A surprising discovery in the branches of a family tree - FOX 13 News

A surprising discovery in the branches of a family tree

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TAMPA (FOX 13) -

Click on the picture to the left, and you'll see a photo and documents that reveal a part of John Wilson's family history he never knew.  Here, he talks about the journey that led to a remarkable discovery: a man who fought on both sides of the Civil War. As it is with so many people who delve into their family's past, John's quest for answers begins with old photos:


"These are my dad's parents and grandparents. These were country people. They were farmers, they worked the land," I explained, as I showed off pictures from my family album.

"We seldom got together to talk about family history and we should've been doing that."

So we purchased a DNA test through Ancestry.com to pick up the cold trail of my family roots.

Once they completed the test, I returned to my hometown, Big Stone Gap, VA, where the beautiful Appalachian mountains hold deep, dark secrets of my ancestry.

Our first stop was a visit with my 97-year-old aunt, Opal Mullins.

She shows us an old family picture and explains, "There was three girls and two boys and I'm the last one of that family alive."

She then leads us to where the Wilson family tree ends, with my great grandfather, Alfred G. Wilson.

"I know he was in the Civil War, but that's just about all that I really know," she said.

With that, genealogy researchers from Ancestry.com help us bridge the gap.

"Alfred became a mystery man in the family because nobody seems to know what happened to Alfred," I explained.

His life began in Statesville, North Carolina. An 1862 muster rolls shows Alfred enlisting in the 33rd North Carolina Confederate Regiment. Just four months later, he ended up in Winder Hospital.

And remember, back then, conditions were primitive -- these hospitals often had little more than bandages for the wounded.

Michelle Ercanbrack, a researcher from Ancestry.com puts it like this: "I think to spend more than a year in a Civil War hospital sounds like a fate worst than death, honestly."

To find out what happened to Alfred next, we followed the trail to the Southwest Virginia Museum, where I got my hands on a Spencer repeating rifle, most likely what Alfred used during the war.

The gun was heavy but you know, you would put this on your horse and you'd take off. And you'd have five, six, seven rounds before you got killed.

It was a brutal time in our history.

Alfred's Confederate comrades lost key battles at Fredricksburg and Gettysburg. When he left Winder Hospital, he made a life-changing decision.

"So this document tells us that he is AWOL, and he deserted," Michelle explained, as she shows me the historic document.

"He doesn't go home. And goes all the way to Knoxville to enlist in another North Carolina regiment. The key difference here -- is that this is a Union regiment."

"Woah!" I exclaimed, "So he became a Union soldier. Now I know why they didn't talk about him."

Now fighting for the other side, Alfred scoured the mountains to clear it of Confederate rebels. He then suffered another major blow.

I read the next document, and realized he had taken a bullet that was never removed.

"I'm wounded in the left arm, the ball is still in there," Alfred says. "They couldn't remove it in the surgeries."

No longer on the front lines, Alfred Wilson guarded the supply route for Union troops until the war ended.

"While someone who switched sides from the broader Civil War context is really rare, this is something that makes sense for Big Stone Gap," Michelle explained.

The Civil War was brutal in these border states, particularly Virginia and this part of Virginia, because the mountain people really didn't own slaves the way the Easterners did -- and they resented that.

However, depending on which side of the fence you were on, you had brother against brother and father against son, and it took a long time to heal those wounds. To this day, they're still healing.

"There's nobody that would hate slavery more than an escaped slave or their grandchildren," explained local historian Dr. Lawrence Fleenor, whose life-long mission has been to unlock the secrets of Big Stone Gap.

Whites were once enslaved here in the Appalachian Mountains. That could explain why this region was home to so many deserters, like my great grandfather. Up in the mountains on what was once Wilson property, is Alfred's grave, separate from my existing family burial ground.

"There's more than one person up there," Larry explained.

After the war, Alfred married Nancy Bartley, who was 20 years younger than him.

"It does point to the fact that there was a generation that was lost because they gave their life," Michelle said.

However, in an ironic twist...

"Her father and her brother were all in the Confederacy," Michelle explained.

That meant two families on opposite sides of the Civil War came together at a time of healing for the nation.

"He ended the war on the Union side, but he's living next door and living as a part of this Confederate family in Tennessee, and it implies to me that they've buried the rifle, if you will," she said.

"So there was reconciliation going on here?" I asked.

"Absolutely," said Michelle.

A poignant lesson in my family history and for all. No matter how divided we are, survival means working together. Good ole Aunt Opal swears by it.

"You need to have good vibes," she said with a smile.

"Good vibes?" I asked.

"Yes, if you figure out what good vibes are, well then, you've got it made!" she laughed.

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