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The world is wearied of politicians whom democracy has promoted into statesmen.

Bell Irvin Wiley (1906-1980) was a professor emeritus of history at Emory University and one of America’s preeminent Civil War historians. When his composite portrait of the rank-and-file Confederate soldier [The Life of Johnny Reb] was published in 1943, professional historians and general readers alike greeted it enthusiastically. Nearly three quarters of a century later, the book still offers one of the best available accounts of the ordinary citizens who made up the Confederate army. The Life of Johnny Reb does not merely describe the battles and skirmishes fought by the Confederate foot soldier. Rather, it provides an intimate history of a soldier’s daily life — the songs he sang, the foods he ate, the hopes and fears he experienced, the reasons he fought. Wiley examined countless letters, diaries, newspaper accounts, and official records to construct this frequently poignant, sometimes humorous account of the life of Johnny Reb.

During his life he published numerous other works on the War for Southern Independence and this book may be considered his even if it is posthumously compiled and edited. The juxtaposition of the travails of those in the ranks who suffered, in no small part, to fulfill the ambitions of general officers who were more politician than soldier is only two apparent in a comparison of these two works. We need say nothing further to damn Geary – he stands accused and convicted by his own words – we can only thank Wiley and Blair for presenting the evidence.

A politician goes to war : the Civil War letters of John White Geary    University Park, Penn. : Pennsylvania State University Press, c 1995  edited by William Alan Blair ; selections and introduction by Bell Irvin Wiley United States. Army Biography, Geary, John White, 1819-1873 Correspondence Hardcover. xxv, 259 p. : ill., maps ; 24 cm. Includes bibliographical references and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG

This last known work of noted historian Bell Irvin Wiley reveals the private mind of John White Geary, a Union general from Pennsylvania, through his Civil War letters to his wife, Mary. Wiley had selected these roughly 200 letters for publication, but the unfinished manuscript lay undiscovered for twelve years after the historian’s death. The letters provide a rare glimpse of the two main theaters of war through the eyes of a general officer. Geary saw action at Cedar Mountain and Gettysburg in the Virginia theater and in the major campaigns in the west — from lifting the siege at Chattanooga to marching with William T. Sherman through Georgia and the Carolinas.

The fascination Geary’s letters held for Wiley, the quintessential scholar of the common person, is clear: the letters of an uncommon man reveal ordinary concerns about children, money, home, and religion that linked Geary to many on both sides of the war. Geary’s letters also show another side of the officer, that of the consummate politician who knew that military service provided capital for future political campaigns. Through intense self-promotion, he had fashioned a reputation that served him well in gaining respected political posts both before and after the war: he fought in the Mexican War and served as the first mayor of San Francisco and as territorial governor of Kansas during the period known as “Bloody Kansas,” in addition to winning two terms as governor of Pennsylvania after the war. Ultimately, the letters of John White Geary show how a political general plied his trade. They reveal the complexities of any historical figure, for Geary had both the admirable qualities of loyalty to the Union and the less attractive need to exaggerate his abilities to enhance his career.


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