I have ancestors on both sides of my family tree who fought against each other in the American Civil War. My Dad’s family was from the South, my mom’s family was from the North. My ancestors fought against each other in this gruesome, brutal war. Stories about wars often paint one side as heroes and the other as villains. In reality, the people on both sides are just people with good traits and bad traits just like everyone else.
The image above is of my two great-great-grandfathers who served on opposite sides of the Civil War. On the left is Newell Elijah Gile, Company G, Fourth Ohio Artillery, Union Army. He received several wounds during battle that caused him hardship throughout the rest of his life. On the right is Robert Humphries Tucker, Company B, Sixteenth Alabama Infantry, Confederate Army. He suffered many hardships during the war as well, including serving time in Louisville Military Prison and Point Lookout, Maryland. I have several other ancestors and their siblings who fought on both sides of this war.
Knowing about your ancestors can really change the way you think about history. Especially in our day and age when interracial marriage is increasingly common, many of us carry the DNA of people who tried to kill or enslave each other. My best friend is half Japanese, half American. Seventy-five years ago, the United States was at war with Japan. Recent genetic studies have shown that many Americans who identify themselves as white have African ancestors, and most African-Americans have European ancestors.
This was talked about a lot at Rootstech this year, especially during African Heritage Day with LeVar Burton’s spectacular keynote address. Burton spoke about how in order to heal from the past, we have to tell the stories of the past. We have to talk about what happened in order to heal from it. He used the TV series “Roots” as an example:
“Before Roots, America was able to tell itself the story that slavery was a justified, even necessary economic mechanism that enabled this nation to rise to the power that it is today on the world’s stage. After Roots, it became impossible to even think about slavery without visualizing its impact on the African people who were so unjustly enslaved, and all of that was accomplished with one family’s story.”
He also talked about how knowing the stories can help you overcome adversity. Burton knew the struggles his mother had been through. He knew that it would be difficult for him as well. But he knew that because he was his mother’s son, he could get through those trials.
Real People, Not Heroes and Villains
I am descended from slave owners and Confederate soldiers. I am also descended from women who cheated on their husbands, and men who brutally forced families out of their homes in Illinois because of their religion. Yet each of these people had something admirable about them as well, even if it is not clear to see. Perhaps they were determined, or dedicated to their families, or skilled or intelligent.
I have many ancestors who are the heroes in their stories as well. Puritans and Germans who escaped religious persecution to start life in a new land. Homesteaders who struggled through crop failure and loss of children and still continued on with determination. These ancestors who are the heroes rather than the villains in their stories have their flaws too. When I study their stories, I can see them as real people. I have to believe that I have inherited their good qualities and that I can learn from their mistakes.
Healing Through Stories
It is my hope that we can learn and tell the stories of our ancestors. I hope we can learn what they fought over, what they fought for, learn their deeds and their misdeeds. We must get to know what kind of people they really were. I hope we can then turn around and share their stories with the descendants of our ancestor’s enemies, and listen to their ancestors’ stories as well. I hope that by sharing and listening to these stories we can heal. Too many people use stories to start wars. Not enough people use stories to build faith and understanding.