Colonel John Francis Neff: Hero and Excommunicant

On the morning of August 28, 1862, while his brigade reposed under the cover of some trees near the Brawner Farm at Groveton, Virginia, Colonel John Neff and the 33rd Virginia Infantry lay “in line of battle, anticipating an attack.”  The regimental surgeon approached Colonel Neff and, “examined his pulse, and told him that in his condition he should not entertain the idea of doing any service that day.” The physician failed, it should be noted, to extract a promise from him that he would not participate. “It was but a short time ere the brigade was ordered to charge, and Colonel Neff, as he was wont to do, sprang to his feet, and repeated, in his clear, sonorous voice, the word of command which came ringing down the line. It was with a shout such as the Stonewall Brigade was famous for that the charge was made. On approaching a fence, amid a terrific fire of artillery and small-arms, Colonel Neff stopped in an exposed position, and Captain David Walker, in passing him, inquired if he had any orders to communicate.” Neff replied: “None; go to the fence and do whatever you may regard as necessary to be done.” Those were, most likely, his final utterances.

Battle of Brawner’s Farm, August 28, 1862

https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/legend-born-brawners-farm

Following the battle, the inquiry was made, “Where is Colonel Neff?” “No one could respond satisfactorily to it. Strange to tell, was the exclamation, that he was not, as was his habit, moving among his troops and cheering them on to duty and victory. A match was struck and a candle lighted, and he was found in the icy embrace of death just at the spot where the writer (Captain Walker) had passed him. The fearful mystery was solved. Though many had fallen, and there were many expressions of regret, for none of the fallen heroes of that hour were there more heart-felt expressions of sympathy and regret than for Colonel John F. Neff.”

“A promise made him, and which was mutual in its character, when contemplating the uncertainties of life, had to be fulfilled then and there. The living image of her who was nearest his big heart must be secured, and the ring which she had placed upon his finger had to be taken off and conveyed as sad mementos to her of a love and plighted faith which could only be quenched or removed by the king of terrors. His remains were removed to a grassy spot in the woods from which he had made his last charge with his command, and there interred, in a carefully-marked spot.”

This notable military commander, John Francis Neff, was born September 5, 1834, at Rude’s Hill, on the banks of the North Fork of the Shenandoah River in Mt. Jackson, Virginia. He was the son of John Neff and Catherine Wine. His home, located just across the Shenandoah River west of Rude’s Hill, was a modest red brick house which had been built in 1847. His residence on the North Fork was within view of Meem’s Bottom and Mount Airy.

Neff Family Home at Rude’s Hill

The Neff family name is a common last name in the Shenandoah Valley. It is said “the name is the synonym of honesty, industry, and hospitality.” John’s father was a deacon in the Church of the Brethren and was said to be “a man of pacifist leanings.” The church, “correctly called the German Baptist Church, practices total triple immersion. Hence, its members are known as Tunkers or Dunkers, which has been corrupted to Dunkards.” In times of war, the Brethren encourage their children to resist direct military participation, yet dutifully serve their country in the role of a Conscientious Objector. During the Civil War members of this religious group differed significantly with Confederate officials in Richmond regarding their conscientious status and the bearing arms.

Cedar Grove Church of the Brethren which was attended by John and his family.

Southern conscription laws were more stringent than those of the North due to the scarcity of able-bodied men. “Some Dunkard’s were drafted into the army under protest, with the understanding among themselves that they would not shoot.” This no-shooting pledge was practiced by enough Dunkard’s and Mennonites, for example, to cause General Stonewall Jackson to say: “There lives a people in the Valley of Virginia that are not hard to bring to the army. While there they are obedient to their officers. Nor is it difficult to have them take aim, but it is impossible to get them to take correct aim.” General Jackson recognized this and recommended allowing pacifists to generate supplies or to serve as non-combatants.

Not all Dunker’s and Mennonites, however, refused to fight. Those that did battle for the Confederacy faced many challenges. Most were excommunicated by their church. One Brethren from the Shenandoah Valley noted: “In 1861 I was acquainted with a young brother who afterward enlisted in the army. He was excommunicated from the church…He died on the battlefield fighting for his country. He died as a patriot, which from the standpoint of the world is the noblest death a man can die, even though an excommunicated member—excommunicated because he was disobedient to the teachings of the Son of God.”

