WASHINGTON – The sun was blazing overhead, and the horses and the men were waiting in the woods. They could see the Union cannons across the open field near the peach orchard.
The men were staking out a Confederate line along Seminary Ridge. It was July 2, 1863, the second day at Gettysburg.
Among the Confederates was Company F of the 21st Mississippi Regiment, the Tallahatchie Rifles, and among them was an 18-year-old buck private named John Thomas Neeley. He was my great-great-great-uncle, whose last name I carry as my first, and to whom I am connected down the daisy chain of history.
Just before dark, John’s regiment charged out of Pitzer’s Woods and into American history and Southern folklore, taking the Confederacy to its highest point that day, which is to say the second highest point the Confederacy ever reached. Only Pickett’s Charge the next day would seize a further point into Union lines at Gettysburg, the fabled “high water mark” of the Confederacy.
These two afternoons would form a key part of the Lost Cause mythology that fueled white Southern culture for the next century — the idea that noble Confederate soldiers came within a few hundred yards of a victory against overwhelming odds.
It’s a key part of the Southern mind, and no iteration is more impressionistic and haunting than William Faulkner’s, writing 85 years after Pickett’s Charge:
“For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods,” he wrote in “Intruder in the Dust.” “[I]t’s going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn’t need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory.”
I was born 119 years after John and just 71 miles (114 km) due south — the family didn’t move around much — and for me, John Neeley (the family dropped the last “e” shortly after the war) was always just a bit of family lore — your ancestor who lost a leg at Gettysburg, he’s part of where your name comes from — might actually be so much bourbon-fueled hokum. I mean, more than 3.2 million men fought in the war, and this guy really was at one of the decisive moments of the decisive battle of the war?
So I tried to reconstruct his life. Census data, regimental documents, letters from contemporaries, books, the U.S. National Archives, antebellum tax records, cemetery plots, family papers, county paperwork. I walked the battlefield, retracing his steps as best I could.
I finally found a picture of him a few weeks ago on the wall of the Tallahatchie County chancery clerk’s office (he held that position after the war). It’s a formal portrait, taken late in life, and he’s wearing a button-up, collarless coat. His chest-length beard dominates the image, but there’s a stern look to the dark eyes, beneath the receding hairline and the gray hair. I found his eerily beautiful handwriting, all looping curls and straight lines, on a document he signed and dated Nov. 13, 1900.
After all this research, I still don’t know what to make of the man. He’s troubling, and that flat gaze has started to bother me.
You’ll see why.
On Aug. 15, 1862, John enlisted in a group of about 100 volunteers in Charleston, Mississippi, deep in the northwestern part of the state. Half of the county is in the Delta, which is usually known as “the most Southern place on Earth.” It was fitting he would join up — two of his brothers, including my direct ancestor, Allen Gattis Neeley, were already off fighting.
John was a 17-year-old orphan. On the regimental muster rolls, now on microfilm at the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, his period of enlistment reads, “War.”
By December, the Tallahatchie Rifles had joined Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. John’s first engagement was at Fredericksburg, and his first taste of combat turned into a lopsided Confederate victory.
He must have thought war a glorious thing.
Born the eighth of 10 children, he was the latest in a line of Irish immigrants who had first landed in Philadelphia before the country was founded. His father, Cicero, came to Tallahatchie County in the 1830s, according to family papers. It was frontier territory, heavily forested, lightly populated, with most roads not much more than deer trails.
It was also a land of slave labor.
The University of Virginia’s 1860 census analysis counts 495 white families in Tallahatchie County — among them 360 slaveholders. Blacks outnumbered whites nearly 2 to 1.
The Neeleys appear to have been small-timers who likely did not own slaves, and most certainly didn’t own any sort of plantation. Cicero lists himself as a “farmer” in the 1850 census, but the tax rolls don’t count him as a land or slave owner (who had to pay 60 cents of tax on each slave). In the 1844 and 1851 county tax rolls, he is listed as a land owner, but still without slaves, and his taxes were a trifle. It seems clear he was not a rich man.
He died late in 1851, at the age of 43. His widow, Nancy, died five years later. John was 12 when his mother died, and the family seems to have come apart.
In the 1860 census, he is shown living with another family, identified as a “farm laborer.” His 13-year-old brother, Pallas, is shown living with yet another family. His big brother, Allen, at 24, is married with a child, listing himself as a farmer. It’s worth noting that he did not or could not make room for his younger siblings.
For young John, the war must have seemed a world of possibility.
