The historian, antique weapons dealer, and Historical European Martial Arts master Matt Easton recently took Ancestry.com to task for a particularly sloppy advertisement wherein a gentleman named Alex is led to believe that he is “part Viking.” Easton summed up his response in a video on his YouTube channel Schola Gladiatoria: “Genetics…bit of a minefield.”
For anyone who may be getting started in genealogy, Ancestry.com provides a very useful service. Any user can quickly learn how to utilize the compiled census, marriage, birth, and death records, and how to navigate the public, open-source data. Some user-provided information found on Ancestry.com is incorrect, as can be expected, but anyone can learn how to proceed in the task of solving mysteries with no expertise required. Combined with the Ancestry-owned Fold3.com, which places at its users’ disposal all military service records from every major war of the United States, virtually anybody could begin discovering the military service of their ancestors. These services are inexpensive, and very simple to use.
Some of Ancestry.com’s activities have left a lot to be desired, however. Regarding Alex the Viking, Matt Easton rightly pointed out the fact that “viking” was a profession, and not an ethnic group. It was a particularly bad profession too, especially by the standards of their civilized victims. Vikings murdered, raped, pillaged, enslaved, and terrorized. If someone can trace their roots to an actual Viking then it is what it is, but Alex merely discovered that he is a certain percent Scandinavian. Ancestry.com should not have allowed him to go away believing that he is “part Viking” just because he is part Scandinavian.
But Alex sure did look happy.
Contrast that treatment of the Vikings with this treatment of the American Confederates on display when Ancestry.com’s Director of Education Brock Bierman walked Washington Post columnist Mike Wise through his Civil War heritage.
In 2013, Wise discovered a “yellowed document” amongst the possessions of his recently-deceased father. He explained:
It was a statement from Mamie Belle Stout, my father’s maternal grandmother, declaring that we had relatives who fought on both sides in the Civil War. My father had always told me he believed this to be true.
“Need to research further,” a notation on the document read, in his handwriting.
Wise decided to investigate the matter by sending to Ancestry.com “an incomplete family tree along with a question: Were members of my family literally brother against brother?”
Months went by before the research was complete, but I often received updates saying “we have found something interesting,” which piqued my imagination. Finally, a form titled “Family Tree Finds” appeared in my e-mail inbox. I was again teased with a message stating, “We don’t often find what we’ve found with you.” To preserve my authentic reaction to the discovery — and, frankly, because I wanted help in processing what they found — I promised I would not open the file before Brock Bierman, Ancestry.com’s director of education, explained their finds to me personally two weeks ago in The Washington Post’s television studio.
Bierman revealed that Wise is a great-great grandson of Private Samuel G. Stout who served in Company C of the 1st North Carolina Artillery Regiment, assigned to the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. Wise is also a great-great-great grandson of Corporal Tilman Sutils who served in Company A of the Hickory County Battalion of the Osage County Regiment of the Unionist Missouri Home Guard.
Mike Wise stated that he “wanted help in processing what they found,” and Ancestry.com probably could have done a better job helping him process the data. Brock Bierman probably did not know that the result of their encounter would be a Washington Post article entitled “Years later, discovering a family split by the Civil War,” but to the question of whether or not members of the family of Mike Wise were “literally brother against brother” — the very question from which sprang this joint WaPo/Ancestry.com project — the answer should have been a swift and resounding “no.”
Generations passed before descendants of Private Stout and Corporal Sutils formed a family. A Sutils had to marry a Booth, and a Booth had to marry a Stout, before a family actually existed among the soldiers’ descendants. Stout and Sutils did not know each other. Their families did not know each other. Stout lived in North Carolina, and Sutils lived in Missouri. Stout, and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia in which his unit served, never battled the Missouri Home Guard.
The writer of this blog happens to be descended from Private Blackburn Davis (1842-1882), who served with Private Samuel G. Stout (1843-1919) in the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, as well as a descendent of Private James Madison Whitney Sr. (1822-1885), who served with Corporal Tilman Sutils (1817-1861) in the Hickory County Battalion of the Osage County Regiment of the Unionist Missouri Home Guard.
Generations passed before descendants of Davis and Whitney formed a family. Davis and Whitney did not know each other. Their families did not know each other. Davis lived in Virginia, and Whitney lived in Missouri. There was no family between them to “split.”
Likewise, the family of Mike Wise was not “split by the Civil War.” He merely discovered that he has at least one ancestor who fought on each side of the war, in two totally separate theaters of the war. His headline is fakenews, but his approach to discovering his Civil War heritage can teach a valuable lesson about why there is no place in genealogy for Political Correctness.
Immediately after Brock Bierman stated the rank, name, and unit of his Confederate ancestor in the four-minute video called “Mike Wise’s surprising Civil War ancestry,” Wise replied that “it’s a little weird to have a Confederate soldier in your past.”
