This is the first in a series of posts on the Civil War historian Bell Irvin Wiley. Many of the quotes and biographical materials are taken from The Bell Irvin Wiley Reader (BIWR), a wonderful assemblage of everything Wiley.
One of the biggest trends in current historiography is to present history from the perspective of the everyday. Instead of taking a “top down” approach to the study of the past, those who experienced events from the “bottom up” have been featured. While very few would disagree that this presents a better-rounded picture of the past, like most trends it isn’t that new.
In 1943, a Tennessee native gave the world one of the first pictures of what life was like for the common soldier of the Civil War. Today—some 65 years after it first appeared—The Life of Johnny Reb, and its counterpart published in 1952, The Life of Billy Yank, remain in print. Their author, Bell Irvin Wiley, is a name generally known only to those to whom study of the war is an everyday passion.
While it would have been easy to stereotype Wiley (a native of Tennessee writing about the quotidian experiences of an everyday Rebel soldier), he transcended attempts to pigeon-hole him. Wiley was a liberal southerner who was a strong supporter of civil rights. He never was more comfortable as he was while talking to the everyday people outside the academy. He once said “I do not stay in my ivory tower at Emory. I go about the country making talks to civic clubs, to historical societies, to Civil War Round Tables, and to college assemblies.”
The Civil War was never far from Wiley’s mind. His maternal grandfather served with the Army of Tennessee, fighting against William Tecumseh Sherman’s forces. While he barely knew the man, he did grow up with his widow, who often enthralled the boy with tales from her experiences. Often, during Sunday dinner, Wiley’s family would play host to both an ex-Rebel and ex-Yankee, who after eating would give the young man a first-hand account as to what they faced when each had tried to kill the other.
Bell Irvin Wiley was born January 5, 1906 in the western Tennessee town of Halls. While exposed to first-hand accounts of Civil War history, Wiley was also exposed at an early age to the twin virtues of hard work and education. One of 13 children (11 of whom lived to maturity), Wiley picked cotton on the family farm.
“My father believed that work was good for one,” Wiley recalled in an interview with the Mississippi Oral History Program at the University of Southern Mississippi in 1976, “and we rose early and worked until dark or thereabouts. We went to school regularly, but he always insisted that we be home immediately after dismissal of school, and if we didn’t arrive promptly, he wanted to know why.” (BIWR, pg. 196).
Wiley accepted that he would get a college education, and was helped along by his siblings, several of whom had already attended college before he did. However, he knew he would have to work for it. He recalled in the oral history having to plow with two mules and wryly observed “There is no less inspiring sight in the world that I know of than the north end of southbound mules.” (BIWR, pg. 199).
He graduated from Kentucky’s Asbury College in 1928 and in 1929 was awarded a master’s degree in English from the University of Kentucky. Wiley headed east to study for his doctorate at Yale University where his advisor was Ulrich B. Phillips, then the best known historian studying slavery. Wiley met Phillips at a meeting of the American Historical Society, and both men found much in common, mostly that they were both Southerners. After sending Phillips a copy of his master’s thesis, Wiley soon realized he would be going to Yale.
“For the first time in my life, I came into competition with people who seemed to know everything,” Wiley recalled. He later added that these experiences caused a crisis in confidence. “I had been a pretty big fish in a little pond at Asbury, so making the adjustments…caused me literally to walk the streets at night in anguish. There were many times when I thought I could not make it in the academic mill, because of the intenseness of the competition and because there were so many gaps in my education.” (BIWR, ppgs. 212-13).
After receiving his doctorate in 1933, Wiley began teaching at the University of Southern Mississippi. During the summers of 1935 through 1939, Wiley taught at Peabody College, where he met his soon-to-be wife, Mary. Like many historians, not only was Mary the love of Wiley’s life, she served as his main research assistant and confidant. He wrote in the preface to The Life of Johnny Reb that she had “contributed so vitally to the research and writing as to deserve a co-author’s rating, and it is only her firm refusal that prevents this recognition.”
From the beginning, it was clear that Wiley would focus his scholarship on the common soldier, and later, on the common civilian during the war years. Coming from the hardscrabble fields of Tennessee, Wiley knew what it was like to be hungry and to be tired and to get up the next day and do it again, just like both the Union and Confederate soldiers he wrote about. Wiley summed up much of his feelings toward those men in a commencement address he delivered around 1960 in North Carolina.
“The greatest people I know in American history are the plain soldiers who wore the blue and the gray during the Civil War. These lowly people and their folk at home suffered more than any other class. They endured their hardship with less complaint. They supported their leaders with more loyalty, and, in general, they acquitted themselves more admirably than their more privileged fellows.”
Next: Early scholarship