No name is more closely associated with the common soldier of the Union and Confederate armies than that of the late Bell I. Wiley. James I. Robertson, Jr., a one-time doctoral student of Wiley’s and a well-known Civil War scholar in his own right, has said, ‘Bell Wiley was the greatest spokesman for the 19th-century common man.’
Wiley, born in Halls, Tennessee, in 1906, received his education at Asbury College, the University of Kentucky, and Yale University, and spent many years as a history professor at various schools, including the University of Mississippi, Louisiana State University, and Emory University in Atlanta. Desiring to transcend the traditional perspective of Civil War studies that examined the conflict from the generals’ viewpoint, Wiley sought out and read more than 30,000 letters and diaries of common soldiers to create his two groundbreaking works: The Life of Johnny Reb: the Common Soldier of the Confederacy, published in 1943, and The Life of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier of the Union, published in 1952. It is a testament to Wiley’s comprehensive treatment of his subject that the two volumes are still available in editions reissued by Louisiana State University Press.
Wiley went on to write numerous other books on the Civil War, several of which are still in print. In 1955 he served as president of the Southern Historical Association, and in 1961 became the chairman of the National Civil War Centennial Commission. Although he died in 1980, his legacy of scholarship focused on the experiences of the common soldier lives on in the output of today’s best Civil War historians and writers who, in one way or another, have been influenced by his pioneering work.
This article originally appeared in the July 1964 special issue of Civil War Times Illustrated, which was titled The Campaign for Atlanta.
Most of the soldiers in the long campaign for Atlanta were from the Mississippi River basin. Those who followed Major General William Tecumseh Sherman were largely from Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Iowa, Michi-gan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, though some came from states as far removed as Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Jersey. Every state in the Confederacy was represented in the forces of General Joseph E. Johnston and Lieutenant General John B. Hood, but a majority of the Southerners came from Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas. Both sides had units recruited from Kentucky, Missouri, and Tennessee.
Perhaps as many as one-fifth of Sherman’s soldiers were of foreign birth — chiefly Germans, Irishmen, and Scandinavians. Foreigners probably comprised no more than one-twentieth of Johnston’s forces, and they were largely from Ireland, Germany, and France. The overwhelming majority of men in both armies were farmers, ranging in age from 18 to 30. The Federals had fewer illiterates than the Confederates but the letters of both Yanks and Rebs reveal serious deficiencies in spelling and grammar. A Reb wrote his wife from near Marietta in May: ‘I hant got nary letter from you yet but asa got one from nan…. I thank you for your prares and hope they may bee herd.’ About the same time and place a Yank wrote his homefolk: ‘Leanord Locksin is kild…he was kild Instantley he was a good Souldier…he was a Corperall…he was rold up in his blanckett & buaried in a respectable manner.’
The Yanks and Rebs who fought through the hills of North Georgia in the spring and summer of 1864 were very much alike — considerably more so than their counterparts in the East — in background, culture, thought patterns, and character.
The life which Yanks and Rebs had to lead during these critical months in North Georgia was a severe test of both their character and stamina. Basic to their well-being and happiness was food. At first both armies fared reasonably well, owing to the success of the opposing commanders in accumulating large quantities of provisions before initiating the campaign. A Reb wrote appreciatively of the changes wrought by Joseph E. Johnston early in 1864: ‘He ordered tobacco and whiskey to be issued twice a week. He ordered sugar and coffee and flour to be issued instead of meal. He ordered cured bacon and ham to be issued instead of blue beef.’ But on the Confederate side such abundance and variety were short-lived once the army got on the move. On May 26 an Alabama private wrote from near New Hope Church: ‘Our rations have been very short for two weeks, and consisted only of hard corn dodgers and bacon.’ Three weeks later another Reb, encamped near Marietta, wrote his wife: ‘I am nearly perished for vegetables, nothing to eat but broiled meat and bread.’ Some soldiers were able occasionally to obtain fruits and vegetables by ‘foraging,’ and others received boxes of food from home. But for most Rebs both the quantity and quality of food declined during the early summer. On July 9 a Mississippian wrote his mother: ‘The men are substituting almost everything green for vegetables, such as poke [pokeweed], Lamsquarter [lamb’s quarters, or pigweed], Irish potato tops and even briar leaves and apricot and pea vines.’
Another Reb wrote that when he and his comrades had the good fortune to pilfer small quantities of vegetables and fruits from civilians, they pooled their loot and prepared special dishes; Irish potatoes and green apples, for example, were ‘boiled & mashed together & seasoned with pepper, salt and onions or garlic.’ When corn came into season soldiers helped themselves to the green ears and roasted these in the ashes of their campfires. One Confederate wrote in June to his sister: ‘We have Roasting Ears for Breakfast, Diner & Supper.’
