He was born Nov. 10, 1944, in Amarillo, Texas. He earned his undergraduate degree in American Studies at Yale University in 1966, and his Ph.D. in history at the same school in 1973. Yale's Graduate School would award him with a Wilbur Cross Medal in 1995.
From 1971 to 1972 Neely was a visiting instructor at Iowa State University. In the latter year, he was named director of The Lincoln Museum in Fort Wayne, Indiana, a position he held for twenty years.
In 1992, Dr. Neely was named the John Francis Bannon Professor of History and American Studies at Saint Louis University. And, in 1998, he was made the McCabe Greer Professor of Civil War History at Pennsylvania State University.
Neely is best known for his 1991 book The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties, which won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Bell I. Wiley Prize the following year. In March 1991, he also published an article in the magazine Civil War History entitled "Was the Civil War a Total War?" and considered one of the top three most influential articles on the war written in the last half of the 20th Century.
- 1981 - The Abraham Lincoln Encyclopedia
- 1984 - (with Gabor S. Boritt and Harold Holzer) The Lincoln Image: Abraham Lincoln and the Popular Print
- 1986 - (with R. Gerald McMurtry) The Insanity File: The Case of Mary Todd Lincoln
- 1987 - (with Boritt and Holzer) The Confederate Image: Prints of the Lost Cause
- 1990 - (with Holzer) The Lincoln Family Album
- 1991 - The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties (winner of the Pulitzer and Wiley prizes mentioned above)
- 1993 - (with Holzer) Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: The Civil War in America
- 1993 - The Last Best Hope of Earth: Abraham Lincoln and the Promise of American (for which he received the Alpha Sigma Nu Book Award from the National Jesuit Honor Society)
- 1999 - Southern Rights: Political Prisoners and the Myth of Confederate Constitutionalism
- 2000 - (with Holzer) The Union Image: Popular Prints in the Civil War North
- 2002 - The Union Divided: Party Conflict in the Civil War North
- 2005 - The Boundaries of American Political Culture in the Civil War Era
- 2007 - The Civil War and the Limits of Destruction