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

The period of time surrounding the American Civil War is one of the most romanticized periods of American history and the American South is either aggrandized or demonized depending on who is telling the tale. Historians who want to reconstruct the past make it a kinder, gentler South, full of decorum and honor or a wicked, evil South where no person was immune from the guilt of slavery and all slave owners were inherently and decidedly evil. The dichotomy of how the South is portrayed and the inconsistencies within are why this book remains one of the best looks at the American Civil War.

In Bell Irvin Wiley’s book “The Life of Johnny Reb: the Common Soldier of the Confederacy” he is able to express the dichotomy without prejudice or judgment. That is what makes this so very important to the study of American history. Wiley’s book was published before the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and the political correctness movement that ended the 20th century and defined the beginning of the 21st. Wiley looks with a historians’ love and accuracy at the daily life of the Confederate soldier and at the men who made up the Confederacy without apology for their politics or condemning them for the practice of slavery.

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The book was first published in 1943 and uses language appropriate to that time to describe slaves. Whether he has edited out other references to slaves that would have used a more derogatory term is not evidenced in the book or is end notes, but seems obvious. At one point, he quotes from a North Carolina native referring to his slaves and the man refers to them as Negros. This seems apparently out of context as it seems more likely that a soldier of the time would have used an even less correct N-word to describe his slaves.

But readers should view this book with a warning: it is not politically correct and has not been edited to match the times. Instead, the references to African-Americans as Negros have been left alone so as not to compromise the historical integrity of the book. Because we know that history is written by the winners, it is often difficult to get an accurate portrayal of the losing side in a war, but Wiley manages to introduce the world to the regular, enlisted or drafted Confederate soldier without judgment to the reasons for the war.

He explains the soldiers feelings about the war and about the efforts against the Union, but Wiley does not dwell so much on the right and wrong of the politics as on the camp life, the hardships the soldiers faced and the ideology that led them to war. Wiley explains without condemnation why the Southern soldiers gladly adopted the “Johnny Reb” moniker thought to have been given them by their opponents on the battlefield. He also readily points to the pride that the Confederacy took in being called “Rebels”.

Before he even gets into the meat of the book, Wiley quotes the Richmond Daily Dispatch, explaining why Southern soldiers felt the way they did “Then call us Rebels, if you will , We Glory in the name, for bending under unjust laws, and swearing faith to an unjust cause, We count a greater Shame”. (Richmond Daily Dispatch 1862) Early in his book, Wiley explained this devotion to their cause felt by confederate soldiers and quickly explained that it had nothing to do with slavery and everything to do with the rights of the states themselves.

Southern soldiers may all have adopted the name Johnny Red, but few felt such loyalty to the name Confederacy. Southern soldiers in the war fought for their home state, not for Jefferson Davis or even the right to secede. These soldiers believed that their forefathers had promised them a loosely organized federal government to preserve the common defense and conduct the affairs of nations, but that the war with Britain had been about freedom from a tyrannical central government and the right to self- determination.

They were also angry that the North had chosen to only enforce the laws which supported their morality, refusing to return runaway slaves and calling John Brown a martyr despite his efforts to kill Southern women and children. To the average Southerner, as described by Wiley, the war had many elements all showing that the Yankees couldn’t be trusted and had a do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do attitude. For all their recriminations about the institution of slavery, Yankees saw no problems with the concept of people of every race, creed, and color, but largely newer immigrants, owing their souls to the company store.

They viewed the Yankee anti-slave bias as hypocritical, with many arguing that their slaves were treated better than many so-called employees in Northern factories (Wiley 15). Southerners had stored up the transgressions of the past decade and the recriminations from the Yankees and were ready to fight. Ultimately, and eventually accurately, they viewed the war as a Yankee attack on their very way of life and they just weren’t willing to give it up without a fight. “Long before Virginia seceded restless boys at the state university and at Washington University raised the Confederate flag at their respective campuses,” (Wiley 17).