The Georgia countryside was sprinkled with dewberries and blackberries, and when these ripened in the late spring and summer, soldiers of both armies roamed fields and forests in search of them. But the yield of berry patches, gardens, fields, and orchards fell far short of satisfying the cravings of the hungry soldiers and scurvy was a common complaint, especially among Confederates.
Yanks were hungry less frequently than Rebs, owing to the North’s superior facilities for obtaining and distributing provisions. But the Federals had less opportunity to supplement their regular rations with fruits and vegetables because the Rebs whom they were pursuing frequently ‘cleaned out’ fields and gardens before they fell back. Many Yanks had to subsist for long periods on hardtack,’sowbelly,’ and coffee, and of this unappetizing fare they became very weary. Unbalanced diets, polluted water, and dirty surroundings often produced intestinal disorders. A Michigan soldier wrote his wife on June 5: ‘I expect to be as tough as a knot as soon as I get over the Georgia shitts.’
The men in blue were much better clothed than were their opponents. By the summer of 1864 the blockade had practically eliminated Europe as a source of supply for cloth and wearing apparel, and Southern factories were unable to meet the pressing needs of civilians and soldiers. Available stocks of fabrics and clothing were not equitably distributed owing to deterioration of transportation facilities and the unwillingness of state authorities, especially those of North Carolina, to share what they had with their neighbors. Southern women sent to sons and husbands fighting in North Georgia trousers, shirts, and underwear made from cloth spun, woven, and dyed at home; even so, Rebs serving with Joe Johnston, like those stationed in Virginia, were often reduced to rags and tatters. A Texan summed up the clothing situation in the Army of Tennessee thus in a letter to his wife, June 7, 1864, from near Atlanta: ‘In this army one hole in the seat of the breeches indicates a captain, two holes a lieutenant, and the seat of the pants all out indicates that the individual is a private.’
Another factor leading to much discomfort and hardship in both armies was the weather. Early in June rain began to fall in North Georgia and for three weeks Rebs and Yanks were soaked almost every day. The heavily traveled roads became deep loblollies in which wagons and caissons sank to their axles, while swearing, whip-cracking teamsters urged weary, mud-caked animals onward through the mire.
Marching soldiers took to fields in quest of firmer footing, but even there they sometimes encountered seas of mud,’shoe-top deep.’ When night came, they piled rails and brush on the ground to provide a solid base on which to spread their blankets; but when they waked in the morning they often were partially submerged in muddy water.
The seemingly endless rain was the source of much pungent comment on the part of officers of both armies. One of Sherman’s privates wrote his parents on June 11: ‘For days…it has been a steady down-pour of cold rain. We have no tents that will turn anything but dew, and every thing we have, but our powder, is soaking wet.’ A little later a Hoosier lieutenant complained: ‘It has rained torrents every day, until the roads have grown frightful. For three days and nights we were wet to the skin, not a dry article of clothing on us; each night our beds were the wet and muddy ground, without even fires, lest we should discover our position to the enemy. I never knew what hardship was before.’ An Illinois captain noted in his diary the night of June 12: ‘It commenced raining before daylight and has not ceased an instant all day…the only source of consolation is the knowledge that the Rebels fare much worse than we do. They have neither tents nor oilcloths.’ Confederate Major General Samuel G. French noted in his diary June 13: ‘Eleven days’ rain. If it keeps on there will be a story told like that in the Bible, only it will read
It rained forty days and it rained
And the ark it rested on Kennesaw
for to that place we are floating it seems to me.’
The rain ceased for a while in the latter part of June, but this meant only a change in the character of misery. Soon men of both sides were suffering from excessive humidity and the scorching rays of the summer sun. An Alabamian wrote his father on July 12: ‘The last few days…were the most disagreeable that I ever spent…. The heat was almost intolerable.’ After the battle of Ezra Church on July 28 another Reb wrote to his homefolk: ‘I think that the intensity of the heat did more to whip our brigade than the enemy…. The men were beginning to faint from the excessive heat before we arrived in 500 yards of the enemy.’ In mid-July an Illinois officer informed his homefolk: ‘I saw a number of cases of congestion of the brain and a few had a real sunstroke…. After one heat of only three miles the regiment had all fallen out but about 50 men.’
