There was a cold spring wind blowing one day in April quite a few years ago as my aunt introduced me to the hilltop cemetery at Rude’s Hill, Virginia. Located in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley, it contained a number of our Neff ancestors. These people were not in our direct family line, as my great-great grandfather Jacob Neff had moved his family from the Shenandoah Valley over the Blue Ridge mountains in 1847 and established a farm in what later became Upshur County, West Virginia. But these were still Neff relatives and therefore our people. My aunt stopped in front of the grave of John Francis Neff. The dates read 1834 – 1862. My aunt, the historian in the family, said that her research indicated that he had been a colonel in the Confederate Army and that he had been court-martialed. She didn’t know the cause of the court martial. She speculated that he had probably deserted his post in the heat of battle. And so the reputation of John Francis Neff and the details of his life remained unknown to our branch of the family until we discovered the wonderful book called Valley of the Shadow by Ray A. Neff.
In the book the author describes a bright young man eager to learn and anxious for every advantage he could create for himself in life. Though his parents were staunch Mennonites, when they took their turn boarding the local school teacher John quickly agreed with the teacher’s recommendation that he continue his studies at the Virginia Military Institute. As a pacifist, John’s father could not support his son’s plan to attend a military college, but John held firm and as he prepared to leave the farm his father, with tears in his eyes, brought out his best horse and handed the reigns to his son.
John Francis Neff
John prospered in his education and developed a deep and abiding respect for his favorite instructor, Stonewall Jackson. When war broke out, he followed him into the Confederate Army. In 1861 he married his sweetheart Anna Branner at the Army post at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. There was no time for proper family life, and John and Anna were able to spend very little time together as husband and wife.
Prior to the Second Battle of Manassas, John was given two different orders by two different senior officers. It would have been impossible to complete both assignments, so John chose to obey to orders of the officer with the highest rank. The other officer, unhappy with John’s choice, chose to court-martial him. He was placed under guard and a trial date was set. Anna came for the hearing. John’s commanding officer is quoted as saying that he didn’t like it when wives came to visit their husbands on the battlefield and that he would like to have set a rule to keep them away, but as their husbands might perish the following day, he could hardly keep them apart the night before. As it turned out, the details of the court-martial quickly became obvious and John’s name was cleared and his rank and reputation restored. Then, sadly, days later, he was killed by a sniper’s bullet during the Second Battle of Manassas.
And so we learned the cause of John’s court martial and the sad conclusion of his short life. It was hardly an unusual story during the Civil War. In fact, it was all too common among the many casualties that brutal war produced. It is estimated that 2% of the population, or 620,000 men, died during the conflict from wounds or disease.
One day I hope to take my own children to visit that cemetery on Rude's Hill. I look forward to showing them the grave of John Francis Neff and explaining to them the circumstances of his life and death. In fact, his grave helped to save his family home when the Union Army swept through the Shenandoah Valley several years later. But that is a story for another blog.