It is recorded that John Neff “applied himself well at a nearby country school and when the time came, he expressed an interest in higher education. As most schools included some military training in their curriculum his father was against the idea.” John appealed to General John Meem, a neighbor, who was a member of the Board of Visitors at the Virginia Military Institute. General Meem made several unsuccessful attempts to secure a state scholarship for him. “When these attempts failed John entered the bedroom of his sleeping father and removed $200 from the latter’s pocketbook, for which he substituted his personal note in that amount at 6% interest.” John took the money and headed south.

Not long after John’s departure, though, he received a letter from his father. “Who can imagine the joy which swelled the breast and beamed in the sunny countenance of the young adventurer upon the reception and perusal of a letter from his father bidding him come home, and assuring him that the necessary means would be furnished to enable him to take the regular course at the Virginia Military Institute?” “John returned to the home which he had forsaken, assured of his father’s ability to perform the promise made him.” “It was but a short time before young Neff was where he had longed to be, enjoying the advantages of one of the best institutions of the kind in the South, and within the moulding influence of men who have since shed a lustre upon the page of their country’s history which will be undimmed by the lapse of time.”

John graduated fourth in a class of nineteen from the Virginia Military Institute in 1858. One of his instructors there, and one of his forthcoming commanders, would have been Thomas Jackson. After graduating from VMI, he remained in Lexington and began a new career. There he entered the law-class of Judge J. W. Brokenbrough and obtained a license to practice law. John did not solicit his newfound occupation in Virginia but did so in the City of New Orleans. Later he traveled to Baton Rouge, and finally to Memphis, Tennessee. Here he formed a business association with James H. Unthank and continued with him until the commencement of the Civil War.

With the coming of war, John returned to Virginia, where he obtained from Governor Letcher, a commission as a drill-officer, and was ordered to report for duty to General Thomas Jackson who commanded the army at Harper’s Ferry. “He lingered but a day or two at home on his way to Harper’s Ferry, and then, with other graduates of the Virginia Military Institute, engaged in the important work of drilling the patriotic officers and men with reference to the mighty conflict which was at hand.”

The 33rd Virginia Infantry Regiment was organized during the early summer of 1861 with men from Hampshire, Shenandoah, Frederick, Hardy, Page, and Rockingham counties. John would join this regiment serving as its adjutant. Arthur C. Cummings would be its first colonel. “Cummings had served in the Mexican War rising to rank of Brevet Major. He had also been a member of the Virginia State Militia obtaining the grade of Colonel. Prior to the war he had practiced law in Washington County Virginia.”

The 33rd Virginia Regiment, served in what would soon be known as the Stonewall Brigade, and was active at the Battle of First Manassas. It is recorded that Neff’s conduct at Manassas “epitomized his conduct and bearing in every subsequent engagement in which he participated. He did not seem to partake of that wild enthusiasm which seized and possessed almost every other individual in his command. Cool, calm, and collected, he discharged the duties of his position very much after the style with which he discharged them in the camp or bivouac He had too much pride of character to shrink from danger, and this is, after all, the sum total of courage.”

Wartime Photo of Colonel John Neff

Sergeant Major Randolph Barton recalled the attack of the 33rd at Manassas. “The shrill cry of Colonel Cummings was heard, ‘Charge!’ And away the regiment went, firing as they ran, into the ranks of the enemy.” The rest of Jackson’s Brigade soon followed and before long the enemy was in full retreat. Barton credited Cummings as having “turned the tide of battle at First Manassas,” and added, “I should think to Colonel Cummings the circumstance would be of extraordinary interest, and that he would time and again reflect how little he thought, when he braced himself to give the order to his regiment, that he was making a long page in history.”

