You’ll see why.
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The Confederate soldier in the family tree
On Aug. 15, 1862, John enlisted in a group of about 100 volunteers in Charleston, Miss., 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.
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 1st 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 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. The 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.