From hole in the fence to behind home plate

I just caught this review of the expanded re-issue of one of my favorite Civil War books on Civil War Interactive by Joe Avalon.  The original publication of Sam Watkins’ Company Aytch is a treasured part of my library, and I was excited to see the publication of this “new” version which includes Sam’s later revisions.  I’ve ordered my copy, and have reproduced Joe’s review here, which can be found at this link.

Co. “Aytch”
First Tennessee Regiment

Sam Watkins’ Revised and Expanded Edition
Never Before Published

Edited by Ruth Hill Fulton McAllister
Published by Providence House Publishing
294 Pages; Hardcover
Review by Joe Avalon
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The term “classic” is sometimes overused. For a book to become a classic takes more than simply voluminous sales. It’s a more encompassing adjective. A classic must influence, it must educate, it must be long-lived and must have steered readers to a quest for more information on the subject it tackles. The label is hard-earned, and rightfully so. Co. Aytch is a classic in the truest sense. And with the publication of this new edition it is about to reach a new plateau – to become a classic for a second time.

     For those unfamiliar with the original Co. Aytch, it is enough to say it is the ultimate Civil War memoir. Sam Watkins had the ability and the phraseology which allowed him to pen the memoirs in a way which instantly appealed to the common man. But yet he had the power of observation of an Ambrose Bierce, aided by being present at some of the most dramatic and traumatic moments in the Civil War.

   The original Co. Aytch was published by Sam in 1882, with a limited run of 1500 copies. It sold well. By 1892, Sam Watkins was ready to release a new edition. He wanted to expand the first edition, as well as make some corrections. Carefully he made the changes, additions and deletions by hand in his own personal copy of Co. Aytch. But it would cost $500 for a new edition to be printed, so Sam began to raise the needed money. Several men, including General Lucius Polk, pledged to become subscribers at $10 per head. But for whatever reasons, the second edition would not be published. Sam would die in 1901, and all that was left of his dreams for a “new” Co’ Aytch was that one personal copy of the first edition, in which he has scrawled all of the changes.

     Throughout the 20th-century, that lone volume would stay at the family home – Rookwood – while some family members moved on and others moved in. In 1997, Ruth Hill Fulton McAllister, the great-grand daughter of Sam, asked other family members if she could borrow the original to peruse Sam’s handwritten changes. It was then the family realized with horror that Sam Watkins’ original copy was nowhere to be found.

     It was almost two years later that, no doubt with a great sense of relief, Mrs. McAllister received a phone call from a cousin. The book had been found. A long-forgotten desk had revealed Sam’s original copy, yellowed and brittle, but still readable. After perusing the copy and attempting to return it, Ruth Hill Fulton McAllister’s cousin offered to sell her the volume. She jumped at the chance. A few years later she decided that fulfilling Sam’s original intention of publishing this edition of Co. Aytch would be of great interest to many. And that is why, 126 years after the first publication of Co. Aytch, we are blessed with a second edition, with all of the changes Sam wanted to make.

     The changes themselves reveal a remarkable transformation in Sam over the period 1882 to 1892. Maturation may be a more appropriate term. It becomes obvious that Sam spent these years re-living his war experiences in his head and found himself with a different mindset then when he had penned the first edition. His perception of certain events, and more interestingly, certain officers and politicians, had changed. He seems to have softened slightly in his views of his former foes. At the same time, there is a certain hardening of his views with regards to some things Confederate.

     This new edition shows the transformation which society itself, not just Sam, was undergoing in that 10 year period. With the war over only 17 years when the original Co. Aytch was published, along with the added animosity of Reconstruction, the war, in 1882, could still be considered an open wound. It festered with hard-feelings and lingering bitterness. Some of that was obvious in Sam’s writings. But with this new edition, we see  a striking change. With some deletions, some small changes ( such as taking great pains to refer to Northerners as “federals” rather than “Yankees”), and more substantial additions we see a moderation. On one page Sam makes the following addition:

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…

The blue and the gray have, like two mighty rivers, come together and now mingle into one and both now unite in the sentiment “We are one and undivided.”

