Simple Story of a Soldier: Life and Service in the 2d Mississippi Infantry
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Simple Story of a Soldier: Life and Service in the 2d Mississippi Infantry

by Samuel W. Hankins

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The camp, battle, and prison experiences of a common soldier. 

"The story is doubtless the most vivid record of a Confederate soldier's life that has been or will be written. [Hankins] gives in detail the most ludicrous events vividly as if a mature, gifted writer had kept a diary at the time, and his truly 'simple story' will create sympathetic


The camp, battle, and prison experiences of a common soldier. 

"The story is doubtless the most vivid record of a Confederate soldier's life that has been or will be written. [Hankins] gives in detail the most ludicrous events vividly as if a mature, gifted writer had kept a diary at the time, and his truly 'simple story' will create sympathetic interest. It is so devoid of bitterness that a man who served on the 'other side' . . . would sympathize with him in the hardships and privations of prison life and deplore that the government he served did not when it could render more humane service to him."--Confederate Veteran, 1912

John F. Marszalek is the retired William L. Giles Distinguished Professor at Mississippi State University and author of, among other works, Sherman: A Soldier's Passion for Order and The Petticoat Affair: Manners, Mutiny, and Sex in Andrew Jackson's White House.

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"The story is doubtless the most vivid record of a Confederate soldier's life that has been or will be written. [Hankins] gives in detail the most ludicrous events vividly as if a mature, gifted writer had kept a diary at the time, and his truly 'simple story' will create sympathetic interest. It is so devoid of bitterness that a man who served on the 'other side' . . . would sympathize with him in the hardships and privations of prison life and deplore that the government he served did not when it could render more humane service to him."--Confederate Veteran, 1912
Library Journal
Hankins's memoir of his four years as a Confederate soldier was considered among the best when originally released in 1912. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.

Product Details

University of Alabama Press
Publication date:
Fire Ant Series
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.40(d)

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Simple Story of a Soldier

By Samuel W. Hankins

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 2004 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-5157-1


The spring loveliness of 1861 A.D. passed into summer unappreciated, for at that time excitement was widespread with all classes throughout the whole of our Southland. Eminent orators and others who had never before attempted public address were proclaiming war by day and by night in every city, town, and hamlet, together with the booming of cannon and music by drum and fife as well as by brass bands. Everybody was excited.

I had just entered my sixteenth year, and, like most boys of my age, I felt my importance. At the first secession and war meeting held in Guntown, where I lived, I was one of the first to enlist, and was eager for the fray; but my father (God bless his memory!) was bitterly opposed to secession, although, unlike many who advocated war freely and afterwards took no part therein, he enlisted early and served to the end. Upon learning of my intention to enlist he said: "Why, my son, you are entirely too young to perform the duties that will be required of a soldier. And as I intend enlisting myself, you should remain at home to look after your dear mother and sisters while I am away. This war is going to be long and severe, and you will have ample time after you have grown older to do your share." I made no reply, as I was determined to enlist even without his consent. Upon learning of my determination he consented, which pleased me very much.

A full company of volunteers was raised in our little town and county. We were sworn into the Confederate service for twelve months. We then elected officers and a rush order was sent to Mobile, Ala., for uniforms and guns. We went into camp the following day and began to drill without waiting for our equipment. An open field was selected for a drill ground.

Our company numbered one hundred and eight. None of us, including officers, had any military training. The captain was a splendid man and well posted in civil matters, though ignorant as to military tactics. He was irritable by nature and vain. He would not appear on the drill ground in citizen's dress, but went about in search of a military suit and found one, although the like of it could be found nowhere else in America. The coat of unknown cut was bedecked with many large buttons and extra long epaulets, while the trousers were on the Zouave order. The hat was about two feet tall, with an additional height of ten or twelve inches of red, white, black, green, and blue feathers. The oldest citizen could not tell to what tribe or nation it had originally belonged. He also wore a sword, with a copy of Scott's "Military Tactics" protruding from his pocket.

On the following morning the company met at the place selected for our encampment. After organizing messes with from six to eight each and arranging our sleeping quarters, the captain ordered the company to assemble at the drill ground. On reaching the gate we passed through one by one, and were arranged against a plank fence in single file. This was done in order to get as straight a line as possible. After all had been lined up, the captain, arrayed as before described, took his position in front near its center and said: "Men, I will now proceed to instruct you in the first lessons of warfare." As he spoke he drew from his pocket Scott's "Tactics," which he opened and began to read aloud, telling the position of a soldier, how he should stand, etc. Then he began to read to us how we should move, and added: "Now, men, as I have fully explained to you the position of a soldier, I shall proceed to instruct you how you should march. When I give the command, 'Forward, march!' you must step off on your left foot, holding your bodies erect with your eyes cast slightly to the right. By so doing it will enable you to keep a straight line. Now, remember to step off on your left foot at the command, 'Forward, march!'"

There was about an equal division in left and right feet with us. "Hold on," said the captain; "that will never do. Go back to the fence again and we will try that over. Now remember, men, to step off on the left foot at the command, 'Forward, march!'"

