Under Fire: “A Scene of Consternation and Confusion” according to Sam Watkins
On July 21, 1861, Sam Watkins of “Co. Aytch” in the 1st Tennessee Infantry Regiment sat on a train “a hundred miles” from the fight along Bull Run Creek near Manassas. In fact, the locomotive pulled his regiment into Manassas Junction at night after the Confederates had won their first major victory and sent the Union troops scurrying back toward Washington City. Watkins described the moment:
Well, what news? Everyone was wild, nay, frenzied with the excitement of victory, and we felt very much like the “boy the calf had run over.” We felt that the war was over, and we would have to return home without even seeing a Yankee soldier. Ah, how we envied those wounded. We thought at that time we would have given a thousand dollars to have been in the battle, and to have had our arm shot off, so we could have returned home with an empty sleeve. But the battle was over, and we left out.
The 22-year-old Tennessean wouldn’t miss the war. His regiment was sent to Staunton, Virginia, and then into the Allegheny Mountains, marching through the settlements of Bath Alum, Warm Springs, and onto Big Springs. Near Big Springs, Sam Watkins got his experience of trying to fire his gun at enemy soldiers. In his famous memoirs, he described the incident:
The Yankees were reported to be in close proximity to us, and Captain Field [Feild] with a detail of ten men was sent forward on the scout. I was on the detail, and when we left camp that evening, it was dark and dreary and drizzling rain. After a while the rain began to come down harder and harder, and every one of us was wet and drenched to the skin—guns, cartridges and powder. The next morning about daylight, while standing videt [picket], I saw a body of twenty-five or thirty Yankees approaching, and I raised my gun for the purpose of shooting, and pulled down, but the cap popped. They discovered me and popped three or four caps at me; their powder was wet also. Before I could get a fresh cap, Captain Field came running up with his seven-shooting rifle, and the first fire he killed a Yankee. They broke and run. Captain Field did all the firing, but every time he pulled down he brought a Yankee. I have forgotten the number that he did kill, but if I am not mistaken it was either twenty or twenty-one, for I remember the incident was in almost every Southern paper at that time, and the general comments were that one Southern man was equal to twenty Yankees….
This experience focused more on the “glorious war” type of story and the Captain’s marksmanship, typical of those interests in the early part of the Civil War. Watkins and his regiment had their first regular combat experience at the Battle of Cheat Mountain in September 1861. Again, in his own vivid words, he recalled the fight:
One evening about 4 o’clock, the drummers of the regiment began to beat their drums as hard as they could stave, and I saw men running in every direction, and the camp soon became one scene of hurry and excitement. I asked some one what all this hubbub meant. He looked at me with utter astonishment. I saw soldiers running to their tents and grabbing their guns and cartridge-boxes and hurrying out again, the drums still rolling and rattling. I asked several other fellows what in the dickens did all this mean? Finally one fellow, who seemed scared almost out of his wits, answered between a wail and a shriek, “Why, sir, they are beating the long roll.” Says I, “What is the long roll for?” “The long roll, man, the long roll! Get your gun; they are beating the long roll!” This was all the information that I could get. It was the first, last, and only long roll that I ever heard. But, then everything was new, and Colonel Maney, ever prompt, ordered the assembly. Without any command or bugle sound, or anything, every soldier was in his place. Tents, knapsacks and everything was left indiscriminately.
We were soon on the march, and we marched on and on and on. About night it began to rain. All our blankets were back in camp, but we were expected every minute to be ordered into action. That night we came to Mingo Flats. The rain still poured. We had no rations to eat and nowhere to sleep. Some of us got some fence rails and piled them together and worried through the night as best we could. The next morning we were ordered to march again, but we soon began to get hungry, and we had about half halted and about not halted at all. Some of the boys were picking blackberries The main body of the regiment was marching leisurely along the road, when bang, debang, debang, bang, and a volley of buck and ball came hurling right through the two advance companies of the regiment—companies H and K. We had marched into a Yankee ambuscade.
All at once everything was a scene of consternation and confusion; no one seemed equal to the emergency. We did not know where to run or stand, when Captain Field gave the command to fire and charge the bushes. We charged the bushes and saw the Yankees running through them, and we fired on them as they retreated. I do not know how many Yankees were killed, if any. Our company (H) had one man killed, Pat Hanley, an Irishman, who had joined our company at Chattanooga. Hugh Padgett and Dr. Hooper, and perhaps one or two others, were wounded.
After the fighting was over, where, O where, was all the fine rigging heretofore on our officers? They could not be seen. Corporals, sergeants, lieutenants, captains, all had torn all the fine lace off their clothing. I noticed that at the time and was surprised and hurt. I asked several of them why they had torn off the insignia of their rank, and they always answered, “Humph, you think that I was going to be a target for the Yankees to shoot at?” You see, this was our first battle, and the officers had not found out that minnie as well as cannon balls were blind; that they had no eyes and could not see. They thought that the balls would hunt for them and not hurt the privates. I always shot at privates. It was they that 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…. If I shot at an officer, it was at long range, but when we got down to close quarters I always tried to kill those that were trying to kill me.
Like many Civil War soldiers, Watkins’s first experience under fire was confusing. The ambush added to the fright felt by all, but in his recollections, he turned the attention on his fearful officers tearing off their insignia. This allowed him to turn the fear into humor and an observation about his target-choosing for later battles which may have been influenced by this first brush with bullets.
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Great Little book – Company Aytch
Discarding the insignia of rank does not fool the other side’s troops when they see who is barking the orders.