The discomfort of the hot days and nights grew worse in the trench warfare to which both armies resorted in Georgia. Whenever troops moved into a new position they quickly dug ditches with picks, shovels, bayonets, or tin plates, to obtain protection from shells and minié balls. Lacking digging instruments, they scooped up the dirt with their hands. If they tarried for several days, they cut down trees and placed logs along the outer edge of the ditches, leaving a small space between dirt and log through which to shoot their rifles. Preparation of these field fortifications was hot and exhausting work and life in the trenches was extremely uncomfortable in June, July, and August. At night, the soldiers would frequently crawl out of the ditches to sleep in the fresh air; but a burst of fire from the opposing works would send them rolling back into their holes.
Marching during dry weather was almost as trying as plodding through rain and mud, owing to the great clouds of dust stirred up by the moving columns.
Limited opportunity for changing clothes and bathing resulted in increased infestation by body lice or ‘gray backs.’ Fleas, chigoes (tiny red, burrowing fleas also called chiggers or jiggers), and ants were also great nuisances. ‘Great country this for small vermin,’ wrote an Illinois Yank in June. He added: ‘I pick enough entomological specimens off me every day to start a museum. Every time I commence talking about chigres [chiggers] I feel short of language. I am satisfied of one thing, if my finger nails don’t wear out there’ll be no flesh on my bones by autumn.’ Three weeks later he stated: ‘The chigres are becoming terrific…. They will crawl through any cloth and bite worse than a flea and poison the flesh very badly…. I get along with them comparatively well, that is, I don’t scratch more than half the time. Many of the boys anoint their bodies with bacon rinds, which the chigres can’t go.’
Not the least among the hardships experienced by participants in the campaign for Atlanta was the frequent exposure to hostile fire. Battles came in rapid succession from Resaca to Jonesboro and the periods in between were marked by much skirmishing and shooting. An officer of the 103d Illinois Regiment wrote on June 5: ‘This is the first day since May 26th that I have been out of range of Rebel guns, and hardly an hour of that time that the bullets have not been whistling and thumping around. I tell you it is a strain on a man’s nerves.’ A month later he stated: ‘This campaign is down to a question of muscle and nerve. It is the 62d day for us, over 50 of which we have passed under fire. I don’t know anything more exhausting.’ On August 2, Captain James A. Hall of the 24th Alabama Regiment wrote his father from near Atlanta: ‘Since the first of May we have never been out of hearing of guns. Most of the time we have been under fire…. I am almost wearied out.’
Many men on both sides broke down under the continual exposure to hardship and danger. As early as May 20, a Wisconsin soldier wrote his parents: ‘The doctors are sending back thousands of men who are sick and dying for want of sleep. There hasn’t been a minute of time, night or day, that guns are not heard, or that our regiment has not been losing men.’ Two weeks later he noted: ‘A good many of the boys are breaking down for want of sleep. The doctors are sending them back by the hundreds to rest and recruit.’ As the campaign stretched into August some regiments on both sides shrank to fewer than 300 men and many companies could muster no more than a score of soldiers, led sometimes by a sergeant.
Some Yanks and Rebs sought escape from the hardship and danger by malingering, self-mutilation, and desertion. Reliable figures on desertions are not to be had, but undoubtedly they were more frequent among Confederates than among Federals. The Yanks were better off in equipment, clothing, food, pay, and numbers. The war was obviously going in their favor. Their homefolk were reasonably comfortable, and secure from invasion. Rebs, on the other hand, were being beaten back on all fronts by the overwhelming strength of their foes. They were ragged, hungry, and poorly equipped. Their pay was from four to 12 months in arrears, and continually declining in value. The families of many were destitute and exposed to the depredations of both friend and foe. In June 1864 a Mississippi lieutenant wrote his wife: ‘I feel deeply for the people of Georgia who live in the vicinity of the battle line. We take all — so do the Yanks — but we do not destroy the furniture and the clothing.’ Three months later another Mississippian stationed near Atlanta informed his wife: ‘Our soldiers steal and plunder indiscriminately regardless of age or sex. It is this which in great measure alienates the people and makes them ready for reconstruction upon almost any terms.’
It is not surprising that many Rebs concluded that their cause was hopeless and that their presence at home was essential to the sustenance and safety of their loved ones. Officers and men of the Army of Tennessee rarely refer to the desertion of their comrades, but their opponents were not so reticent. Captain Charles W. Wills of Illinois, for example, reported on June 14: ‘Four officers and 28 men deserted from the Rebels last night…. These men are satisfied the game is up with them and give it as their reason for deserting…. They say the whole brigade will come as opportunity offers.’ Three days later he noted: ‘I saw 83 Rebels come in today, about one-half of whom were deserters and the rest figured to get captured.’ On July 3 he wrote that ‘hundreds of deserters have come in.’
