Pick #6 in the Top Ten: The Life of Billy Yank & The Life Of Johnny Reb by Bell I. Wiley

Part of a Series: Books Every Civil War Buff Ought to Own


No Civil War bookshelf is complete without at least one (preferably both!) of these: The Life of Johnny Reb and The Life of Billy Yank. For anyone who has wondered what it may have been like to serve in a Civil War army, these are the go-to sources.

Historian Bell Irvin Wiley (1906-1980), the author of these books, was a professor emeritus of history at Emory University and a historian of major importance regarding his contribution to Civil War historiography. He was born Southern, in 1906, in Halls, Tennessee. He and his ten siblings picked cotton and generally helped their parents work the small family farm. “I grew up in the midst of Civil War history,” he once said. He regularly heard stories from his grandmother, a Confederate widow, and from family friends who had served in both Union and Confederate armies. He later described the stories as “thrilling,” and the soldiers’ epic struggle as “crazy and needless.”

Bell I. Wiley
Bell I. Wiley

It was not until he went to Yale as a graduate student in History that Wiley’s provincial attitudes on race changed, however. While there, he met and became friends with brilliant black scholars. Wiley was doing research at Tuskegee when he met George Washington Carver, speaking with him for over two hours and returning from the interview a changed man. He cited his African American friends as “the most important single influence in helping me break away from the pattern of segregation and achieving emancipation of my own.”

By the 1940s, Wiley had made his decision as to what kind of history he would write–that of the common person. He refused to see this nation’s most defining event through the eyes of its generals and politicians. He preferred to see it from the point of view of the men who did the marching.

A real Johnny Reb & Billy Yank, Sharing Cpffee
A real Johnny Reb & Billy Yank, Sharing Coffee

Thirty thousand soldier letters and diaries later, Billy Yank and Johnny Reb were published, in 1952. These two books still stand as benchmarks sixty years later. More importantly, they represent a turning point in the quest to understand what led Northerners and Southerners to take up arms against each other.

Very detailed, but very readable, the daily lives of the fighting men on both sides of the ACW is explored. Wiley explains, with the help of primary sources, who these men were, why they fought, what they thought about each other, and how the long years of war affected them. What are made very clear are the commonalities among these men. They fought for different causes, but as people, they were much the same.

Those of us who have come to the study of history in the last twenty or so years think that history “from the ground up” may have always been the way things were seen, but this is scarcely the case. Prior to the 1960s, history was pretty much an upper class male endeavor, all politics and war. Bell Wiley was one of the pioneers of presenting history from a different perspective.

We now have women’s history, history from the viewpoint of a variety of ethnicities, children’s and family history, slave narratives, and just about anything and everything else imaginable. Here, at emergingcivilwar.com, several of our writers are involved in pioneering historiography efforts of their own: histories of war suicides, histories of women from one particular town, and histories of the very ground upon which battles were fought are the ones that come immediately to mind.

Professor Wiley
Professor Wiley

Whether you reenact, teach, academically study, or just enjoy reading about the American Civil War, these two books are an invaluable resource. No less a person than Bruce Catton said, “Of all the books that have been written [on the Civil War]? . . . the ones that will truly live are Bell Wiley’s”

You can pick up this set for under $9.00 a book, used, in paperback, at amazon.com. That is the price as I write this, but I have seen it much lower. As I have been informed by several readers, garage sales offer some great deals as well.

3 Responses to Pick #6 in the Top Ten: The Life of Billy Yank & The Life Of Johnny Reb by Bell I. Wiley

  1. Wonderful post! Too right: “He preferred to see it from the point of view of the men who did the marching.”

    1. When I started this series, I really did not realize how difficult it would be to choose just ten. It has been a good intellectual exercise for me. These books are 60 years old! And yet–what they say seems timeless.

  2. The first book I bought when I started really studying the Civil War was Johnny Reb. I was at Pea Ridge. My first battlefield. I asked the ranger in the gift shop if this was a good book to have. He told me it was a classic and a must have for a Civil War library.

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