WILEY LIVED VIVIDLY,
in bright colors and deeply felt emotions.
His friends and admirers included William Faulkner, Margaret
Mitchell, and C. Vann Woodward. In the 1950s, his progressive
stance on civil rights rankled many fellow Southerners. Still,
the accomplished author and Emorys first Candler Professor
of History thought of himself as a common man.
hat viewpoint led to groundbreaking work. Unlike most of his
colleagues in the crowded field of Civil War studies, Wiley
did not attempt to see the nations bloodiest conflict
through the eyes of its generals. Instead, he preferred the
trench-level perspective of the ordinary soldier.
the 1940s, with a wife and colicky baby in tow, Wiley toured
the country in search of soldiers letters. Eventually,
he read more than thirty thousand and incorporated them into
his best known works.
Life of Johnny Reb and The Life of Billy Yank stand as benchmarks
a half-century after they were first published. More importantly,
they represent a turning point in the quest to understand what
led Northerners and Southerners to take up arms against each
all the books that have been written [on the Civil War]
. . . the ones that will truly live are Bell Wileys,
says preeminent historian Bruce Catton.
April, Louisiana State University will release previously unpublished
materialincluding lectures, interviews and articlesfrom
Wileys extensive papers, housed in the Woodruff Librarys
Special Collections. Edited by Emory alumni Hill R. Jordan 69C,
James I. Robertson Jr. 56G-59PhD, and James H. Segars
49Ox-51C, The Bell Irvin Wiley Reader was culled
from 176 boxes of ephemera, including article drafts, correspondence,
airline tickets, and issues of the Emory Wheel.
Wiley was the greatest spokesman for the nineteenth century
common man, says Robertson, a former Wiley doctoral student
who has been honored for his own Civil War works (Soldiers Blue
and Gray; Stonewall Jackson). But very little is known
about Dr. Wiley. This book is a revelation.
in 1906 in Halls, Tennessee, Wiley and his ten siblings picked
cotton and helped their parents work their small farm. I
grew up in the midst of Civil War history, he once said.
He heard the tales of his grandmother, a Confederate widow,
and family friends George Washington Bunker, a Union veteran,
and Will Martin, a Confederate. He would later describe the
stories as thrilling, and the soldiers epic
struggle as crazy and needless.
the young Wileys provincial racial views didnt change
until he went to Yale for graduate studies at twenty-five. There
he met and befriended brilliant black scholars. On assignment
to Tuskegee, an awed Wiley spent two hours with George Washington
Carver. When Wiley became an early proponent of integration,
he received hate mail, says his son, John. One of the first
to champion integrating Emory, Wiley cited his African American
friends as the most important single influence in helping
me break away from the pattern of segregation and achieving
emancipation of my own.
also found much to honor in his Confederate forebears. Generally
speaking, they were not drab, improvident, depraved Tobacco
Road ignoramuses, he wrote of the Southern forces. The
overwhelming majority were generous in their impulses, wholesome
in their reactions, and stalwart in their adversity.
said Southerners should emulate Robert E. Lee, who fully accepted
the decision of arms and never contested federal
authority after the war was over. One of the basic troubles
in Alabama and Mississippi is that many of the residents, especially
some of the leaders, have not fully accepted the result of the
Civil War, Wiley said.
later years, Wiley again angered colleagues when he opposed
admitting black students to Emory under separate standards.
Equality, he believed, could not be compromised.
could be just as iron-handed in his demands on graduate students,
whom he saw as a reflection of myself.
wouldnt give an A, Robertson says. He said
that represented perfection.
valued writing over research, says Robertson: Youd
get a manuscript back just covered in red pen it looked
like it was soaked in blood. (One Wiley rule: Any sentence
that takes more than one breath to read is too long.) Robertson
says, I revel in the fact that he was so hard on us. He
made me a better historian because of it.
tough on graduate students, Wiley was beloved by undergrads.
Even the disinterested became spellbound. He asked students
to sit in the same place each day, and composed elaborate charts
with students names and photos. Even in large seminars
(his last attracted more than three hundred at registration,
a record at Emory), Wiley called each student by name.
and silver-haired, with black-framed glasses, he was known for
tooling around campus on a big, English policemans bicycle,
obtained during his year of teaching at Oxford University. Youd
see him, huffing and puffing up those hills, John Wiley
travels brought a fondness for bright Hawaiian shirts and Western
bolo ties, which he wore together as part of an ever-changing
but notable Wiley ensemble.
Wiley remembers many parties at the East Clifton Road home where
his parents entertained friends. The house was filled
with laughter. Everybody used to drink back then, and theyd
get together and sing, he recalls. He and George remember
Benjamin Mays and Alex Haley as dinner guests.
Faulkner became a friend when Wiley became head of the University
of Mississippis history department in the late 1930s.
Margaret Mitchell was another well-known writer who wrote to
Wiley of her admiration for his work.
the peak of his fame, Wiley continued to demonstrate the courage
of his convictions. In the spring of 1970, as student protests
grew more vocal, President Richard M. Nixon canceled a planned
trip to dedicate the new Confederate memorial in Stone Mountain,
and sent Vice President Spiro T. Agnew instead. Wiley, who was
to welcome the public officials, was incensed.
Wiley said, is the antithesis of everything that Lee stood
for. He mounted a campaign to block Agnews appearance,
writing Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and others, to no
his retirement, Wiley took on a teaching post as historian
in residence at Agnes Scott College, retiring again in
Wileys death from a heart attack in 1980, Atlanta Historical
Society Director Judson C. Ward, Emorys former executive
vice president and current dean of alumni, said Wiley was the
key figure in building our doctoral program in history; he was
the best-known scholar and attracted numerous graduate studentsand
national attentionto Emory.
and Emory alumnus C. Vann Woodward said Wileys contribution
to the understanding of the common soldier was a great and lasting
part of his achievement. His death is a loss to Yale as well
as to Emory.
perhaps no prize meant more to Wiley than a letter from his
students, presented during his last class at Emory. Seldom
do we as students encounter an instructor who is able to communicate
the true involvement and enthusiasm that is necessary in spending
a career studying and teaching the subject he has chosen as
his specialty, the letter stated. We hereby present
you with this certified check for $115, on the condition that
you spend it on something special for yourself and Mrs. Wiley.
Reese is a frequent contributor to Emory Magazine.