He died in Charleston, the same town in which he was born, on June 5, 1913. He was 68.
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The Confederate soldier in the family tree
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 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 recreated 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, Miss., 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 that 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.
That 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.