April 21, 2008

The Life of Johnny Reb and Billy Yank

It’s likely that anyone who has more than a passing interest in the Civil War has probably heard of Bell I. Wiley’s The Life of Johnny Reb and its companion volume The Life of Billy Yank. Both volumes saw their first printings issued in hardcover by the Bobbs-Merrill Co. of Indianapolis. Johnny Reb came first in 1943 while Billy Yank appeared nine years later in 1952. Both volumes were immensely popular and read extensively from the day of their release, which means that first edition copies with jackets are difficult to find in premium condition.

Both volumes contained numerous heretofore unpublished quotes and commentary from soldier’s letters and diaries, prompting Civil War Books: A Critical Bibliography to refer to them as the encyclopedia for the men in gray and blue, respectively. Camp life, foraging, what life was like while on march and in battle are all presented in great detail from the perspective of the common foot soldier. Johnny Reb can also be referenced in Harwell’s In Tall Cotton (#190). In its description, Harwell cites a letter that Margaret Mitchell wrote to Clifford Dowdey in May 1943 right after the book appeared. Mitchell happily mentions how the book is built from the letters of the common man. “Praise God,” exclaims Mitchell, “the writers are mainly privates, stout yeomen, good Crackers and outspoken po’ white trash. No one had ever taught them the proper form of a letter ( a disadvantage from which officers suffered) and their letters are the real McCoy.”

Both books have been in print from day one with the rights now being held by LSU press. The books also appeared as a slipcased set during the Civil War Centennial, however I’ve just learned of what I consider the real piece de resistance.

To celebrate the books’ 35th anniversary, LSU Press issued both volumes in 1978 as a deluxe, 500-copy slipcased set. Each set was also signed and numbered by Bell Wiley. As you can see from the pictures, each volume features leather spines and buckram boards. An absolutely gorgeous edition for the serious Civil War collector; a set that is now decidedly quite rare.

PS. I've just realized that this is my 125th post. It's certainly been fun and I've definitely learned a thing or two or three during research for some of the posts.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I happen to own #187 of the set. Do you have any idea what thier value is?