Monday, June 29, 2015

Sam Watkins and His Stake in Slavery

One of my favorite soldier stories is Company Aytch: A Sideshow to the Big Show. This book was originally published by Sam R. Watkins in 1881-82 in series form in his hometown newspaper and soon thereafter in book form. It has become a standard read for those seeking insight on how Civil War soldiers (especially Confederate soldiers) experienced the war.

Watkins was born on June 26, 1839, near the small middle Tennessee town of Columbia. Only twenty-one years old when the Civil War broke out, Watkins joined up and landed with neighborhood friends into Company H, known as the Maury (County) Grays, of the First Tennessee Volunteer Infantry. Sent to Virginia early in the war, Watkins and his regiment returned to Tennessee in early 1862. He participated in almost every fight the Army of Tennessee fought through the end of the war. His descriptions of fighting at places such as Perryville, Kentucky and Kennesaw Mountain, Georgia, are among the most vivid of soldiers' accounts.

One thing that Sam did not mention much in his writing was slavery. This might seem quite natural on the surface, but doing a little digging shows that Sam had a huge stake in slavery and thus the cause of the Confederacy. Perhaps by 1882 most Southern soldiers wanted to see their fight for independence as something grander than a battle for a way of life built upon the labor of enslaved individuals. One has to wonder how different Sam's story might have been if the had taken the time to write it twenty years earlier (during the war) instead of a generation after the conflict ended.

One place Sam does mention slavery or at least alludes to it is in Chapter Three, "Corinth." Here he writes: "A law was made by the Confederate States Congress about this time allowing every person who owned twenty negroes to go home. It gave us the blues; we wanted twenty negroes. Negro property suddenly became very valuable, and there was raised the howl of 'rich man's war, poor man's fight.'"

Here Sam seems to make himself out as a "poor man." He, or at least his family, was anything but poor. Sam's father Frederick Watkins was very very wealthy. In the 1860 census, Sam is listed in Frederick's (F.H. Watkins) household. Sam was 21 and is listed as a clerk in a store. Frederick, age 44, is shown with personal property worth $157,912.00, much of which was his more than 100 slaves. In addition, he owned real estate worth $104,250.00, which encompassed two plantations in Maury County. In fact, one source I found noted that the Watkins' were the third richest family in a very wealthy Maury County.

Perhaps Sam should have asked his father for 20 of his slaves so he could have been exempt if he truly wished to be free of the soldier life. Rather, I suspect that Sam wanted anything but to be out of the army. With so much at stake he was probably quite willing to fight for what he and his family owned and cherished.


  1. Would you please post a link to the census source you cite as well as the source that cites Sam's dad as the third wealthiest man in Maury county.

  2. The source was from the Chickamauga-Chattanooga National Military Park website.

  3. they don't list the source of the census either, but also make the same claim. too funny.

    1. The 1860 manuscript census information is easily found on

    2. Here is a link to that 1860 census. Copy and paste to your browser.

    3. Are you one of his descendants? if u wish a thought provoking discussion

  4. Martha Matthew TaylorApril 15, 2018 at 5:54 PM

    Sam Watkins may be kin to my step mom Kathy Watkins Roy whom raised me at the age of 10 to adult.

  5. sorry but My name is Martha Jean TAYLOR NOT MATTHEW