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Johnny Reb and Billy Yank


Originally aired on October 14,1994 - In part 7 of our Civil War series, Virginia Tech history professor James Robertson says that Johnny Reb and Billy Yank are a major reason for the continued fascination with the Civil War.

#7 – The Civil War’s Appeal - #2

Johnny Rebs and Billy Yanks are a major reason for the continuing fascination with the Civil War. The soldiers of South and North were typical human beings. Many of them became outstanding fighters, some of the performed poorly, most of them were just average. Yet for four terrible years, they somehow bore on their shoulders the heaviest responsibilities that have ever been placed upon the people of this nation. And they bore that burden so well that we still marvel at their manliness and their endurance.

Those who survived and returned home had a good deal to do with the war’s enduring popularity. Veterans never tired of talking about the conflict. Hundreds of men penned their memoirs of camp and battle. Therein lies another factor for the modern appeal of the Civil War.

Nothing exists in all of historiography quite like the narratives and descriptions written by the men of the blue and gray. The armies of the 1860s were the most literate that ever fought a war up to that time. No censorship existed to block or discourage the recording of eyewitness accounts, personal feelings, and the like.

The result is a chronicle of wartime without parallel. The printed letters and diaries, the reminiscences and the unit histories pertaining to the Civil War number in the thousands. Almost eight hundred Civil War unit histories exist, which is ten times more such studies than have been done collectively for all other American wars.

The books those men later produced are one thing; the behavior of those men in battle is something infinitely larger. For a number of reasons, the Civil War required more courage, more willingness for self-sacrifice, than had any other conflict in modern times. Johnny Rebs and Billy Yanks faced those challenges head-on, and they gave of themselves in ways that still spark feelings of both wonder and humility.

Their gallantry and their deaths have become a measuring stick in the American pantheon. When valor has occurred in the past century, we gauge its depth on the basis of General George Pickett’s Virginia division charging across an open field at Gettysburg or General Winfield Scott Hancock’s Pennsylvanians hurling themselves against the Confederate lines at Cold Harbor.

The greatest recognition that this nation can bestow upon one of its fighting men or women is the Congressional Medal of Honor. That award came into existence in the second year of the Civil War. The youngest recipient of the Medal of Honor was William Johnson of the 3rd Vermont. He received it for valor in action in Virginia. “Willie” Johnson was twelve years old.

Another segment of the Civil War’s common folk made that age unforgettable. The war elevated women as never before to a status approaching that of men. Mothers, wives, and sweethearts on both sides in the conflict made sizable leaps toward gender equality in three areas that were previously all-male domains.

Both North and South of necessity employed hundreds of women in the work place. They served as clerks, secretaries, and factory workers. Many of them accepted dangerous positions in ordnance plants, where they made bullets and processed explosive materials. Secondly, as schoolmasters in increasing numbers left for the armies, the need became critical for teachers. Women sprang forward to help. In doing so, they added a new word to the American language: schoolmistress.

The most profound contribution by women of the Civil War came in the field of nursing. Before 1861 a lady did not visit a hospital with all of its suffering, blood, odors, and filth; male nurses – such as poet Walt Whitman – tended to the first waves of wounded and sick soldiers in the war. When the number of injured men multiplied with each passing month, women gallantly answered the call for this hard and dangerous work. What one learned, she taught to the other. Women came to dominate the nursing profession. That they still do is a testimonial to their dedication.

The plain people of the 1860s are all gone now. Only family members think of them individually. Yet those men and women of an embattled age proved a great deal. They showed us how to fight and how to endure; too many of them showed up how to die. Most of those who survived showed us how to grow old with dignity, how to clasp in friendship the hands of former opponents, and how to dream together of a common future.   

We may sometimes choose to ignore those embattled generations of North and South; yet because of them, and what they did, America still lives.

Dr. James I. "Bud" Robertson, Jr., is a noted scholar on the American Civil War and Alumni Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Virginia Tech.