published Friday, September 20th, 2013

Civil War ties call to families: Relatives from afar making pilgrimage to Chickamauga

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    During a photo shoot, Jo Taylor, Elaine Toland, Paul Erckman and Cathy Callen examine photographs of their common ancestor Andrew Jackson Neff on Thursday.
    Photo by C. B. Schmelter.
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Cathy Callen always knew her family had history in Tennessee.

But she didn't know how deep it ran until 2006 when, inspired by a visit to Knoxville, Callen dug into a metal box full of old family letters, documents and photographs she got after her father's death.

It turned out that her great-grandfather, Andrew Jackson Neff, in 1883 founded the Maryville Times, progenitor of the daily newspaper still published in Maryville, Tenn.

He also fought for the Union at the Battle of Chickamauga with the 84th Indiana Regiment, Granger's Reserve Corps. During battle, Neff was put in charge of the regiment after its colonel took ill. Neff later was breveted, or given the honorary rank of brigadier general, for his efforts to support Gen. George Thomas, the so-called "Rock of Chickamauga."

"If he had been killed along with the others, I would never have been born," said Callen, of Lawrence, Kan., a retired teacher and special education program coordinator for the Topeka Public Schools.

Callen and nine relatives from four states -- some of whom have never met -- came to Chattanooga on Thursday in remembrance of Andrew Jackson Neff. The relatives are staying in a vacation rental house in North Chattanooga and plan to tour the Chickamauga Battlefield today and then attend the battle re-enactment this weekend at Mountain Cove Farms.

"It is kind of funny when you look at a bunch of people getting together for something like this," Callen said. "I've inspired all of my relatives that are so distantly related that you'd have to look at a chart to figure it out."

Andrew Jackson Neff's descendants aren't the only visitors from afar who are making a pilgrimage for the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Chickamauga to honor their forebears who fought there.

"We get a lot of that," said John Culpepper, who's in charge of the re-enactment. "There's going to be quite a few of those folks come because their ancestor was involved in the battle."

A family of 20 is coming from Texas, he said, and other descendants are coming from places such as California and Delaware.

"They get into the family history and say, 'Hey, I didn't know my grandfather fought in the Civil War,'" Culpepper said.

Culpepper, who's retiring soon from his longtime job as city manager of Chickamauga, Ga., said it's common for people to take an interest in their ancestry as they get older and are freed from the pressing tasks of raising children and working full time.

"I think we all get to that stage in life," he said. "Where'd I come from? What's my family history?"

"Of course, in the South the war is about like SEC football," Culpepper added. "It's still in our DNA, because all of our ancestors fought in it."

That's close to the truth, according to "Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War," a 1999 book by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Tony Horwitz, who spent two years reporting on what the Civil War means in the South. Horwitz visited battle sites, museums and spent time with "hardcore" re-enactors who strive for realism to the point that they lose weight until they're gaunt and march barefoot for miles as Confederate soldiers often had to.

"Roughly half of modern-day white Southerners descended from Confederates, and one in four Southern men of military age died in the war," Horwitz writes. "For Yankee men, the death rate was about one in 10, and waves of post-war immigration left a far lower ratio of Northerners with blood ties to the conflict."

Callen recommended Horwitz's book to her relatives, to prep them for their visit.

"We're trying not to be too Yankee while we're here," she said.

Also on the relatives' reading list is Callen's first book, "Running Out of Footprints," a hardbound, 303-page look at the Neff family history that Callen released in May. It covers topics such as Andrew Jackson Neff, his seven children and the family's success in Kansas City, where Jay Holcomb Neff was mayor on the Missouri side and Frank Chaffee Neff, M.D., was a pediatrician who helped found the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Kansas Medical Center.

Callen feels like she was destined to dust off the Neff family banner. She became enamored with "larger-than-life" Andrew Jackson Neff and his sons.

"I didn't know anything about him. The only thing I knew [was] he was breveted as a general after the Battle of Chickamauga," she said. "To me, this was so long ago and so far away that I didn't even care."

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at or 423-757-6651.

about Tim Omarzu...

Tim Omarzu covers education for the Times Free Press. Omarzu is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Michigan, Nevada and California.

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