during the Revolution, the people cheer on their soldiers, providing them with food and other necessities when they can. Soon the soldiers realize the horrors and hardships of war: constant marching with no sleep or rations for days, bloody battles leaving friends injured, deformed, or dead (something Watkins deals with through his belief in God and heaven), and the threat of court martial or execution by your own side for something like falling asleep (and who wouldn’t with so little of so many things?) at your post. To a general, the common soldier is an automaton who knows nothing but to fire his gun when commanded. Of course, as Watkins points out, he knew many generals who weren’t generals and many privates who would’ve been good generals.
Watkins isn’t specific about battles, most of the time because he doesn’t know the specifics, but as he says, the book isn’t about what is exact history but what is his experience. Watkins’ experiences, unlike, say, Joseph Plumb Martin’s, are expressed without bombastic metaphors, perhaps making his accounts more easily accepted as truth. I rarely question Watkins’ recollections, such as meeting Generals Lee and Jackson, like I do Plumb Martin’s meeting with General Washington.
Watkins’ memoirs, of course, are only from one Confederate soldier long after the war is over. This gives us a view rarely expressed in history, one from a common soldier of the losing side. It must be remembered, though, that it is only one side of the war. Did the Union soldiers have the same experiences and feelings as the Confederate soldiers did? The Civil War is an interesting part of history in relation to the subject of our class. How many American wars have left both winning and losing veterans as citizens of the United States?