As president of the American Veterans Center, the organization that produces the National Memorial Day Parade in Washington D.C., I am sometimes questioned as to why we include Confederate reenactors in our timeline of American military history. I reply that we strive to be historically accurate; that the Civil War is indisputably one of the monumental (though tragic) events in American military history; and that the Confederate soldiers, though misguided, regarded themselves as Americans who honored George Washington and the Founders, who believed in the Constitution. We also honor the Native Americans and the Buffalo Soldiers who fought them.
Moreover, though most Americans don’t know about it, there is a large section of Arlington National Cemetery reserved for Confederate dead and that on Memorial Day almost every president since Woodrow Wilson — including Barack Obama — has sent a wreath to be laid at the memorial.
The Civil War was an interfamily war that not only divided the country, but which also set brother against brother. A story that personifies the tragic internecine split involves my alma mater, Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. A story told best by the late Philip Shriver, a former president of the university. Located only 37 miles north of Cincinnati, which is across the Ohio River from the slave-holding state of Kentucky, Miami was probably more affected by the Civil War than any other college. Twenty-five percent of the student body at the time came from below the Mason-Dixon line and the Civil War split the Miami faculty and student body (then male-only), many whom went on to serve in the military of both sides. Amazingly the alumni of this small institution produced 10 generals in the Union army, three generals in the Confederate army, two of three of the Union’s Navy’s admirals, two of Lincoln’s Cabinet members and six of the 33 governors.
When war broke out on April 13, 1861, 160 students, loyal to the Union and local farmers formed the University Rifle Company and began drilling on the north side of the main campus building. Pro-Confederate students and townsmen began drilling on the south side of the building. On April 19, both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis issued calls for volunteers and on April 22, the junior and senior men of Miami marched side by side to the local train station. They took the train to nearby Hamilton which was on the north-south train routes and, in the words of Philip Shriver, “When they descended the platforms at Hamilton, they said their good-byes to their roommates, fraternity brothers and best friends, and parted ways.”
The pro-Union students took the train north to Columbus where they were inducted into the 20th Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment. The pro-southern Miami men took the train to Cincinnati where they caught another train bound for Nashville, Tennessee. Upon arrival, they entered regiments of the new Confederate army.
Almost a year later many of these young men — former roommates and good friends — would face off on opposite sides in the Battle of Shiloh. The 81st Ohio Regiment, which included the men of Miami’s University Rifle Company, defeated the 20th Tennessee Regiment and captured it commanding officer — Col. Joel A. Battle. As the colonel was being escorted to the Union regimental headquarters he heard some of the soldiers talking about Miami. Battle yelled, “Are you the Oxford Company?”
When they answered yes, he asked them, “Do you know my son Joel, a member of Beta Theta Pi at Miami?” The men replied that they did and Battle cried out to them, “My son has fallen out there in the field. Will you find him and bury him?” The Miami men searched the battlefield until they found the body of Joel Battle Jr. and two of his fraternity brothers, J.C. Lewis and Cliff Ross buried him under a huge oak tree in a coffin they fashioned out of hardtack boxes. Joe Battle’s remains lie there still. This poignant story perfectly embodies the tragic story of the Civil War, which pitted best friend against best friend, brother against brother. In the end, however, they could still be true to each other, and they were all Americans.
• James C. Roberts is the president of American Veterans Center, a nonprofit founded in 1978 that works to preserve the legacy of all American veterans, and puts on the National Memorial Day Parade in Washington D.C.
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