The Story from Below: Company Aytch and the Heroism of the American Foot Soldier

There are hundreds of war stories around but few of them were told from the perspective of the soldiers on the field, which is why history is replete with the grandstanding of generals and other military officers but almost none of the travails and heroism of foot soldiers. The internet has changed all that, of course, with soldiers detailed in Iraq able to take advantage of technological advances to tell their side of the story, but this wasn’t the case during the American civil war. It is in this context that Sam Watkins’ memoir of his war experiences in the book “Co. Aytch”;

Maury Grays First Tennessee Regiment or A Side Show of the Big Show  is significant not only in the study and recording of history, but in its retelling. Printed originally in his home town newspaper The Columbia Herald, Watkins’ compelling story would later be published as a book, and be hailed as one of America’s most compelling accounts of the struggle between the north and the south.

Perhaps one of the candors of this book is that it is written in Watkins’ colloquial language, which is mainly responsible for maintaining the original flavor and atmosphere of the era he writes about despite the fact that the author wrote only from memory twenty years after the war. It is this characteristic which makes Watkins’ account very interesting; the biases and cultural aspects of the South are carried in the nuances and performance of the language. Watkins also manages to retain the interest of the reader by assuming a position of introspection, perhaps partly because he writes from memory, and is able to laugh at himself and the things that happened to him out there in the field.

The scenes of war are not deliberately taken away, however, and the reader is shown through the eyes of the storyteller how it feels to starve and still fight, to be confused and disillusioned about the causes of the war, to see your friends dying in the battlefield, and the horrors of witnessing “men…lying in every conceivable position:  the dead lying with their eyes wide open, the wounded begging piteously for help, and some waving their hats and shouting for us to go forward (p. 27).” The brutality of war, however, is balanced by Watkins’ humor and wit, and there are often funny stories interspersed with the gloomy ones.

Of particular interest in this war history book is Watkin’s biases and opinions on his superiors and his comrades, his complaints about their condition, and his longing for his girlfriend, which reveal the very human nature of the soldiers, and lends a human face to one’s concept of wartime heroes and villains. These opinions were often kind on people who were perceived to be courageous and gallant but cruel on those whom the author felt to be cowardly or coveted power and position (mostly army officials).

The book is also peppered with swearing—which is quite a part of the army’s vocabulary—that don’t appear when one is reading ‘normal’ history texts but works in providing a more realistic account of the way the Confederates lived, conversed, loved, fought, and died.

All in all, Company Aytch is a great read for those who are studying the Civil War period in American history, or in anthropological and linguistic studies. However, the most important contribution of Watkins’ is giving his audience a view of war from below the ivory tower, right there where the action is.