Dr. John Neff’s colleagues say he was against erecting individual graves in UM Confederate cemetery

Published 9:29 am Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Faculty in the University of Mississippi Department of History released a statement on July 13 in an effort to set the record straight about Dr. John Neff’s involvement in the cemetery enhancement plans.

The statement states that “recent efforts to posthumously weaponize [Neff’s] authority to provide cover for a plan he spent years of his life fighting are an insult to his scholarship as well as his character.”

Neff, who died suddenly on Jan. 30, 2020, was a leading authority on death, mourning and Civil War memory. Founder of the UM Center for Civil War Research, he argued that efforts to individualize and dignify the Confederate dead distorted Civil War history in order to distract from the Confederacy’s association with racism and treason.

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Faculty members of the University’s history department said in the letter that they felt it was important to address the issue, and to see that his work on the project is not manipulated or forgotten.

“John strove to ensure that respect was shown to the Civil War dead on our campus and fought to let the soldiers rest in peace,” the letter read. “It is time for the University to extend the same respect to him. It is time for the administration to respect John’s legacy and embrace his vision for the betterment of the University of Mississippi and its community.”

The letter went on to say Neff’s position was that, although the graves are unmarked and have been for years, “they were no less honored for being anonymous.”

It was his knowledge and expertise that made Neff an ideal chair of the Work Group for the Cemetery Headstone Project, according to his colleagues. Neff was the only work group member with deep knowledge of Civil War record-keeping, burial and commemoration practices and archival research experience.

“His rigor and commitment to honoring the evidence — whatever it was — ensured that as long as he was chair, the University would present an interpretation of the Civil War cemetery on campus that was rooted in sources and scholarship,” the letter said.

Neff conducted thorough research and found that no evidence exists that could establish how many occupied graves remain in the Confederate cemetery on campus, or who is buried there. He considered the placement of new, individual headstones a desecration, the letter read, and expressed his disapproval of the headstones and insisted he would never sanction their installation, even upon forfeiture of his professorship.

“If he were here today, he would hold the University accountable for the reckless nature and divisive consequences of this plan,” the letter said. “Just as John championed those he cared for, and helped them grow beyond their complacent boundaries, he would encourage our University to do the same. John believed that handling this situation with selflessness, clarity, and respect would be an opportunity to unify our community and set a precedent for excellence in the future.”

45 department of history faculty members signed the statement, which can be read in full here.