Footrace and The Civil War

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Sam Watkins and the Footrace of Murfreesboro

Sam Watkins was a Confederate soldier with the First Tennessee regiment. He’s one of many that left colorful accounts of his time during the war. Sometime near the Battle of Shelbysville, June 27, 1863, he gives the following account of one of his fellow soldiers:

One of these amusing episodes that frequently occur in the army, happened at this place. A big strapping fellow by the name of Tennessee Thompson, always carried bigger burdens than any other five men in the army. For example, he carried two quilts, three blankets, one gum oil cloth, one overcoat, one axe one hatchet, one camp-kettle, one oven and lid, one coffee pot, besides his knapsack, haversack, canteen, gun, cartridge-box, and three days’ rations. He was a rare bird, anyhow. Tennessee usually had his hair cut short on one side and left long on the other, so that he could give his head a bow and a toss and throw the long hairs over on the other side, and it would naturally part itself without a comb.

Tennessee was the wit and good nature of the company; always in a good humor, and ever ready to do any duty when called upon. In fact, I would sometimes get out of heart and low spirited, and would hunt up Tennessee to have a little fun. His bye-word was “Bully for Bragg; he’s hell on retreat, and will whip the Yankees yet.” He was a good and brave soldier, and followed the fortunes of Company H from the beginning to the end. Well, one day he and Billy Webster bet twenty-five dollars, put up in Bill Martin’s hands, as to which could run the faster. John Tucker, Joe Lee, Alf. Horsley and myself were appointed judges. The distance was two hundred yards. The ground was measured off, and the judges stationed. Tennessee undressed himself, even down to his stocking feet, tied a red handkerchief around his head, and another one around his waist, and walked deliberately down the track, eyeing every little rock and stick and removing them off the track. Comes back to the starting point and then goes down the track in half canter; returns again his eyes flashing, his nostrils dilated, looking the impersonation of the champion courser of the world; makes two or three apparently false starts; turns a somersault by placing his head on the ground and flopping over on his back; gets up and whickers like a horse; goes half-hammered, hop, step, and jump— he says, to loosen up his joints— scratches up the ground with his hands and feet, flops his arms and crows like a rooster, and says, “Bully for Bragg; he’s hell on a retreat,” and announces his readiness. The drum is tapped, and off they start. Well, Billy Webster beat him one hundred yards in the two hundred, and Tennessee came back and said, “Well, boys, I’m beat; Billy Martin, hand over the stakes to Billy Webster. I’m beat, but hang me if I didn’t outrun the whole Yankee army coming out of Kentucky; got away from Lieutenant Lansdown and the whole detail at Chattanooga with half a hog, a fifty pound sack of flour, a jug of Meneesee commissary whisky, and a camp-kettle full of brown sugar. I’m beat. Billy Martin, hand over the stakes. Bully for Bragg; he’s hell on a retreat.” Tennessee was trying bluff. He couldn’t run worth a cent; but there was no braver or truer man ever drew a ramrod or tore a cartridge than Tennessee.”

Watkins, Sam. “Co. Aytch,” Maury Grays, First Tennessee Regiment (p. 38). Waxkeep Publishing. Kindle Edition.

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