But his ancestor was an able-bodied, military-aged man who lived in North Carolina at the time of the war. Wise probably has more than one Confederate ancestor. Probably more Unionists, too. Maybe he actually does have some family who actually were split by the war. The fact that English-speaking men were prone to volunteering for military service in the nineteenth century is neither weird nor surprising.
It is doubtful that Mike Wise has investigated the military service of his own Confederate ancestor any further. With a quick glance at the National Park Service‘s Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System he might learn that only one member of the 1st North Carolina Artillery Regiment “was present at Appomattox.” Only one man who enlisted in the militia which mustered into Confederate service as the 1st North Carolina Artillery Regiment lasted all the way to the end of the Army of Northern Virginia. Indeed, the Confederate ancestor of Mike Wise “was present at Appomattox.”
Americans who descend from numerous veterans of either side in the war may classify their ancestors’ service into categories such as dishonorable, honorable, and badass. The military service of the Confederate ancestor of Mike Wise certainly qualifies as honorable if not downright badass. Numerous letters which he mailed home from the front lines have been preserved by his descendants, who are fortunate enough to be able to see for themselves who this man was.
However Mike Wise wondered whether or not his Confederate ancestor “believed in shackling fellow human beings for the glory of the South.” No information to support even a reasonable suspicion that such a sentiment motivated Private Stout had been presented to Mike Wise.
It can certainly be said that the concerns which motivated the states of the Deep South, from December of 1860 through early February of 1861, to peacefully and democratically withdraw from a Union in which slavery remained perfectly legal did include the expansion of slavery in the western territories. But Wise should have been reminded that his Confederate ancestor fought for North Carolina; a Southern state which along with Virginia, Missouri, Tennessee, and Arkansas refused to join the Deep South in secession after the election of US President Abraham Lincoln. Whig Unionists maintained a strong presence in North Carolina politics in early 1861.
Circumstances changed drastically in April when Lincoln ordered the invasion of Charleston Harbor to initiate the Battle of Fort Sumter so that he could have his promised war to force the Confederates back into the Union.
As President Lincoln very famously stated:
My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.
Both houses of the US Congress passed war aims resolutions stating very, very plainly that the war had nothing whatsoever to do with slavery, and everything to do with forcing the Confederate states back into the United States. The US Federal government, and especially its executive branch, went to great lengths to inform the states on both sides that the purpose of the Federal blockade and invasion of the Confederacy, which President Lincoln illegally and unilaterally declared after the Confederates’ predictable response to the naval incursion he ordered into Charleston Harbor, was to wage an anti-democratic, anti-Constitutional war of conquest for the purpose of increasing Federal tax revenue.
But Mike Wise wonders if his Confederate ancestor — who was busy trying to fend off the US military invasion of his country — concerned himself with “shackling fellow human beings for the glory” of his country.
If the data reveals that an ancestor of Mike Wise believed in such a thing, would it be the Confederate who enlisted to fight for the independence of North Carolina in a war which had nothing to do with the abolition of slavery, or would it be the Missourian who served the US Federal government against his own neighbors?
The Missourians did not want to be involved in Abraham Lincoln’s illegal war. Their constitutional, democratically-elected state government remained in the Union, but maintained the legal position that efforts to bring Missouri into the war on either side would be resisted. With war forced upon them, the people of Missouri were compelled to make a choice.
Missouri slave-owners often answered the question of which side to fight for with fierce Unionism.
Missouri had rich slave owners who wanted to stay in the Union and poor farmers who never saw a slave but fought for the South. Even Julia Grant, wife of the Union general who would win the war, came from a wealthy slave-owning family with a plantation outside St. Louis.
Examples of Unionist Missouri slave-owners abound, but one does not need to look much further than the Unionists Corporal Sutils and Private Whitney to find a prominent example. Colonel Joseph Washington McClurg, who organized and commanded the Osage County Regiment and the Hickory County Battalion of the Unionist Missouri Home Guard, would “not free his own slaves until just prior to the Emancipation Proclamation” in January of 1863.
Does Mike Wise believe that his own Unionist ancestor, Corporal Tilman Sutils of the Hickory County Battalion of the Osage County Regiment of the Unionist Missouri Home Guard, enlisted to fight in some sort of a grand and moral crusade against slavery? Does Wise believe that his Unionist ancestor decided to embark upon the task of militarily abolishing slavery by being enlisted and commanded by the wealthy, slave-owning Unionist Colonel Joseph Washington McClurg, who continued owning slaves throughout the entirety of Sutils’ military service? Does Mike Wise believe that on the day his Unionist ancestor mustered out of the slave-owner-commanded Hickory County Battalion of the slave-owner-commanded Osage County Regiment of the Unionist Missouri Home Guard, he saluted his slave-owning commanding officer one last time, then rode away believing that his mission of militarily abolishing slavery had been some sort of a success?
