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Two Veterans

David McCullough, biographer and historian, passed away on August 7, 2022, at age 89. His biographies—on Harry Truman, John Adams, and Theodore Roosevelt; and his histories on the Johnstown Flood, the Panama Canal, and the Brooklyn Bridge—earned him prizes and fame.

In addition to writing, McCullough was the primary narrator on several documentaries, including Ken Burns’s nine episodes on “The Civil War,” first aired the last week of September of 1990, thirty-two years ago. His gentleman’s voice carried the series: calm, factual, without emotion.

His first words in the first episode: “The Civil War was fought in ten thousand places. More than three million fought in the war, and 600,000, 2% of the population, died in it. Americans slaughtered one another wholesale, here in America, in corn fields and in peach orchards.”

Minutes later he says, “Two ordinary soldiers: one from Providence, Rhode Island, and the other from Columbia, Tennessee, who each served four years, and both seemed to be everywhere during the war, and yet lived to tell the tale.” The two fought on opposing sides, and neither were killed in battle.

Sam R. Watkins fought for the Confederacy. From Columbia, Tennessee, he enlisted in the spring of 1861, at the age of 21, and served in Company H of the First Tennessee Infantry.

Elisha Hunt Rhodes fought for the Union. From Pawtuxet, Rhode Island, he enlisted on June 5, 1861, at the age of 19, and served in Companies C and B, of the 2nd Rhode Island Volunteer Infantry.

Watkins saw action mainly in the western states, at the bloody battles at Chickamauga, and at Franklin, Tennessee, among several others.

Rhodes saw action mainly in the eastern states, from the First Bull Run Battle in 1861; through Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Gettysburg; to the end at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, in 1865.

Watkins wrote a memoir twenty years after the war, that he published in 1882, “Company Aytch [H], A Side Show of the Big Show: A Memoir of the Civil War.”

Rhodes kept a journal and wrote letters to family at home, that his great-grandson, Robert H. Rhodes, published in 1985, “All For the Union! Civil War Diary and Letters of Elisha Hunt Rhodes.”

Whereas Watkins wrote his memoir twenty years after the events occurred, Rhodes jotted his entries into his journal and letters as they happened. Watkins’s is more reflective; Rhodes’s is more immediate. Yet, each provide a wealth of details for a serious Civil War student.

In “Company Aytch,” the Confederate Watkins says, “A soldier’s life is not a pleasant one. It is always at best, one of privations and hardships. The emotions of patriotism and pleasure hardly counterbalance the toil and suffering that he has to undergo to enjoy his patriotism and pleasure.

“Dying on the field of battle and glory is about the easiest duty a soldier has to undergo.”

Towards the end of Watkins’s memoir, he admits, “Our cause was lost from the beginning. Our greatest victories—at Chickamauga and Franklin—were our greatest defeats. Our people were divided upon the question of Union and secession. The private soldier fought and starved and died for naught.”

On July 4, 1864, the Union soldier, Elisha Hunt Rhodes, wrote, “A glorious 4th has come again, and we have had quite a celebration with guns firing shot and shell into Petersburg to remind them [the Confederates] of the day. This day marks four 4th of July’s I have passed in the army.

“A first at Camp Clark, a second at Harrison’s Landing, a third at Gettysburg, and today at Petersburg.”

Towards the end of Rhodes’s memoir, he writes, “I have been successful in my army life simply because I have been ready and willing to do my duty. I have endured this life for nearly four years, and I sometimes think that I enjoy it.

“Great events are to happen in a few days, and I want to be there to see the end. The end of the war will be the end of slavery, and then our land will be the Land of the Free.”

One wonders why those two soldiers survived four years of one bloody battle after another when hundreds of thousands of other young men were wounded, maimed, or killed? There is no easy answer.

Ken Burns incorporated the two soldiers’ words from their respective books into the nine episodes of his “Civil War” series, and so viewers listened as narrators read the two men’s words.

Watkins said, “America has no north, no south, no east, no west. The sun rises over the hills and sets over the mountains. The compass just points up and down. And we can laugh now at the absurd notion of there being a north or a south. We are one and undivided.”

Rhodes said, “Sunday, a Soldier of Company A died and was buried. Everything went on as if nothing had happened. Death is so common that little sentiment is wasted. It is not like death at home.”

Veterans Day, 2022. It is sobering—a jolt to our far easier and soft lives—to reflect upon all that those two soldiers, only in their early twenties, suffered and endured, and they were very lucky.

Bill Benson, of Sterling, is a dedicated historian.