Those who deserted, even among the Confederates, were only a small portion of the fighting forces. The majority of men on both sides remained at their posts, however hard or dangerous their lot. Some learned to laugh at their discomforts. Private Chauncey Cooke of Wisconsin wrote his mother on June 2, ‘The boys make a joke of their digging by saying there is silver in Georgia and they are mining for it.’ Many became so accustomed to the whiz and thud of bullets that they would hardly bestir themselves to seek safer positions. Sometimes card players would continue to shuffle and deal while minié balls passed close overhead. A good example of the indifference achieved by many soldiers on both sides was that of the Georgian who wrote his mother from near Atlanta, ‘The Yankees keep Shooting so I am afraid they will knock over my ink so I will close.’
Yanks and Rebs found various means of easing the hardship and tension to which they were subjected, though opportunities for diversion were restricted by the nature of the campaign. Occasionally they swam in the streams that flowed through the North Georgia country. This afforded relief from heat, dirt, and ‘graybacks,’ and provided opportunity for joking and horseplay. Soldiers who were fortunate enough to have hooks and lines found relaxation in fishing. The savory meat of catfish or perch was a welcome supplement to commissary fare. Poker, twenty-one, and chuck-a-luck provided recreation for’sinners,’ and piously inclined soldiers found solace and spiritual refreshment in religious services. On July 17 a Reb wrote in his diary: ‘The Christian Association has been re-organized after a lapse of several months and the meetings continue to grow in interest, part of the command being allowed to attend each service, which is held in the woods by the light of the moon.’
Music was another source of diversion. On a balmy July morning Lieu-tenant Charles H. Cox of the 70th Indiana Regiment wrote from near Atlanta: ‘My ears are enchanted by the music of at least a dozen brass bands of our division. Hardly 50 yards to my right the band of the 33d Indiana is filling the air with the sweet strains of ‘Sounds from home,’ making me think of the times at home when I used to saw away on my violin at that air. Almost the finest brass band I have ever heard is that of the 33d Mass. Vols….. It almost lifts me out of my boots to hear them play.’
Rebs had fewer musical instruments than the Federals, but frequently the opposing ines were so close that the Southerners could enjoy the concerts of the men in blue. On July 15 William Worthington of the 1st Mississippi Cavalry Regiment wrote from near the Chattahoochee River: ‘The Yanks… had a magnificent band at their camp just over the hill from us and we had full benefits of their music. It was delightful [even] if it was Yankee music. We could hear every piece distinctly. They played, ‘When This Cruel War Is Over,’ ‘Cheer, Boys Cheer,’ ‘Lorena,’ ‘Faded Flowers,’ ‘Who Will Care for Mother Now,’ etc., but didn’t favor us with ‘Yankee Doodle,’ ‘Hail Columbia,’ and ‘Dixie.”
Occasionally Rebs would reciprocate. Colonel James C. Nisbet described one instance thus:
The officers and most of the men of Shoaff’s Battalion were from Savannah. They had a splendid brass band; their cornet player was the best I have ever heard. In the evening after supper he would come to our salient and play solos. Sometimes when the firing was brisk, he wouldn’t come. Then the Yanks would call out: ‘Oh, Johnnie, we want to hear that cornet player.’
We would answer: ‘He would play, but he’s afraid you will spoil his horn!’
The Yanks would call out: ‘We will stop shooting.’
‘All right, Yanks,’ we would reply. The cornet player would mount our works and play solos from the operas and sing ‘Come Where My Love Lies Dreaming,’ or ‘I Dreamt That I Dwelt in Marble Halls’ and other familiar airs. He had an exquisite tenor voice. How the Yanks would applaud! They had a good cornet player who would alternate with our man.
The sharing of music was only one of several forms of fraternization which occurred during the Atlanta Campaign and which did much to alleviate hardship and hatred. Soldiers of the opposing sides frequently agreed to stop shooting for specified periods and these pledges, made usually without reference to officers, were faithfully kept. Informal truces were also declared to permit Yanks and Rebs to pick blackberries between the lines, or to swim together in nearby rivers and creeks. Often the men lingered to trade coffee for tobacco, to swap newspapers, and to engage in friendly conversation. On rare occasions small groups would make neighborly calls at enemy camps. A Wisconsin private stationed near Atlanta gave his sweetheart the following report of one of his experiences:
We had two visitors day before yesterday. They were Johnny Rebs. They came over and took dinner with us and brought over some corn bread and tobacco and we made some coffee and all sat down on the ground together and had a good chat as well as a good dinner. They gave us some tobacco and we gave them some coffee to take back with them. They were real smart fellows both of them. You must not think up there that we fight down here because we are mad, for it is not the case, for we pick blackberries together and off the same bush at the same time, but we fight for fun, or rather because we can’t help ourselves. If they would let the soldiers settle this thing it would not be long before we would be on terms of peace.