     As we can see, while the animosity may have diminished, his ability to be almost poetic in his prose did not. But lest you think Sam had developed only misty water-colored memories of the way things were, other additions could bite like a rabid dog. Note this addition concerning Braxton Bragg:

General Bragg was a disciplinarian, a 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, but as a shootist he was a perfect success. It mattered not. When a smoke was seen to rise, some soldier would say, “Waal, old Braggin’ Braggart is startin’ a new graveyard. ‘Tother one is nigh about full!”

Had General Robert E. Lee been the Commander in Chief of our armies, General Joe E. Johnston our Commisary and Quartermaster, General Stonewall Jackson and General N. B. Forrest been our field commanders, and then let Bragg been the whipper and shooter and hanger of evildoers, then our cause would have been a success.

     To have the ability to assassinate with such subtlety, and even wit,  is one of the qualities which helped make the original Co. Aytch a great piece of literature. And with this new expanded edition, we thankfully see more of the same. As Ken Burns states as a testimonial of this  book, “The only thing better than Sam Watkins is more Sam Watkins…”

     There are scores of such additions in this work. The range from single words, to sentences, to whole paragraphs and at time whole pages and more. Perhaps just as intriguing however is seeing exactly what Watkins had planned on deleting from the first edition. With some of the deletions, we are left to wonder why he considered removing them, for example this gem from the Shiloh chapter:

As we advanced, on the edge of the battlefield, we saw a big fat Colonel of the Twenty-third Tennessee regiment badly wounded, whose name, if I remember correctly, was Matt. Martin. He said to us, “Give ’em Hail goss, boys. That’s right, my brave First Tennessee. Give ’em Hail Columbia!” We halted but a moment, and said I, “Colonel, where are you wounded?” He answered in a deep bass voice, “My son, I am wounded in the arm, in the leg, in the head, in the body, and in another place which I have a delicacy in mentioning.” That is what the gallant old Colonel said.

     And so the reader of this new edition is left to ask “Why Sam, why were you going to remove that?” Was it pointed out to him by someone that perhaps he “mis-remembered” the incident? Or was it for another reason? We are left to wonder, and that’s a good thing. And it brings up what is, other than Sam’s writing itself, the biggest asset of this new edition – the decision on how to edit and format it.

     There are so many ways that this endeavor could have been ruined that it’s frightening to think about. The publisher (Providence House Publishing) could have elected to publish the volume exactly as Sam was going to – actually deleting the parts he was going to remove, while adding the new parts and other changes, while giving no indication of the differences between the two editions. What a tragedy that would have been, since it is being able to see the changes (and knowing what they are) that makes the new book not just great reading, but a mirror of the societal changes the country underwent in one decade.

     Or they could have decided to put all the changes – additions, deletions and others – in an appendix, forcing the reader to flip to the back of the book constantly and making the book burdensome to read and comprehend.

     Instead, they handled it perfectly, relying solely on unobtrusive font changes to indicate the differences:

  • The original text of the first edition is all there, in normal font.

  • Where Sam indicates that he was going to add new material, that text is bolded.

  • [Passages he was going to add, then decided against are indicated as bold within brackets ]

  • [ Passages Sam planned on deleting are italicized within brackets ]

     Simply perfect.

     We try to avoid sweeping statements when doing book reviews. Phrases like “this is a must-have book” and “vital for every Civil War library” are over-used and frequently abused. But this is a must have book that is vital for every Civil War library.

     Reading this new edition of Sam Watkins classic Co. Aytch is like the difference between seeing a baseball game through a knothole in the outfield fence and a seat behind home plate. It’s the same event, but the expanded view makes it a whole ‘nother experience.

     The Civil War community owes a great debt of gratitude to Ruth Hill Fulton McAllister for allowing the rest of us to be part of this family treasure.

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Published in: on November 28, 2007 at 12:47 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. Just wanted to let you know how much I appreciate your endorsement of this new edition of Co. Aytch. We are excited to have it released after 125 years since the first publication!

    Thanks so much- Ruth Hill Fulton McAllister, Great granddaughter of Sam R. Watkins

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