These young men were angry at the northern aggression, the sniping attacks and lack of decorum shown when dealing with Southern Senators and Representatives and the utter lack of respect that Yankees held for the South. For these Rebs, it was a matter of honor, something they cherished and they believed that the Yanks had none of. But the enthusiasm for the war did not last long when the bullets began to fly and soon even the patriots who volunteered to protect the South were wishing for a different answer.

Wiley quotes an Alabama soldier’s letter home to his wife, “Martha…. I can inform you that I have Seen the Monkey Show at last and I don’t Waunt to see it no more [sic]” (33). Letter after letter Wiley documented from Southern soldiers to their families’ at home documents the atrocity of the war and their desire to end it rapidly. As the hardships of the war grew, Southern soldiers were hard pressed to keep their spirits up. They rarely had enough food, warm clothing or clean water. And, the image that Southerners had of themselves began to fade as the war set in.

Wiley writes that throughout history war has led to social and moral decay and that many descendants of Southern soldiers like to believe that they were different, that the confederacy held some form of chivalry and honor that other armies did not. This, unfortunately, he wrote, was not true. Especially during long encampments during the winter months and on payday, gambling was a staple of the Confederate Army camp. Soldiers bet on everything from horse races to louse fights, Wiley wrote, with most soldiers losing the great majority of their pay on the day their received it.

There were officially strict rules against the practice, but these regulations were not enforced. Likewise, the Army had strict rules about looting the nearby farms and homes and soldiers were under orders not to demand anything from the local residents, but that morality too was lost to the needs of the Army. “A great many soldiers undoubtedly accepted the tenet that the country for which they were fighting owed them sustenance and when meat was not forthcoming from regular sources, they saw little if anything wrong in taking it from the noncombatants” (Wiley 44). It’s not that Southern soldiers didn’t want to be better people.

They sincerely looked down upon what they viewed as the moral failings of the Yankees, but many were very young, away from home for the first time, exposed to death and more horror than ever before and their government was not meeting their basic needs for shelter and food. Within the first year, most of the Confederate troops were receiving only subsistence rations from the Army and in many cases, even less. Soldiers resorted to eating anything they could get their hands on including unripened corn, apples and vegetables straight from someone’s garden and in the worst cases, animal feed which they purloined from the Army’s horses.

Soldiers who were stationed or fighting close to food producing areas ate decently, but much of the Army wrote home that it was starving or very nearly and that one of the best things about winning a battle was that the Yankees would flee without taking their supplies. Old crackers and fat meat captured in battle was thought to be a meal fit for a king (Wiley 92). If the lack of food were not enough of a hardship for the rebel soldier to face, he also had to deal with the lack of other supplies and often the lack of clean water.

In a chapter he calls “The Deadliest Foe”, Wiley writes of the filth facing the soldiers in their camps and the deadly nature of disease and infection during the war. Because of the lack of clean water in most camps, soldiers faced grave danger from dysentery and other diseases that spread like wildfire through the crowded camps. Without adequate infirmaries, soldiers died to small pox and malaria, the latter often due to a lack of mosquito netting for the tents. Worse yet was the nightmare of being injured but not killed in a battle.

Musket balls tumble and do not provide a clean entry wound, so it was often difficult to the barely-trained doctors and surgeons of the army to remove a bullet. And, the concept of sanitary conditions for surgery was not yet widespread. Often, surgeons would move from patient to patient without washing their hands or cleaning their instruments. Surgeons understood the rudimentary forms of anesthesia for surgery, but the camps were often filled with the screams of those witnessing the surgeries as much as those undergoing them. Gangrene and infection killed more men than the Yankees did, though the yanks certainly did their part as well.

When they were away from the front, soldiers tried as hard as they could to maintain the lifestyle that they were accustomed to at home. That meant that debutante balls were held even as the war raged nearby and young men told the lies that they would not have gotten away with in their hometowns. And because the war effort was equal opportunity, young men with nothing were able to lie about their wealth and the things that they had back home, leaving the young women with the impression that their new soldier beau was much more well off than he really was.

Wiley relates this tale from a North Carolina private. The thout I was a saint I told thim some sweete lies and they Believed it all for they love a North Carolinian. I will tell you how I talk around them After I got acquainted with them I would tell them I got a letter from home stating that five of my negros had runaway and ten of Pappies But I wold say I recond he did not mind it for he had plenty more left and then they would lean to me like a sore eyd kitten to a Basin of Milk (Wiley 275).

