On this Sunday’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are? at 10/9c on TLC, actor Noah Wyle unravels the mystery of his mother’s family line, searching for answers to a lifelong question about his family’s participation in the Civil War.
One of the things I really like about this series is that often, they open by showing the individual talking to their older relatives about their ancestry. I hope this example encourages others to do the same, because often, so much slips away with our older relatives.
Many times they can identify people in photos, tell us where and when the photos were taken, and stories about the people. Noah’s mother points to her grandfather. This photo was taken in Lexington, Kentucky, but the next generation earlier was from much further north (New York) and much further south (Mississippi), both. Tantalizing tidbits.
Another thing I like about this series is that there is so much “on location” history. In some cases, they visit locations where my ancestors lived too. In other cases, like this week, places I’ve never visited and enjoy seeing from a historical perspective. And then there are snippets from episodes that can connect with just about everyone.
Can’t you almost see your ancestor sitting in this old schoolhouse? I can. A portal to the past.
Noah tells us that he has always been a history buff and fascinated with the Civil War. He asked his now-deceased Uncle Sandy about his own family’s participation in the Civil War and Uncle Sandy told him that more well-to-do families hired replacements to fight for them, in their place, and their family had probably done the same. Noah was disappointed with that answer. Knowing his relatives lived in Kentucky, a state clearly deeply involved in the Civil War with regiments who fought for both sides, Noah was more disappointed that his ancestor had not stood up and fought for what he believed, regardless of which side of the conflict.
Noah’s mother was able to help him track their family back through several generations to John Henry Mills, born in New York in 1843 but found in 1860 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Noah’s mother had no idea they had relatives in or from Louisiana.
Noah wants to go further, find an objective truth about his ancestors, beyond just a photo and a third generation anecdote, to put meat on their bones.
Noah looks at his mother and asks, “Where do we go from here?’ Well, of course, we know the answer to that!!!
Noah began his journey of discovery in Baton Rouge, Louisiana at the Louisiana State Archives, hoping to discover more about his ancestor John Henry Mills who married in Mississippi in 1863, right in the middle of the Civil War.
Noah discovers that indeed, John Henry Mills did serve in the Civil War, joining for a 90 day enlistment, which was typical for the timeframe. Almost exactly 30 days later, John fought in the Battle of Shiloh, one of the bloodiest battles of the war in which 23,000 men were killed on April 6th and 7th of 1862.
I had to ask myself how a person with literally no military experience, “an amateur” as Noah said, would feel about finding themselves in that situation.
I so wanted to tell Noah to search for John’s compiled service record at www.fold3.com or to order his compiled service record from NARA, but so far, TV is a one way communications!
Noah already knew that John survived the battle, because his mother had told him that John married Mary Emily Brown in 1863 in Summit, Mississippi, which was Noah’s next destination.
Noah discovered in Mississippi that his 3X great-grandfather retired in 1899 after 24 years as a public servant, much loved, as the local Treasurer, a career he began in 1875.
However, nine years later, by 1904, John’s life had spiraled out of control. Surprisingly so, so much that I gasped when I saw the headline. So did Noah.
I’m not going to give it away, but I will say that John’s tragic end and the very unusual circumstances really gave Noah pause to reflect and reconsider.
The entire town closed on the day of John’s funeral and the church’s bells were tolled for the man “whose love for his family was as beautiful as it was great.”
After discovering the shocking news about John, and the selfless lengths that he went to in order to attempt to save his family, Noah wanted to know what happened to John’s wife, Mary Emily.
The historian had found Mary Emily Mills on a 1913 list of Mississippi Confederate widows who had applied for a pension. This pension was state funded, not like the federal pensions for the Union widows, and was restricted to those impoverished. The message here, sadly, was that John’s attempt to save his family had failed and his death had been both tragic and pointless.
Mary was on the pensioner’s role until 1927, when she disappeared. Being a genealogist, I, of course, assumed that she died at that point, but that’s not the only reason one was removed from the rolls. Remarriage or a move out of state would also cause removal.
It was suggested that Noah visit the Beauvoir Soldiers Home in Biloxi, Mississippi and his response was a surprised, “there’s more?” As irony would have it, Beauvoir was the original home of Jefferson Davis, the President of the failed Confederacy.
The Beauvoir home for the aged in the early 1900s was for those pensioners or their widows who were destitute. Mary was admitted in 1926 under emergency circumstances, where she lived out her final days.
The photo below shows Noah sitting in the rocker on the porch of the buildings that were built for the residents.
Noah went in search of his ancestors, and he certainly found more than he bargained for. John Mills was described as a “gentleman of the old school,” his wife, an educated lady who was caught up in a tragic spiral in a turbulent time in our Nation’s history.
I hope you enjoy the episode. Remember, if you can’t tune in, episodes are available online within a day or so of airing. You can also watch back episodes.