There are countless examples of the “fraternal fight” – brother fighting brother, friend fighting friend – that epitomized the Civil War, which began in April of 1861 with the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter in South Carolina. Among the least known, but most memorable, example is that of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, which was located not far from Ohio’s border with the slave-holding state of Kentucky. Partly as a result, when the Civil War began, hundreds of Miami U. students loyal to the Union joined the Miami University Rifle Company and began drilling on the north end of the campus. Students loyal to the Confederacy formed their own company and drilled on the south end.

Weeks into the war, President Abe Lincoln and Confederate President Jefferson Davis both called for volunteers, and Miami students from both sides marched together to the local train station, shook hands, said their goodbyes, and then the pro-Union students took a train to Columbus, Ohio, where they joined the 20th Ohio Volunteer Infantry Unit. The pro-Confederacy students headed to Nashville, Tenn., where they joined various Confederate Army regiments.

A year later many of these former Miami students, friends, fraternity brothers and roommates faced one another at the battle of Shiloh in southwestern Tennessee, where the 81st Ohio Regiment, comprising many men from the Miami University Rifle Company, defeated the 20th Tennessee Regiment, which comprised many of the pro-Confederacy Miami students.

The commander of the Tennessee Regiment, Col. Joel Battle, was captured, and as he was being escorted to Union regimental headquarters, he heard some Union soldiers talking about Miami U., so he yelled to them, “Are you the Oxford Company?” When they answered yes, he said, “Do you know my son, Joel, a member of Beta Theta Pi at Miami?” Yes, again they answered. “My son has fallen out there in the field,” Battle cried. “Will you find him and bury him?”

Yes, again they answered, and spent the rest of the day searching the battlefield until they found Joel’s body and that of two other Miami U. students. J.C. Lewis and Cliff Ross of the 81st Ohio regiment then buried their former schoolmates, and enemies, under an oak tree in a coffin they made from hardtack boxes. Joel Battle’s burial site is still in that field.

The moral of this story, told by James Roberts, president of the American Veterans Center, is that even during a period in our history as deeply divisive as was the Civil War – and the Vietnam War – we are all Americans first, something to remember every Memorial Day when we honor every single American who died in our wars, regardless of how divisive and unpopular those wars may have been.

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