A similar sentiment was expressed by another Yank who wrote from near Kennesaw Mountain on June 24: ‘Under cover of the night our lines were pushed close to theirs. We made a bargain with them that we would not fire on them if they would not fire on us, and they were as good as their word. It seems too bad that we have to fight men that we like. Now these southern soldiers seem just like our own boys, only they are on the other side.’
Friendly intermingling and expressions of mutual respect did not blind the men of the opposing sides to the fact that their basic mission was to fight and to kill. When they pitched into each other at Resaca, New Hope Church, Kennesaw Mountain, Peachtree Creek, Atlanta, Ezra Church, Jonesboro, and elsewhere, they fought with a fierceness unexcelled in any other Civil War campaign. At close quarters they sometimes gouged each other with bayonets, bashed skulls with clubbed muskets, beat their foes with sticks, attacked them with rocks, or choked them with bare hands. The slaughter was terrible. After three days of savage fighting at New Hope Church — a place to which Yanks gave the name ‘Hell Hole’ — three brothers on the Confederate side were killed in succession as they served a cannon in Fenner’s battery. After this fight two boys in blue, twins about 15 years old, were found lying on the field, their hands joined in death.
The day following Ezra Church a Yankee captain wrote: ‘We whipped them awfully. Their dead they left almost in line of battle along our entire front of two divisions…. I am tired of seeing such butchery.’ Many other officers and men of both armies must have had similar feelings at this stage of the long, bloody campaign.
In these battles, as in all other major engagements of the Civil War, some soldiers skulked and ran while others demonstrated staunchness and valor of a sort that commanded the admiration of friend and foe alike.
On both sides there was far more bravery than cowardice. Yanks who participated in the desperate and futile attack at Kennesaw Mountain on June 27 showed heroism of a very high order, as did Rebs who charged the Federal lines at Jonesboro on August 31. A Wisconsin boy who fought at New Hope Church wrote his mother after the battle: ‘The rebel ranks charged again and again the Union lines only to be repulsed again and again with fearful slaughter. They charged with their hats pulled down over their eyes like men who cared only to throw away their lives.’ At the Battle of Atlanta, Yankees of the XVII Corps, attacked simultaneously from front and rear, several times jumped from one side of their breastworks to the other to oppose their assailants. In his official report of this fight, Brigadier General Giles A. Smith, a division commander in the XVII Corps, stated: ‘Men were bayoneted across the works, and officers with their swords fought hand to hand with men with bayonets…. In this engagement, which lasted seven hours…, the troops of this division displayed the greatest gallantry.’
The exploit of a Yankee hero who won the Medal of Honor at Atlanta was described thus by his corps commander:
Private Thomas Yates, E Company, Thirty-first Illinois Veteran Volunteer Infantry…when the enemy attempted to wrest the colors from the bearer… shot dead the first man who laid his hand upon the standard, knocked the next down with the butt of his musket, remained by and gallantly defended his colors until they were out of danger.
A typical Confederate hero was a young member of the 24th Mississippi Regiment whose colonel cited him thus after the battle of Ezra Church:
I take pleasure in bringing to your notice the case of Eddie Evans of Company L, Twenty-fourth Mississippi Regiment, a mere boy, who, when the colorbearer was wounded asked to be permitted to carry the colors, and afterward bore them with such conspicuous coolness and gallantry as to elicit the admiration of all. At one time he took his stand in advance of the line without any protection in an open field, distant from the enemy’s line not more than fifty yards, waving his colors defiantly, and called upon his comrades to rally to the flag.
There were numerous others in both armies whose conduct in the battles for Atlanta was as valorous as that of Private Yates and Evans, but whose heroism received no notice in official reports. These men and the thousands of others in blue and gray who marched and fought through the mud and dust of North Georgia, staunchly sustaining their respective causes, made a record of which all Americans may be justly proud.
This article was written by Bell Irvin Wiley and originally appeared in the July 1964 special issue of Civil War Times Illustrated, which was titled The Campaign for Atlanta.
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