The second time there was little if any improvement on the first. "Back against the fence, men!" said the captain. "Don't you know your left foot? Now be careful this time to step off on your left foot. Forward, march!"

It could be plainly seen from the captain's countenance that the third attempt was but little improvement on the second and that his temper was rising.

"Back against the fence, men! Now, I want you to understand me this time that when I say step off on your left foot I mean it and you must do so. When I say, 'Forward, march!' step off on your left foot. Now, don't forget this time to step off on the right foot. Forward, march!"

Three-fourths of the company poked out their right feet. "Hold on, you d — fools!" yelled the captain. "I meant the left foot was the right foot."

After several more efforts, we eventually moved off in fair order, the captain walking backward with book and sword in hand, repeating as he went, "Left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot; eyes to the right; left foot, right foot," and so on. After marching several yards, we on the left having kept our eyes entirely too much to the right had the captain about surrounded, when he backed against a small stump and fell over it flat on his back, his tall hat rolling several feet away, while his book and sword went in the opposite direction. This incident, of course, brought forth a yell from the entire company save the captain, who was in no mood for such a mishap, and he was not long in giving vent to his feelings. Thus ended our first attempt at drill.

On returning to our quarters the yelling had not subsided altogether, nor had the captain cooled to normal. He spoke seriously of resigning, though he was persuaded not to do so. He was excusable for his display of temper; for if there ever was an extreme test to try a man's patience, it is in drilling raw recruits.


Our general equipments arrived earlier than we expected. We were all anxious to be off to the war. Our uniforms, consisting of gray jackets, trousers, and caps, were very nice. We also drew knapsacks, haversacks, and cartridge boxes. Our guns were the old army muskets, though they looked new.

There has never lived a prouder boy than I when ordered into line for the first time fully equipped. The time for our departure was fixed; so on that day fathers, mothers, and all the kith and kin, including sweethearts far and near, gathered at the depot to bid us good-by. Many were the tears shed and many were the loved ones separated never to meet again. I seemed to be a target, being the youngest member of the company, and was given but little encouragement. Old men and women would say: "Good-by, my boy; we shall never see you any more." Little did I care whether I ever saw them again or not. I was headed for war and could not be bluffed off. Not a single tear did I shed, and I was astonished at the others for weeping. I expected that we would settle the matter to our liking and be at home in a few days.

The train that was to bear us away whistled, which brought forth more tears and more kissing. I was glad when the train moved away.

Corinth, Miss., was our first stopping place, as we were to meet there with nine other companies organized in North and East Mississippi to form a regiment. This was done the day following our arrival by electing field officers. The regiment became the 2d Mississippi Infantry. We were ordered at once to Harper's Ferry, Va., via the Memphis and Charleston Railroad. Freight cars were used principally in transporting troops. Every car, both inside and on top, was crowded with men, baggage, and boxes of provisions the like of which we saw no more.

My favorite place was on top of the car, where I could see and be seen. Many citizens gathered at the stations along the line to see the soldiers pass. Those who had tears to shed upon leaving home had now dried their eyes, and merrymaking was in order. Speeches, some of which were ludicrous, were delivered from car doors and from the tops of cars at all stopping points. I recall a specimen delivered by a long, slim fellow from the top of a car, which I quote:

"Ladies and gentlemen, I have just left my home, my dear wife, and nine small children; also a very lucrative business, that of a crossroads saloon — all of which I gave up to battle for my country. It was like tearing my heartstrings to part from my dear ones, and especially my saloon."

The wag had neither wife, children, saloon, nor anything.

I was having a high old time until near Chattanooga, Tenn., when I noticed that our train was headed for a dark hole in the earth at the base of a mountain. I could plainly see that the hole was entirely too small for the train with me on top to pass through, and something had to be done, and done quickly. Down I went like a lizard on the running board, clinging to it by both hands with a deathlike grip. In a few moments we darted into the black and strangling smoke. I thought I had gone to the judgment before I had slain a single Yankee.

On our arrival at Harper's Ferry a brigade was formed of the following regiments: 2d and 11th Mississippi, 1st Tennessee, and 4th Alabama, with that gallant brigadier general, Bernard E. Bee, who a few months later fell at Bull Run, in command.

Here we got our satisfaction in drilling by brigade, regiment, company, and squad. We were drilled by Hardee's "Tactics," which contained many movements that were worthless in a fight. There is a vast difference between a soldier on dress parade and one in battle. In battle he has no time to see, if he can see, whether he is dressed right or left. About this time I had my first opportunity of testing my old musket. I was not at all acquainted with its character; though after the first command to fire, when I had recovered my courage, I wanted no further introduction. Why such a weapon was ever dealt us with which to fight the enemy is a puzzle to me, as there is about equal danger at either end. I was glad enough when I procured a good rifle from a dead Yankee.

Soldiers purchased, at twenty-five cents each, souvenirs said to have been of the rope and gallows used in the execution of John Brown. They were no doubt fraudulent.

