Johnny Reb by Bell Irvin Wiley: Book Review Essay

Johnny Reb by Bell Irvin Wiley: Book Review

The life of a common soldier at the Confederate is not a regular topic one would have chosen for writing a book. Barring the apparent paucity of informative resources, the topic itself may seem to be an uninteresting one. But a writer of the genius and capabilities of Bell Irvin Wiley can pen down vividly the account of a soldier’s life during the trying times in the latter half of the nineteenth century in the Confederate States of America. The Life of Johnny Reb: The Common Soldier of the Confederacy, published in 1943, portrays a well-synthesized and personal account of a soldier’s daily life – his aspirations and desperations, ways of living and almost anything and everything that made up his existence. “A Civil War classic”, as stated by Florida Historical Quarterly[1], the book received instant acclamation upon its publication from seasoned historians as well as from general readers. One of the reasons why this book is still considered to be among the best available narratives on the life a rank and file soldier from the Confederate States Army is the extensive research work done by Bell Irvin Wiley. He looked into innumerable letters, newspaper reports, diaries and official records before writing the book, and thus laid down a solid foundation of a plausible chronicle. Aided by the fruits of research work, the writer himself blended his own sense of humor and heartrending observations to create an intimate account of the life of Johnny Reb.

“[Wiley] has painted with skill a picture of the life of the Confederate private…. It is a picture that is not only by far the most complete we have ever had but perhaps the best of its kind we ever shall have.” – Saturday Review of Literature[2].

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            Born in Halls, Tennessee in 1906, Bell Irvin Wiley got his undergraduate degree from Asbury College and postgraduate from the University of Kentucky. He received Ph. D. from Yale in 1933. This eminent scholar was involved in pedagogy at Mississippi Southern College, the University of Mississippi and Emory University. The vivid account readers find in The Life of Johnny Reb: The Common Soldier of the Confederate owes a great deal to the fact that the author himself served in the army during the Second World War[3]. He is widely considered as one of America’s most prominent Civil War historians who have also excelled in editing and coauthoring.

            This review focuses not just on the author and the purpose that motivated him to come up with such a masterpiece, but also on the thematic synopsis of the text of The Life of Johnny Reb: The Common Soldier of the Confederacy.

            One of the most noticeable aspects of the book is that it does not just depict an ordinary detail of the conflicts on the battlefield. The first chapter ‘Off to the War’ grasps the readers’ attention with its colloquial tenor. Irvin Wiley gives a picture of how Johnny Reb along with other civilians got motivated to join the army. It was basically a clash between the Southern lands where Johnny Reb hailed and the Northern parts of the country. The Civil War history tells us how the Southern population was enslaved at the hands of the Northern Congressmen, and thus had a feeling of depravation. The Yankees who inhabited the Southern areas refused to abide by the Federal laws that asked for the return of fugitive slaves. Bell Irvin curiously observed how the Yankees lived in a world of fantasy, making heroes such as Uncle Tom. The heinous nature of John Brown earned him the status of a martyr when he was legally executed for murdering Southern women and children: “they made heroes of such fantasies as Uncle Tom, and chose to look upon Christian slaveholders as Simon Legrees; they tolerated monsters like William Lloyd Garrison…”[4]  All these facets of the Civil War most of which are not documented elsewhere are portrayed authentically in the book.

            The real life demonstration of a war scenario can hardly be justified if not with a detailed account of the attires. The seventh chapter ‘From Finery to Tatters’ gives a thorough account of the hierarchical system that was followed during the Civil War when it comes to clothing and uniforms. The readers get a vivid description of how the Tennesseans dressed themselves in yellow to live up to their formerly earned designation of ‘Yellow Jackets’. As mentioned earlier, the author relied heavily on available letters, newspapers and other resources to accumulate the details that helped him to write the book so authentically. It is reflected in the way he represented the dress codes of men from different territories of America. The North Carolina residents wore different outfits from what was worn by the Maryland army, and so did the Louisiana Zouaves who put on the most colorful and fancy outfit[5].

            The personal touch that is rendered upon the grave realities of the war is reflected in chapters like ‘Trials of the Soul’ and ‘Consolations of the Spirit’. To sum it up, one can revert back to the observation made by Model Retailer: “This book deserves to be on the shelf of every Civil War modeler and enthusiast.”[6]


“The Life of Johnny Reb”. LSU Press. 2008. Available at: (accessed on February 3, 2009)

“Bell Irvin Wiley (1906-1980)”. The University of Tennessee, Chattanooga. 2009. Available at: (accessed on February 3, 2009)

Willey, Bell Irvin. The Life of Johnny Reb: The Common Soldier of the Confederacy. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1978.

[1] LSU Press, 2008
[2] LSU Press, 2008
[3] The University of Tennessee, Chattanooga, 2009
[4] Bell Irvin Willey, The Life of Johnny Reb (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1978) 15.
[5] Bell Irvin Willey, The Life of Johnny Reb (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1978) 110.
[6] LSU Press, 2008