These tales of womanizing are equally common as the soldier who found his perfect woman while at one of these functions and is writing home to tell his family about her virtues. The wartime morality also affected wartime courtship, Wiley wrote, saying that more than one soldier complained that the girls near a particular Army base were to free with their kisses and should only allow themselves to be kissed after they were properly engaged (Wiley 277). In the end, Wiley wrote, the Southern soldier was a young boy who dreamed of war and then say the nightmare of its reality.

They were idealistic men of the Old South, who believed that manly pursuits like gambling and horse-racing had their place outside of the light of day and that some behaviors were just expected of a lady. They were in many ways mere boys ideologically as well, trained that the Yankees were as evil as Satan himself and taught from the cradle that their way of life was moral and good. Johnny Reb often had no ill will toward his slaves and truly believed that if he was treating them well; there was nothing wrong with owning slaves.

As a volunteer in his state’s forces, he expected a quick decisive victory over the Northern Aggressors and was shocked and disappointed that Southern values did not triumph over Northern hatred and villainy. A further hardship for Southern soldiers as the war continued was the need and desire of the leadership to promote equality on the battlefield. Many Southerners, especially land owners, considered themselves something of an upper class, designated by birth as the leaders and protectors of their beloved land.

When faced with the idea that a commoner could lead them, many were aghast. “Forrest may be & no doubt is, the best Cav officer in the West, but I object to a tyrannical, hot-headed vulgarian’s commanding me” one soldier wrote in his journal (Wiley 335). Subsequent journal entries make it clear that although the soldier admires his commander as military man, he objects to the fact that he is being led by a commoner. The value of “The Life of Johnny Reb” is hard to put in historical terms.

Wiley spent years compiling the letters ad journals of common soldiers, not the men whom everyone knows, but the men who mattered only to their family and friends, to paint a picture of the Confederate Army as it existed. He exposed the rebels’ warts and all and did not shy away from the dichotomy of the honorable soldier and the petty thief, stealing any food he can get his hands on. He humanized the war, making it clear that these were simply average men, stuck in extraordinary circumstances and forced to face a horror that none had ever imagined.

Even now, almost 150 years later, it is the heroic imagery of Robert E. Lee surrendering his sword at Antietam that most people picture when they think of the Civil War, not Stephen Crane’s stark and bloody photographs of the carnage of the war. Wiley’s book more than anything seeks to boil the war down to its most basic elements and not paint it as an ideological struggle. Certainly there were combatants on both sides who rode off to war crusading for the things that they believed were right, but for the majority of Southern soldiers the war was at first about protecting their way of life and then about survival.

In many ways, Johnny Reb failed at both. Disease and illness killed as many Southern soldiers as the North; the sacrificed their honor and nobility, the noblesee oblige that the South wished to be known for, to the gods of necessity and whimsy. In prisoner of war camps, they allowed men to starve to death and die of exposure rather than treat their countrymen with any sort of compassion and human dignity. When it came to down to push comes to shove, the noble men of the South were not above stealing food intended for women and children.

If the South had been able to lose the war without sacrificing its own self-image at the altar of war, Reconstruction might have been much easier on the South. But as they began to recover from the war, the South had to face the demons that they had let themselves become and acknowledge that they were as immoral and corruptible as their Yankee neighbors. To some Southerners, event the loss of life was not as drastic as the loss of honor. For a Southern man, this was more than a death blow; it was the loss of whom he was and who he wanted to be.

The concept that the war had taken away his identity as well as his way of life, his land and his property was more than many Southern men could deal with. Before the war, Johnny Reb was a happy-go-lucky individual, enjoying the life that the Old South had to offer and planning to give his northern enemies a good swift kick and then get on with life as it had always been. When that changed, due to the brutality of the war and the South’s loss, Johnny Reb lost his identity along with his life. The men who returned from the war were not the boys who had left for it a few years earlier and the South and Southern men were never the same again.