The Life of Johnny Reb: The Common Soldier of the Confederacy

Great historians take intellectual risks, and the late Bell Irvin Wiley was fearless when it came to pursuing research topics that other scholars considered taboo. In the 1940s, when most of his peers wrote grand narratives of the war celebrating the heroics of politicians and generals, Wiley published books about Southern women and the experience of African Americans in the Confederacy. His The Life of Johnny Reb: The Common Soldier of the Confederacy (1943), the most important and original of all of his works, parted ways with historians who saw military history as a story of strategy and battle tactics. Wiley reoriented the trajectory of the entire field by recovering the daily life of the average Confederate soldier. He employed an innovative approach that foreshadowed what historians today call sensory history. In other words, Wiley wanted the reader to encounter the smells, sounds and sights that shaped the perceptions of these men. The lived reality of army life is virtually palpable on every page because Wiley let the men speak for themselves. Through an amazing assortment of letters and diaries, Wiley recovered the many voices of the Confederate rank and file—voices that burned with the emotional intensity of people who confronted the painful separation from home, who endured the mind-numbing boredom of camp and who survived the brutal chaos of battle.

Wiley wrote about the Southern soldier at a time when political correctness truly reigned. Any criticism of the Confederacy was considered an act of apostasy, an insult against the honor of the men who had served the cause so nobly. Wiley, who was a native of the South and taught at Emory University in Atlanta, had too much integrity to allow narrow thinking and prejudice to pervert his interpretations. Prostitution, desertion, cowardice and gambling were just a few of the controversial topics that he boldly addressed. As a result, Wiley humanized his subjects through an honest portrait of men facing and often surrendering to the sins of the army, even though popular thinking at the time of the book’s publication insisted that Confederate soldiers never even contemplated such sordid activities. His intellectual audacity opened up the inner world of soldiers—-the spiritual, emotional and ideological commitments that future scholars would analyze more fully in trying to understand why Civil War soldiers fought.

The Life of Johnny Reb has been criticized for its failure to acknowledge the important role of ideology in motivating Confederate soldiers. It is true that Wiley believed that members of the rank and file did not think deeply about larger historical forces. He insisted that the typical Southern soldier was animated by a simple desire to defend home and hearth. Wiley overlooked how defense of a local community embodied a larger set of values and beliefs, but he deserves a great deal of credit for seeing Southern soldiers as products of a larger slave society that instilled in them an unyielding desire for personal independence. It was this streak of independence, Wiley argued, that made the Confederate soldier so difficult for officers to manage in the ranks, so formidable on the battlefield and so committed to a Confederate nation that promised independence to all white men by its unequivocal defense of slavery.

 

Originally published in the May 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.