Volume 76
Number 4

The Uncommon Common Man

Indecision 2000

Fire and Water

Emory University

Association of Emory Alumni

Current News and Events

Emory Report



Sports Updates

























































































































BELL 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 Emory’s first Candler Professor of History thought of himself as a common man.

T 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 nation’s bloodiest conflict through the eyes of its generals. Instead, he preferred the trench-level perspective of the ordinary soldier.

In 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.

The 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 other.

“Of all the books that have been written [on the Civil War]
. . . the ones that will truly live are Bell Wiley’s,” says preeminent historian Bruce Catton.

In April, Louisiana State University will release previously unpublished material–including lectures, interviews and articles–from Wiley’s extensive papers, housed in the Woodruff Library’s Special Collections.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.

“Bell 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.”

Born 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.”

Nevertheless, the young Wiley’s provincial racial views didn’t 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.”

He 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.”

Wiley 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.

In later years, Wiley again angered colleagues when he opposed admitting black students to Emory under separate standards. Equality, he believed, could not be compromised.

Wiley could be just as iron-handed in his demands on graduate students, whom he saw as “a reflection of myself.”

“He wouldn’t give an A,” Robertson says. “He said that represented perfection.”

Wiley valued writing over research, says Robertson: “You’d 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.”

Notoriously 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.

Striking and silver-haired, with black-framed glasses, he was known for tooling around campus on a big, English policeman’s bicycle, obtained during his year of teaching at Oxford University. “You’d see him, huffing and puffing up those hills,” John Wiley says.

Other 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.

John 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 they’d get together and sing,” he recalls. He and George remember Benjamin Mays and Alex Haley as dinner guests.

William Faulkner became a friend when Wiley became head of the University of Mississippi’s history department in the late 1930s. Margaret Mitchell was another well-known writer who wrote to Wiley of her admiration for his work.

At 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.

“Agnew,” Wiley said, “is the antithesis of everything that Lee stood for.” He mounted a campaign to block Agnew’s appearance, writing Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and others, to no avail.

After his retirement, Wiley took on a teaching post as “historian in residence” at Agnes Scott College, retiring again in 1977.

After Wiley’s death from a heart attack in 1980, Atlanta Historical Society Director Judson C. Ward, Emory’s 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 students–and national attention–to Emory.”

Historian and Emory alumnus C. Vann Woodward said Wiley’s “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.”

But 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.”

Krista Reese is a frequent contributor to Emory Magazine.



© 2001 Emory University