When not at drill, the time was often spent in the vices of army life. A gambling epidemic broke out which spread with great rapidity, and but few escaped. I saw men give half their rations to have the other half cooked rather than stop gaming. All kinds of gambling were practiced. Morality for the time was ignored, and the soldier who endeavored to live right was ridiculed. If caught reading his Bible, such expressions were heard as, "Hello, parson; you must be scared. I don't think there will be any fighting soon;" or, "Hello, parson; what time do you expect to start a revival in camp?" Later on, however, serious thoughts of religion prevailed. When the shot and shell began to whiz by them, splintering rails and tearing off tree tops, with comrades falling around, they began to realize the great need of religion. One good battery with a good supply of grape shell holding an elevated position could bring hard-hearted sinners to repentance quickly. It did not require a good old sister to sit by and plead and fan with her turkey wing, begging him to repent of his sins. He was truly good then, but the great trouble was in keeping him so. If his life was spared, the sacred resolve would not long be remembered.

Often while on the march, when we would hear the sound of cannon, comrades would say: "Boys, do you hear that?" Then after moving on nearer, when the cannonading became more frequent, you could hear: "Boys, we are going to get into it." Then there would begin the searching of pockets for gambling goods, playing cards especially. The thought of being killed with such in their pockets induced the soldiers to throw them away. The road would soon be covered with playing cards, dice, dice boxes, etc. Some would be slow in ridding themselves, although they would do so before entering battle. After the fight was over and all those who had passed through safely had gone into camp, every man not on duty could be found reading his Bible, except the few who could not read, and they were anxious to learn. Everything about camp would be as quiet as at the home of a good old Presbyterian on the Sabbath day.

This order of things lasted only a few days, however, when some fellow would slip around to the sutler's tent and purchase a new deck of cards, return to his quarters, pick up an oilcloth and spread it on the ground, open up his new deck, and begin to shuffle. Soon three or four others would step up, and a regular game of draw poker would begin. In less than a week the Bible-reading would be a thing of the past, when gambling generally would go on as before and would not stop until the next signal for a fight was heard in the front, when the same unloading would take place.


The army is about the only place where a man's character can be thoroughly analyzed. One might have a neighbor whom he had known from childhood and whom he thought he understood fully, when, after serving with him in the army for a few months, he would find out that the half had not been told. If there be a single good trait or damaging fault within, it will, like the measles, be sure to break out in the army. A mistaken idea prevailed among the people, including members of our company, as to who would make the best soldiers and what class of men could stand army life best. For instance, we had two members who were a holy terror at home and kept chips on their shoulders ready for a fracas at any time. All peaceable people were very polite to them in order to prevent a difficulty, and it was the general opinion that if the Confederacy could only muster up a few regiments of their kind the war would be of short duration. Those two fellows proved to be the only cowards we had. They could never be urged into battle, always claiming to be sick on such occasions. The only bugle call they learned was that for the sick. Any morning they could be seen moping up to the surgeon's quarters with pains in the back and hip and a dreadful taste in their mouths. They would not resent a gross insult given by the lowliest members. This was the case with such characters throughout the army. The most quiet and peaceable men at home were the best soldiers. Some crack shots at home who always returned from the woods with a dozen squirrels, each shot in the head, when in battle could not hit a "barn door" through excitement. The general opinion was that farmers, on account of the outdoor life to which they were accustomed, could stand the exposure of camp life best; but this was not always so.

All are familiar with the history of the battle of Bull Run, July 21, 1861; how we so greatly surprised the enemy and the result. The death of General Bee was our greatest loss. It was on that day that he proclaimed to his troops: "See Jackson's men standing like a stone wall."

In the most dangerous places something amusing quite frequently happened. A certain captain in our regiment had a great fondness for oratory. He would never let an opportunity pass for making a speech to his company. When we first fronted into line of battle and were awaiting orders, this captain, considering it a most opportune moment for addressing his men, began as follows: "Men, here you are for the first time in life drawn up in line of battle in front of a most bitter and damaging enemy, and one that does not only propose to rob you of your property but to deprive you of your constitutional rights and privileges for which your ancestors fought, bled, and died. Now, men, it behooves each of you to stand firm without dodging, and show them that you are a chip of the old block and will not submit to anything of the kind." Just then, boom! a shell burst overhead, scattering fragments here and there, while down went the captain flat on his face. He soon arose, nothing abashed, and continued his speech thus: "Yes, men, you must stand firm and not dodge." Boom! went the second shell, and down again went the captain. Rising again promptly, he continued: "Yes, men, to be dodging and showing any kind of fear will be placing a stigma upon your character and upon those loved ones at home which time can never erase." Boom! went the third shell, and down went the captain. On rising the third time he said with a grin: "But you may dodge the big ones if you like; it was the small ones I had reference to. I will finish my remarks when this thing is over."


Excerpted from Simple Story of a Soldier by Samuel W. Hankins. Copyright © 2004 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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