The preposterous idea that Union veterans of the war generally believed they were enlisting in a war against slavery is the equally absurd counterpart of the idea that Confederate veterans of the war generally believed they were enlisting in a war for slavery, rather than a defensive war to repel the US invasion and to break the US blockade of their country. Which is why Mike Wise fundamentally misunderstands the implications of a Confederate ancestor “ready to die for the glory of the South.”
I immediately thought of my grandmother, Martha Pearl Stout, Samuel’s granddaughter. The phrase would have been anathema to her. Until the day she died, she drummed it into us: Irrespective of the differences in our complexions, geography and social rungs, we are all in this together.
Mike Wise would never know this, but “we are all in this together” irrespective of the differences in our complexions, geography and social rungs sounds a lot like the Confederate Trans-Mississippi.
Corporal Tilman Sutils and Private James Madison Whitney Sr. mustered out of the Unionist Missouri Home Guard on December 20, 1861. A few days later, Missouri partisans murdered Sutils and dumped his body in a river. According to Wise, Confederate soldiers participating in the Raid of General Sterling Price perpetrated the murder (but Price’s Raid happened in late 1864).
Had the Unionist ancestor of Mike Wise survived the winter of 1861, then he might have gone on to serve once again with James Madison Whitney Sr. who in early 1862 enlisted in a privately-recruited Unionist militia called Captain John M. Richardson’s Mountain Ranger Battalion, whose members hunted down Confederates in the Ozarks, and integrated into Federal service as Company B of the 14th Missouri State Militia Cavalry Regiment, with Richardson promoted to Colonel. Richardson, a fierce Unionist originally from Virginia, had served as Missouri’s Secretary of State under Governor Sterling Price.
In late May of 1862, Richardson and a detachment of the 14th Missouri State Militia Cavalry arrived in Neosho, Missouri.
On the same day that Richardson arrived in Neosho some of his Union scouts went to the home of one Thomas L Hunter, presumably a Southern sympathizer, and shot him dead in front of his mother. He had been playing with his twin infants.
In the ten minute long Battle of Neosho, the Unionist 14th Missouri State Militia Cavalry broke and fled before a combined Confederate force which consisted of local guerillas, the locally-recruited 6th Missouri Cavalry Regiment, and their allies to whom the locals confidently appealed for assistance: the forces of Colonel Stand Watie, who would soon afterward be elected as the Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation.
In the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Neosho, both sides believed that Colonel Richardson had been mortally wounded.
According to the investigation, three rounds were fired by only about half of the Union force before they broke and ran. Richardson explains this by saying that it was at that crucial moment he was shot in the right arm and his horse was simultaneously hit as well and fell on his left leg, dislocating his left shoulder, and spraining his wrist. Richardson said his soldiers supposed their commander was dead and fled.
However, the follow up investigation stated that Richardson’s fall was ”no justification” for the retreat. The same report stated that the war whoops of the Confederate Cherokee warriors had startled the horses and that the Unionist refugees still at the camp had begun to flee at the first shots.
Which side would Mike Wise call “the good guys” in this battle, the Unionists who announced their presence in the area by committing a war crime? Were the bad guys the Confederates, who clearly understood the fact that, irrespective of the differences in their complexions, geography and social rungs, they were all in it together?
Would Mike Wise say that the Cherokee fought for the expansion of slavery in the western territories, or that these red-skinned Confederates fought for some sort of white supremacist ideology? Could Wise not admit that the Cherokee, as well as the other tribes who fought against the US Army — against the same organization which carried out the ethnic cleansing of their people from their ancestral homelands when they were young — could have legitimately viewed the Confederacy as their salvation from the United States?
Mike Wise is a Californian. Had his ancestors moved no further west than Oklahoma, then he might have grown up in Cherokee Nation, with an appreciation of the fact that the last to quit the field was none other than the Cherokee Chief and Confederate General Stand Watie. Were Mike Wise an Okie, then he might be able to reconcile himself with the fact that a great number of the fiercest Confederate warriors were not “white.”
But to be fair, Mike Wise does not claim to be a genealogist. And he is no historian. Although his article and its accompanying video are highly instructive on how not to approach genealogy in general and Civil War heritage in particular, it is hoped that this installment is not received as a mere personal attack upon the columnist. The military records of his veteran ancestors do indeed reveal that the service rendered by each to their respective country was nothing less than honorable, irrespective of their politics, or their totally unrelated views on slavery. He should be proud of them both. His Unionist ancestor likely never wore a uniform, and would have never been seen with his Confederate ancestor, but if the Confederate artilleryman and the Unionist cavalry NCO ever could have been pictured together in uniform, then they would look something like the Confederate artilleryman and the Unionist cavalryman memed up top.
In addition to highlighting an example of how Civil War heritage should never be approached, the purpose of this installment is to also outline the actual context in which men chose to fight in the war, and especially in Missouri. A primer on the situation in Missouri at the outbreak of the war may be useful ahead of the next installment, which actually will address the topic of families “split by the Civil War” – with an actual example of “literally brother against brother” warfare.