Bell I. Wiley’s Timeless Analysis of the Common Civil War Soldier

This is the latest installment in the Civil War Classics series written by students in Professor Peter Carmichael’s graduate level readings course at West Virginia University. This review of Wiley’s analysis of fraternization in The Life of Johnny Reb and The Life of Billy Yank was written by Lauren Thompson.  Click here for other posts in the series.

Bell Irvin Wiley’s influential accounts, Life of Johnny Reb and Life of Billy Yank, provide groundbreaking insight concerning the daily life of the common Civil War soldiers.  During those times when life turned monotonous and dull, Wiley found that soldiers could be remarkably creative in relieving the tedium of camp.  Fraternization was one form of escape, a topic that Wiley does not mention in Johnny Reb, but a matter that he explores in Billy Yank.  The underlying cause of fraternization, he argues, was simply curiosity.  While both sides were certainly inquisitive about the other, Wiley overlooks the deeper social and political meaning of these peaceful encounters between combatants.

Although forbidden by military order, thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers shared conversations, held swimming parties, traded goods, shared newspapers, and visited opposing sides while on picket duty. Wiley argues that prewar fraternal organizations such as the Masonic Order and the shared common language were reasons as to why many soldiers were friendly with the enemy.  Wiley also argues that the shared position as victims of political machinations also drove men to fraternize. In the end, Wiley’s investigation of the common soldier reveals that soldiers admired one another for their bravery on the battlefield, virtuous qualities of character, and sympathy for the hardship.

Wiley is at his best when describing examples of fraternization at Vicksburg, Fredericksburg, and Petersburg; however, he leaves many questions unanswered.  Wiley neglects to analyze the larger meaning of these interactions and why these men risked their lives to chat with the enemy.  When one gets beneath the veil of fraternization as a demonstration of shared Americanism between Northern and Southern soldiers, one sees a cultural of alienation that developed in the ranks.  Enemies could empathize with each other because of the bloodshed and terror they had experienced. The exposure to death and hardship these men experienced turned their linear pre-war world upside-down.  The rigors of army-life and feelings of disposability as cannon fodder challenged the soldiers’ independence and manhood they strove to gain in society.   Fraternization served as an outlet where soldiers subtly dissented as part of a culture of alienation during the time between battles.

Wiley’s depiction of fraternization remains a valuable starting point to probe the cultural life of Civil War soldiers.  The social history foundation provided by Wiley, his “bottom-up” research indispensable, but as historians we need to get underneath the descriptions of daily life in order to see how soldiers made cultural meaning of their wartime experiences.

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1 comment… add one

  • heidic Apr 2, 2010

    This is cool. It reminds me of when during WWI the soldiers partook in the “Christams Day truce”. Although I don’t believe I am entirely surprised at this, the soldiers had so many things in common that it is not surprising that they conversed with eachother. After all, some of the men may well have been “neighbors”. The fraternization among the men, at least within an army, is what made the pull of camaraderie so strong. But I do believe that looking at the way men made cultural meaning of their wartime experiences could be a very invaluable source and way of looking at the war – I’ll use this for my doctoral thesis (haha).

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