A Tribute to Bell Wiley

By Steve Suitts

Vol. 2, No. 7, 1980, pp. 2

When I was at the University of Alabama I once had a theory that most professors and administrators showed up at meetings late because it was the custom of the university at that time to begin classes 10 minutes after the hour or half hour. With that impression of most college professors I was, of course, a bit surprised in a small way when Bell Wiley came to our meetings at the SRC offices usually ahead of time.

I should have known better. Bell was no stranger to me in style even at our first meeting. I had read many of his books on the Civil War and had come to know him as a very particular scholar. In the course of almost three years, I also came to appreciate the rare personal qualities of this Southerner who was in the best sense a scholar and a gentleman.

In fact, Bell was a far more gentle and quiet man than I had realized. While a Southern gentleman in manners, he seemed to favor sly folk humor and used it more than once. He also was obviously fond of bright red galluses.

Bell measured people and events carefully and often in silence a way that reminded me of the sage of the backwoods country store who always seemed to be sitting next to the potbellied stove in a pushed-back cane chair, saying little, and knowing a great deal more.

These personal attributes were reflected in Bell's writing where the facts and lore about the common Southerner during the Civil War was often the stuff of which he wrote. Bell's appreciation for Southern ways obviously did not diminish his capacity to be offended by Southern racism. He often scolded White Southerners and especially Southern leaders for their facile and disingenuous arguments attempting to keep up segregation.

I suppose it is a statement of the obvious that Bell Wiley made important contributions to the people and ideas of his own time. He was precise and prudent in his personal habits, generous in his love for the South, and stern in his demand that hatred and neglect be rooted out of Southern life. His books and the memory of his own life will keep those simple yet unreached ideals in the hearts and minds of many who were his students, readers, colleagues, and friends - all his admirers.