On March 21, 1862, news from Turner Ashby’s cavalry scouts suggested that Federals, were reducing their strength in Winchester to reinforce Union operations against Richmond. Stonewall Jackson launched an attack against Union forces situated at Kernstown, a few miles south of Winchester, on March 23. “The 33rd played a large role in holding a stone wall against overwhelming numbers, until being ordered to retire as their ammunition was expended.” John Neff escaped injury, but the regiment suffered 23 killed, 12 wounded and 18 captured out of the 275 engaged.

1st Battle of Kernstown

https://www.essentialcivilwarcurriculum.com/the-battle-of-first-kernstown.html

Following Kernstown Colonel Cummings resigned his commission to serve in the Virginia legislature. Neff was elected to Colonel on April 22, during the reorganization of the 33rd Virginia. At twenty-seven, he was the youngest regimental commander in the Stonewall Brigade. “The determination of Colonel C. momentarily cast a gloom over his command, and all eyes were turned upon Colonel Neff as the most suitable person to take his position as commandant of the regiment. This circumstance of itself speaks volumes, when it is remembered that Colonel Neff, though among the youngest officers in the command, was thought to be the man for a position which had been so conspicuously filled by a veteran soldier and officer. Election-day came, and with scarcely a dissentient voice he was elevated to the position. Colonel Neff did not seek the position; it sought him.”

John would lead his regiment throughout the remainder of Jackson’s Valley Campaign. Though not actively engaged at McDowell and Front Royal, Neff had his first experience commanding men in battle at 1st Winchester on May 25. The 33rd Virginia was posted on the right of Jackson’s line not far from the Valley Pike. “Early on in the fight General Jackson came to Colonel Neff and pointing to the high ground at Bower’s Hill shouted: ‘I expect the enemy to bring artillery to occupy that hill, and they must not do it! Do you understand me sir? Keep a good lookout, and your men well in hand, and if they attempt to come, charge them with bayonet and seize their guns. Clamp them, sir, on the spot!’” When the final attack was ordered Colonel Neff led his soldiers to victory.

Battle of 1st Winchester May 25, 1862

https://www.nps.gov/cebe/learn/historyculture/first-battle-of-winchester.htm

Following the 1st Battle of Winchester, the Stonewall Brigade would advance to Harpers Ferry. They would arrive on the 28th and would remain for just two days. At noon on the 30th Jackson ordered his army to retreat to Winchester out of concern that his band would have its retreat cut off by two converging Union legions. Winder’s Brigade, including the 33rd Virginia, was directed to stay behind and skirmish along Bolivar Heights to screen Jackson’s withdrawal. It was not until mid-morning of the 31st that the Stonewall Brigade, and the overlooked 1st Maryland, would begin one of the longest marches of the war. By midnight of that day, they had walked and sprinted, most without food, more than thirty-five miles in just sixteen hours, all the way to Newtown (now Steven’s City). This triumph would empower his men to claim the moniker of “Jackson’s foot cavalry.”

Position of the 33rd Virginia on the Morning of June 9 during the Battle of Port Republic

Neff’s regiment retreated to Port Republic with the rest of Jackson’s Army. While the Battle of Cross Keys was in process the 33rd Virginia was sent to guard the fords below Port Republic to ensure Shields soldiers could not cross the Shenandoah and join up with Fremont. “Colonel Neff was ordered to take his regiment and guard the several fords of the Shenandoah a few miles below Port Republic. It was a responsible position, but entrusted to one who, though young in command, had won the confidence of his superiors, and who, if occasion had required, would have demonstrated, as he had done before and as he did subsequently, that he was the right man in the right place.”

General Shields did not make a second attempt to cross the Shenandoah. Colonel Neff, late in the evening on June 8, was ordered to join with his brigade at Port Republic. “He did so, but after nightfall was ordered to reoccupy the position which he had held during the day. It was late at night before he made such disposition of his troops as promised freedom from surprise and successful attack.”

“The sun was shining brightly the next morning when he awoke, and he at once inquired, ‘No marching orders yet?’ and upon being told that none had been received, he replied that General Winder had certainly forgotten him and his command. He communicated with him and found the fact to be as he supposed. Learning that his brigade was marching, with orders to engage the enemy when he met him, on the opposite side of the river, with the greatest promptitude he collected his troops and set out to join it.”