The Army of Northern Virginia marched north in the early summer of 1863, crossing into Union territory. Lee was looking for the Army of the Potomac so he could destroy it. He finally stumbled across the Yankees at the road and rail depot of Gettysburg. Fighting broke out July 1. Tens of thousands of troops from each army poured into the area, taking up positions on opposing ridges that were about a mile apart. The Rebels were on the western ridge, the Yankees on the eastern.
On July 2, Brig. Gen. William Barksdale brought his Mississippi brigade to its assigned spot on the Confederate line about a mile south of town, in Pitzer’s Woods. There were a few thousand Confederates farther to their right, marking the extreme bottom edge of the battlefield.
Six hundred yards in front of Barksdale, across an open field, were Union guns, massed at their most forward point near a peach orchard.
About 3:30 p.m., the Confederate artillery started bombarding Union positions, which drew Union retaliation. Plumes of smoke swayed in the heat. Neither side could see the other clearly.
The Confederate attack started at 4 p.m., with the far right side of the line charging toward a rocky hill called Little Round Top and a field of wheat. The rest were to follow in staggered succession, a rolling attack from the Confederate right to left. Barksdale’s Mississippi brigade would be among the last to go.
An hour passed, then two. Barksdale chafed as shells rained down on his men. “I wish you would let me go in, General,” he said to James Longstreet, the corps commander, as quoted in historian Shelby Foote’s classic account of the war. “I will take that battery in five minutes.”
“Wait a little,” Longstreet replied. “We are all going in presently.”
The battery Barksdale was referring to was almost certainly the cannons of the First Rhode Island Light Artillery, according to several histories, including “Gettysburg: The Second Day,” by historian Harry W. Pfanz. The unit had six Napoleon cannons, set over a space of about 150 yards along the Emmitsburg Road.
Around 5:30 p.m., one of those Rhode Island guns fired long. The shell — probably a basic round ball, about 12 pounds (5.4 kg) and 4.6 inches (11.6 cm) across — arced over its intended target, the Confederate artillery positions, and into Pitzer’s Woods. It detonated into the 21st Mississippi.
“The shell exploded in the ranks of my company, near me,” soldier J.B. Booth later wrote, as quoted in “The Key to the Entire Situation: The Peach Orchard, July 2, 1863,” a seminar paper by Eric A. Campbell, a historian and ranger at Gettysburg National Military Park.
“J.T. Worley was killed and Capt. H.H. Simmons, John H. Thompson and John T. Neely each lost a leg. … By the same shot there were other casualties.”
John’s left leg was blown apart below the knee, the hot shrapnel shattering the bones.
Minutes later, Barksdale finally led the Mississippi Brigade out of the woods at a run. The field was uneven and slightly uphill.
They overwhelmed Bucklyn’s Battery, they fought past infantry regiments from Pennsylvania. The 21st cleared a small rise, wiping out another Union line. They whipped down on the Trostle farmhouse, the fighting now hand to hand.
They got to a creek called Plum Run in a bushy swale, took it and made it further toward Cemetery Ridge.
Col. Benjamin Humphreys, leader of the 21st, was euphoric. “No other guns or a solitary soldier could be seen before us. The Fed Army was [cut] in twain,” he later wrote, as quoted by Campbell.
But Humphreys soon noticed Union troops cutting him off to the rear. Campbell writes that he retreated to the Trostle farmhouse and sat there in disbelief, amid the dead and dying men and horses, when, at dark, he was ordered all the way back to the Peach Orchard.
Barksdale was mortally wounded, and about half of his 1,400 men were dead or injured.
Somewhere behind them in the darkness, John wavered near death.
Abrief word about Civil War medicine: No antiseptics, no sterile instruments, no hand washing.
Surgeons were proficient at amputations because they did so many — more than 30,000 in the Union army alone.
They knocked you out with chloroform, cut through the skin and muscle with a scalpel and used a saw to hack through the bone. Then they pulled a loose flap of skin over and sewed it up, leaving a hole for pus and drainage. It took about 15 minutes. They tossed the dead limbs in a pile.
This is what happened to John Neeley.
They left him behind, too.
Day 3 of the battle was a war-changing disaster for the Confederates. Lee retreated in a driving downpour the night of July 3. They took most of their injured — the wagon train of the maimed was 17 miles (27 km) long — but John and other critically wounded soldiers were left at the Lutheran Seminary, which had been converted into a field hospital. It was about a mile from where he had fallen.
“Amputation of left leg,” reads a prisoners-of-war roll at Seminary Hospital, dated Aug. 10, 1863. His date of capture is July 4.
