When it comes to books about the American Civil War, it’s hard to beat “The Life of Johnny Reb: The Common Soldier of the Confederacy” by Bell Irvin Wiley. You’ll find this famous book on just about every Civil War recommended reading list and for good reason. I’ve been hearing about this book for years, but despite my interest in the Civil War, I’d never actually read Wiley’s book, which is why I put it on my “bucket list” several years ago.”
For those of you unfamiliar with Wiley’s “The Life of Johnny Reb,” it was originally published by Louisiana State University in 1943. As the title of the book implies, between its covers Wiley attempts to paint a composite picture of the common solider in the Confederate military. Much of the material Irvin used in the book came from over 30,000 letters written by soldiers during the war.
Wiley’s book is an easy read and is highly entertaining. He also covers a wide range of compelling topics, literally discussing the common solider from head to toe, detailing the types of shoes worn, the types of headgear worn and everything in between. He also talks about a wide variety of weapons and their effect on Johnny Reb and his friends. Wiley also goes into great detail about what motivated common soldiers to fight in a war that many claim was all about slavery.
I also enjoyed the portions of the book that explained the nuts and bolts of how things like furloughs worked. Other interesting topics covered in the book include what soldiers did in their free time, what they ate and how they felt about the enemy. Having spent some time in the military myself, this book also shows that the life of the common soldier hasn't changed that much in some respects despite the passage of 150 years.
The edition of the book I recently read was the softcover updated edition published by LSU in 2008. At 444 pages, it took me several weeks to work my way through it, but I enjoyed every bit of it. Wiley’s style makes for good reading, and more than likely I read this book again someday, which is something I don’t normally do.
Now that I’ve read Wiley’s “Johnny Reb” book, I’m left wanting to read some of his other books, especially “The Life of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier of the Union,” which came out in 1952. Some of his other books that sound interesting include “The Plain People of the Confederacy” (1943), “The Road to Appomattox” (1956), “Embattled Confederates: An Illustrated History of Southerners at War” (1964) and “Confederate Women: Beyond the Petticoat” (1975). If those books are half as good as “Johnny Reb,” I’ve got a lot to look forward to.
In the end, how many of you have read “The Life of Johnny Reb”? Have you read any of Wiley’s other books? What did you think about them? Which is your favorite? Let us know in the comments section below.