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Historian Bell I. Wiley invented the genre of soldier studies.

Bell Irvin Wiley (1906-1980) created an influential body of scholarship that marked him as a pioneer in exploring the lives of common people during the war. Born in Tennessee and trained in history at Yale University, he spent most of his teaching career at Louisiana State University and Emory University. Long before such topics gained wide favor, he examined men in the ranks of both Confederate and U.S. armies, the yeomanry and poorer white Southerners, and the experiences of free and enslaved blacks in the Confederacy. Few historians of his or any other era can claim a greater corpus of pathbreaking work.

Publication of Wiley’s The Life of Johnny Reb: The Common Soldier of the Confederacy (1943) and The Life of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier of the Union (1952) marked a watershed in scholarship relating to the military history of the war. It is no exaggeration to say that Wiley invented the genre of soldier studies that many decades later featured works by historians such as James M. McPherson, Reid Mitchell, James I. Robertson Jr. (a student of Wiley’s) and Chandra Manning. The overwhelming focus of earlier publications in the field had been on generals and the strategic and tactical details of famous campaigns. Before the appearance of Wiley’s two volumes, anyone seeking information about the war’s citizen-soldiers looked most obviously to John D. Billings’ Hardtack and Coffee, Or, The Unwritten Story of Army Life (1887) or Carlton McCarthy’s Detailed Minutiae of Soldier Life in the Army of Northern Virginia 1861-1865 (1882), a pair of titles by veterans seeking to capture the flavor of enlisted men’s daily experiences.

Wiley based his conclusions about common soldiers on a close reading of thousands of letters. He dealt with the process of enlistment, motivations to serve and remain in the ranks, what the men ate and wore, how they amused themselves, how they were armed, how they reacted to combat, why and in what numbers they deserted, how they related to people on the home front, the plague of disease, attitudes toward the enemy, and religious practices. Influenced by what he knew of American soldiers in World War II, he found relatively little evidence of strong ideological commitment—an aspect of his work that has undergone significant revision by later scholars.

Though rigorous in handling evidence and far from a romantic, Wiley nonetheless allowed his admiration of Civil War soldiers to show. He closed The Life of Billy Yank with an appreciative look at the rival combatants, concluding that “the similarities of Billy Yank and Johnny Reb far outweighed their differences. They were both Americans, by birth or by adoption, and they both had the weaknesses and the virtues of the people of their nation and time. For the most part they were of humble origin, but their conduct in crisis compared favorably with that of more privileged groups and revealed undeveloped resources of strength and character that spelled hope for the country’s future.” He evinced a strong element of reconciliationist sympathy in lamenting “that people so similar and basically so well-meaning found it necessary to resort to arms in settling their differences…their descendants can point with justifiable pride to the part played in the struggle by both the Blue and the Gray.”

Every scholar who has written a word about common soldiers owes a debt to Wiley, whose books retain great value as repositories of compelling wartime testimony, storehouses of factual material, and reminders of how historians can breathe new life into a field as extensively studied as the Civil War. Reprinted numerous times, the two volumes are available in a handsome paperback edition from the Louisiana State University Press.

The Confederate home front also attracted Wiley’s attention in The Plain People of the Confederacy, a slight volume published the same year as The Life of Johnny Reb. Originating as the Fleming Lectures at LSU, it comprised three chapters, one each on “The Common Soldiers,” “The Folk at Home” and “The Colored Folk.” Wiley’s chapter on white civilians contradicted the Lost Cause portrait of a united and gallant struggle against hopeless odds and anticipated much recent literature that emphasizes disaffection and demoralization on the home front. Many civilians, both men and women, remained steadfast in the face of great hardship, but Wiley recognized that “Long before the finale at Appomattox, the doom of the Confederacy had been firmly sealed by the widespread defection of her humblest subjects.” Although I find greater evidence of Confederate national sentiment and give more weight to Union military operations as a contributor to Southern defeat, I believe Wiley’s opinions merit continued attention and respect.

The same is true of his handling of the black experience in the Confederacy—both in the final chapter of The Plain People of the Confederacy and in Southern Negroes, 1861-1865, the latter first published in 1938 and subsequently reprinted at least three times. In examining wartime blacks, Wiley once again placed himself far ahead of most white scholars of the 1930s and 1940s. His prose betrays attitudes and phraseology that offend modern sensibilities, but his analysis also counters the then-prevalent image of loyal slaves, most dramatically evident in the 1939 cinematic version of Gone With the Wind. “Long after hostilities had ended,” observed Wiley in Plain People of the Confederacy, “writers and speakers were wont to descant upon the perfect confidence that masters reposed in their slaves during the dark days of conflict, but these testimonials do not square with repressive measures enacted at the time.”

A volume of essays dedicated to Wiley in 1976 by former doctoral students rendered a fair judgment regarding his overall contribution to Civil War studies: “Wiley is—and will remain for years to come—the premier authority on the heretofore faceless masses of the 1860s….[He] gave new life to the Civil War’s common folk.” A substantial literature exists, and grows exponentially, on topics Wiley engaged long before they were popular—a testament to his prescience and scholarly imagination.


Originally published in the August 2012 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.