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Connecting with the Past

Spring 2012 | By William Meiners. Photo by Allen Gathman of Ruggles Battery at Shiloh.

Various memorials and tributes will continue through 2015 to mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, which was fought from 1861 to 1865. For historians and students of history alike, the sesquicentennial is a good opportunity to look more closely at those dark days of a nation divided.

Over consecutive spring breaks (2011 and 2012), Caroline Janney, associate professor of history, has taken 30 students to the site of the Battle of Shiloh. By walking the southern Tennessee battlefield, students gain a better understanding of the war, and often experience a more personal connection to it.

Janney's own connection to the Civil War is indeed personal. She grew up in the Shenandoah Valley, surrounded by battlefields. Alongside her grandfather, a U.S. Marine who fought at Iwo Jima and Saipan in World War II, she visited the hallowed fields of Gettysburg and Antietam. As a historian, she's spent much of her professional career examining how the war is memorialized and remembered.

"Two of the bloodiest days of the Civil War were fought at Shiloh," Janney says. "The Confederates witnessed 10,700 casualties and the Federals had 12,500, a number that included those killed, captured, or wounded."

From a historical and tactical standpoint, Shiloh (named for the Methodist church there that was dismantled to make coffins for fallen soldiers) was one of the first major battles in the western theater. What looked to be a Confederate victory on day one reversed when 20,000 Federal reinforcements arrived on day two, Janney says. It also marked the beginnings of the Anaconda Plan, which sought to strangle the South by cutting off ports and advancing troops along the Mississippi River.

Students exploring battlefield topography can visualize battle-day decisions. And the scenic reality often hits home. "Some become quite emotional," Janney says. "I had a couple of students who were in ROTC or the reserves. Civil War soldiers were roughly the same age as our students, about 21 years old. So they often make a visceral connection."

Janney has also witnessed a heightened student interest in the Civil War after the field trip. "There's something about being on the landscape and feeling that personal connection," she says. "These are sites of memory that give us a more intimate connection with the past."

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