Thursday, April 15, 2021

Blogging Through the Alphabet: B is for Billy Yank

Blogging Through the Alphabet B is for Billy Yank, background photo of cannon; A Mom's Quest to Teach logo

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When it comes to nicknames, the American Civil War has provided many: 

  • Johnny Reb
  • Rebel Yell
  • "Stonewall" Jackson
  • Honest Abe 
  • "Lee's War Horse"
  • Little Mac 
But one that may have been added after the Civil War was the term, Billy Yank. And it probably gained popularity with a classic Civil War history, The Life of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier of the Union by Bell Irwin Wiley. He had already written a book about Johnny Reb and wanted to pen a companion piece. As Wiley stated, "The two were so much alike that the task of giving this book a flavor and character distinct from The Life of Johnny Reb has at times been a difficult one" (13). 

In What Ways Were the Two Soldiers Who Fought for Different Causes Similar? 

  • Pride in themselves and their families 
  • Sense of duty 
  • Will and strength to endure
  • Devotion to country 
  • Devotion to the cause 

What was unique about Billy Yank? 

  • Devotion to Abraham Lincoln
  • Devotion to McClellan
  • Deep patriotism 
  • Joined because of the example of friends and family 
  • Antislavery urge – abolitionism 

book cover of The Life of Billy Yank

Who Were the Billy Yanks? Who Wore the Blue Uniform? 

The men of the Union Army were very diverse. Among the Union soldiers, there were people of various nationalities, races, creeds, and occupations. Different religious denominations were represented, and the age range was quite large. Very young boys would sign up as drummer boys, and men like John Burns from Gettysburg would help fight for the North. We may never know the exact ages of all the Yanks as they often listed their ages as 18 and up – even if they were younger – so they could enlist. 

When Wiley investigated 123 company rolls, he created a list of over 300 occupations. What an amazing and varied group of talented men gathered together for a common cause. And the occupations of some of these Billy Yanks included: 

  • Barkeepers 
  • Chemists
  • Grocers 
  • Iron workers 
  • Miners 
  • Pianists 
But the most numerous group? Farmers. 

This diversity in the Union Army meant that they were able to fulfill needs – like print official papers, re-lay railroad rails, and provide entertainment – in between the battles and more. They were resourceful.

Blogging Through the Alphabet: B is for Billy Yank; A Mom's Quest to Teach; background of school clip art and clip art of Union Drummer boy from

Where Were They From? 

While Billy Yank fought for the North, his ancestors (and perhaps himself) were from one of many nations. The majority were Americans. There were regiments made up of solely different ethnic groups like those in New York made up of Germans or Irish or the 15th Wisconsin made up of Scandinavians. And while the Union Army was mostly white, there were 186,017 African Americans on the Federal muster rolls and a brigade of Native Americans in the Indian Home Guard.

The men in blue were a mix of weak and strong men who were sometimes less prepared than other days. They were proud to defend their nation but were also scared at times. I don't think Billy Yank is much different than the men at uniform in any time or place.

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  1. I've not heard of this book, I can see the writing of it though... helping people understand the common soldiers from both sides of the conflict.

    1. When I was completing my thesis for my history degree, this author was recommended so I purchased the two books. They proved valuable for looking into the soldier of the Civil War.

  2. Looks like an interesting book. I've not read much about the Civil War, and somehow I missed studying it in my school years, so I need to take some time to study it on my own. This might be a good one to add to my list! Thanks for joining!

  3. I've always found the nick names used in the USA for historial figures interresting and often wondered where they are from.

    Thank you for sharing. That book sounds interresting.

    Thank you for linking to Blogging Through the Alphabet.

    1. There are so many different nicknames, too. And then throw in the fact that the North & South named battles after different things (towns, railroad junctions, rivers, etc.) and it can get confusing.