Neff “found General Ewell’s troops crossing the foot bridge which had been thrown across the river. Not willing to wait on said troops, he asked and obtained permission to cross his troops contemporaneously. He crossed first, having ordered his troops to follow as rapidly as possible. When the last were thus crossed over, Colonel Neff having personally superintended their alignment, the regiment moved off at a double-quick step.” Unfortunately, by the time the 33rd regiment arrived on the field the battle had been won.

Neff and his command would subsequently fight in the Seven Days Campaign. In the interim between its conclusion and the Battle of Cedar Mountain he was assigned to court martial duty following Jackson’s relocation to Gordonsville. “I was president of the court martial called by General Jackson,” wrote Neff to his parents, “and was therefore excused from other duties, but General Winder insisted that I still should attend to my other duties, some of which it was impossible for me to do and I determined to test the matter, knowing I was right to obey the command of superior before an inferior officer.”

General Winder arrested Neff for dereliction of duty. “I shall have a trial by court martial and feel sure I will come out all right.” Still under arrest on August 9, as Jackson’s army approached Cedar Mountain, Colonel Neff prepared to meet the enemy as an unarmed member of the regiment. Being under arrest John was not allowed a weapon. “His presence with the men under such circumstances,” wrote Captain David Walton of Company K “inspired them with an ardor and enthusiasm which, perhaps, they never manifested before in so eminent a degree. It requires the most genuine courage to withstand a deluging shower of leaden rain and iron hail without arms.”

Colonel Neff was restored to command following the death of General Winder. However, long marches and lack of sleep had prostrated Colonel Neff” by the time of the Battle of Brawner’s Farm. John ignored the advice of the regimental surgeon and chose to fight with his men. John Neff had not yet reached 28 years of his age. “He was in command of his regiment – the 33rd- when he was killed. He fell pierced by a ball which entered the lower part of the left neck bone, and came out near his right ear, producing instantaneous death. He was killed after dark, while gallantly leading his regiment in a charge upon the retreating enemy.”

John’s father retrieved his sons remains from the battlefield at Brawner’s Farm. As John’s church felt he had violated their conviction that Brethren should resist direct military participation it resisted the idea of allowing John’s body to be buried in the church cemetery. Instead, he was buried in the family graveyard with his parents. It was not until the 1890’s that the religious community reconsidered and allowed John Neff’s corpse to be buried in Cedar Grove Cemetery on the summit of Rude’s Hill. John’s body, one whom had offered up the ultimate sacrifice for a cause he believed in, had finally ended its journey. His obituary is particularly fitting.

Final Resting Spot for Colonel John Neff.

Obituary : ROCKINGHAM REGISTER – Harrisonburg, VA
Friday Morning September 10, 1862
“The late Colonel Neff”
“Col. John F. Neff, who was killed in the battle of Manassas Junction on Thursday the 28st of August, was the son of Rev. John Neff of Shenandoah county, and had not yet reached the 28th year of his age. He was in command of his regiment – the 33rd- when he was killed. He fell pierced by a ball which entered the lower part of the left neck bone, and came out near his right ear, producing instantaneous death. He was killed after dark, while gallantly leading his regiment in a charge upon the retreating enemy. His body was brought home for burial, and now rests in the FAMILY GRAVEYARD not far from Mt. Jackson. He was a single man and had served his country faithfully up to the hour of his death. He leaves many friends to lament his early death. Peace to his memory.”

References:

Cozzens, Peter. Shenandoah 1862: Stonewall Jackson’s Valley Campaign. University of North Carolina Press. Chapel Hill. 2008.

Tanner, Robert, Stonewall in the Valley: Thomas J Stonewall Jackson’s Shenandoah Valley Campaign, Spring 1862. Stackpole Books. 2002.

http://genealogytrails.com/vir/shenandoah/bios_n.html

https://www.battlefields.org/learn/maps/second-manassas-aug-28-1862-brawners-farm

http://thirdwaycafe.com/prepare-for-peace/history/civil-war/

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