This is confirmed by his regimental history. “Wounded and capt. at Gettysburg, Pa.” reads the first Company Muster Roll after the battle, Sept. 1, 1863. “Wounded at Gettysburg Pa and left in hands of enemy,” reads another.
By that time, POW records show he was admitted to Camp Letterman General Hospital in Gettysburg. “Fracture of left Tibia — ampt. leg,” reads the notation. After he was shipped to another hospital, a note specifies his leg had been amputated at the “middle third.”
A final prisoner-of-war card noted he was sent to City Point, Virginia, on March 16, 1864, as part of a prisoner exchange.
The last war record shows him admitted to Yandell Hospital in Meridian, Miss., on April 2 or 4, 1865.
Lee surrendered a few days later. The war was over. John Neeley was 20 years old.
For a one-legged orphan with no prospects, it must be said he did OK.
He went home and married Margaret Brunson, a girl two years his junior. Their first child, James, was born 16 months after the war ended. The child died before he was 2.
John drove a hack for a while, then was elected as the county’s chancery clerk in 1868, and was elected to that post three more times over the coming decades. The 1876 county tax roll lists him as having three cows, two knives, a pistol and $500 worth of “merchandise/property,” which seems to be solidly middle class. Margaret gave birth to four children by the time of her death in 1882, but John soon remarried and fathered more children.
He co-founded and was co-editor of a tiny newspaper, the True Democrat, and by 1890 ran a small inn in Charleston, the county seat (a bit of county doggerel describes him as “A Rebel with but one leg/and another on a wooden peg”). For years, a relative wrote in a family history, he “led the Confederate Memorial Day parade.”
He died in Charleston, the same town in which he was born, on June 5, 1913. He was 68.
Sounds almost bucolic, doesn’t it? Young soldier returns to small town, settles in, builds a family. But Confederates like John Neeley did not come home filled with peace and mercy.
They were seething.
Reconstruction — the freeing of slaves, the granting of civil and human rights to them, the dismantling of slavery — was violently opposed across the South, but nowhere more so than in Mississippi. It took sharp political lines. The Republican Party, the party of Abraham Lincoln, was peopled by blacks and supportive (or opportunistic) whites. Democrats were the party of angry white men.
Humphreys, who led John’s Mississippi 21st, was elected governor. Federal officials removed him from office because of his resistance to Reconstruction. The state legislature’s “Black Codes,” passed six months after the war ended, kept blacks in near bondage. Black leaders were shot, beaten and lynched.
This culminated in the “Mississippi Plan,” an orchestrated reign of terror to intimidate freed blacks and their white cohorts. Democrats swept back into power in 1875. They put in place a brutal minority-rule system of oppression, based on sharecropping, that formed the segregated South of the next century.
Here’s how that white return to power was remembered in Charleston:
“In the glorious year of 1875 came redemption and relief …. from confusion and misrule, these men of Tallahatchie re-created the county’s government, reestablished its affairs and built anew the county. … Through their toil, their sacrifice and endurance … we now enjoy the blessings of civilization.”
That’s from “A History of Tallahatchie County,” compiled by John’s daughter, Lillie, herself the chancery clerk for 16 years. I don’t think it’s hard to figure out where she might have gotten that historical viewpoint.
So, on this recent afternoon, I am walking through Pitzer’s Woods, over the ground where John fought and nearly died, and I can’t find it in my heart to think much of the man.
That flat gaze, the stern look — it seems more chilling than somber, for he, like most of his peers, failed to accept the most basic outcome of the war: They lost. Slavery lost. Black people were peers, not property. John and his compatriots dug in and doomed their Delta-born descendants, both white and black, to decades upon decades of racial fear, loathing and violence.
Those personal failures, even in that little place, a million miles away from almost anywhere, would not be lost on the nation, in ways large and small.
Here’s one: 14-year-old Emmett Till was beaten, tortured and killed near Money, Mississippi, in 1955, for allegedly whistling at a white woman. His killers, two white men, were acquitted by an all-white jury in … Tallahatchie County, in one of the courthouses where John once conducted business.
Today, Tallahatchie County still hangs on the edge of the Delta, it’s still predominantly black, it’s still small and it still isn’t anyplace you get to going anywhere else. But like the rest of the region, it has morphed into the modern world.
Mississippi usually has the most black elected officials of any state in the nation, and this representation is based in and around the predominantly black Delta. Tallahatchie County went for Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president, at 60 percent in the 2012 election.
This political and social reality is not a place John T. Neeley would recognize, and that is why, getting back in the car after a hike across the battlefield that defined him, I am glad to try to leave him and his stern gaze here, in the past, in a place of lost memories and lost causes.