Neff, John R.
Neff, John R.
Office—Department of History, University of Mississippi, 322 Bishop Hall, University, MS 38677; fax: 662-915-7033. E-mail—[email protected]
University of Mississippi, associate professor of history.
Honoring the Civil War Dead: Commemoration and the Problem of Reconciliation, University Press of Kansas (Lawrence, KS), 2005.
John R. Neff is a historian whose graduate and undergraduate courses focus on the American nineteenth century generally and the American Civil War specifically. Reflecting his interest in historical memory, Neff also offers a film series exploring popular perceptions of the Civil War, and hosts an annual Civil War conference on the University of Mississippi campus.
Neff's interest in public commemoration led to his first book, Honoring the Civil War Dead: Commemoration and the Problem of Reconciliation. In this work, Neff argues that understanding the individual and communal sentiments embodied by the commemoration of the Civil War soldier dead reveals much of that war's significance to those who survived the conflict, and illuminates many of the contested interpretations of the war today. Neff addresses the enormity of death in the Civil War, and how the deeply felt passions of those who had lost loved ones shaped postwar commemorative efforts, often resulting in distinctive burial and memorial traditions among Union and formerly Confederate populations. Northern and southern soldiers were buried separately; the Union soldiers were buried in federally funded national cemeteries, ensuring that all subsequent memorial efforts would result in discrete and distinct traditions.
Although the southern mythology of the "Lost Cause" is better known, Neff discusses the mythology of the northern postwar survivors, who asserted that the "Cause Victorious" had resulted in a unified nation, even while the nation struggled with the social and political inclusion of Confederates and formerly enslaved African Americans. Neff posits that the continuation of separate burials and memorial ceremonies, as well as the general reluctance of survivors to overlook the pain inflicted by the enemy, helped to maintain sharp divisions between North and South.
Richard Byrne reviewed the history in the Chronicle of Higher Education, noting: "Mr. Neff says that the overwhelming number of deaths—620,000 in four years—overturned ‘everything that Americans had come to think about death.’ In addition to the callous burials of enemy dead, mourning on a vast scale and disruption of ritual stymied quick reconciliation and exacerbated competing nationalist narratives of the conflict…. By focusing on the marked disunities of commemoration of the Union and Confederate dead, he traces the lingering resentments that blossomed into each side's respective cultivation of the myths of the ‘Cause Victorious’ and the ‘Lost Cause.’"
In reviewing this volume in History: Review of New Books, Jane Turner Censer commented that it "explores different aspects of historical memory and makes new and important contributions to the burgeoning literature." Censer felt, however, that it would have benefited from the inclusion of more discussion of "women's commemorative roles."
Darlene Richardson reviewed Honoring the Civil War Dead for H-Net: Humanities and Social Sciences Online. She concluded that it "is an excellent resource for anyone studying the Civil War and especially for those interested in the culture of death and commemoration in America." She noted that Neff "pools his information from many disciplines and presents it in a comprehensible narrative that would benefit scholars, laypeople, and students. His book will help many to understand how America's reverence and policies to reward its soldiers and veterans fully bloomed during and after the Civil War."
"Neff's research is incredibly thorough," commented Edward F. Haas in the Historian. Haas concluded his review by writing: "This work is a solid contribution that all who hope to understand the memory of the Civil War in the American mind must read and perhaps reread with great care."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
American Historical Review, December, 2005, Nina Silber, review of Honoring the Civil War Dead: Commemoration and the Problem of Reconciliation, p. 1534.
Choice, February, 2006, M. Kachun, review of Honoring the Civil War Dead, p. 1074.
Chronicle of Higher Education, April 29, 2005, Richard Byrne, review of Honoring the Civil War Dead.
Historian, summer, 2006, Edward F. Haas, review of Honoring the Civil War Dead, p. 352.
History: Review of New Books, fall, 2005, Jane Turner Censer, review of Honoring the Civil War Dead, p. 12.
Journal of American History, June, 2006, Joan Waugh, review of Honoring the Civil War Dead, p. 220.
Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Thomas J. Brown, review of Honoring the Civil War Dead, p. 471.
Journal of Military History, April, 2006, Frances M. Clarke, review of Honoring the Civil War Dead, p. 516.
Journal of Southern History, August, 2006, Susan-Mary Grant, review of Honoring the Civil War Dead, p. 685.
Civil War News Online,http://www.civilwarnews.com/ (April 12, 2008), Richard McMurry, review of Honoring the Civil War Dead.
H-Net: Humanities and Social Sciences Online,http://www.h-net.org/ (April 12, 2008), Lisa M. Budreau, review of Honoring the Civil War Dead, and Darlene Richardson, review of Honoring the Civil War Dead.
University of Mississippi Department of History Web site,http://www.olemiss.edu/depts/history/ (April 12, 2008), author's course descriptions.