The Latest Episode of Who Do You Think You Are? Covers the Civil War, Indiana and Everything in Between For the Ancestry of Bradley Whitford.
Bradley Whitford has been acting since before I was born. Despite that, I only discovered him pretty recently, first with his amazing role in Get Out, and later for comedies such as Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Perfect Harmony. Likewise, I didn’t know that the popular actor is also an activist determined to provide access to voting for everyone. But after this latest episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, I know quite a bit more about where Mr. Whitford came from, as well as who he is as a person.
Being born in Madison, Wisconsin is something Bradley is proud of. He comes from a big family, with 5 children. He was the last one born, and jokingly refers to the brother born right before him as “the mistake”, calling himself simply “the mistake’s friend”. That said, he feels lucky to be born when he was, since that meant his parents were a lot more relaxed, and were totally fine with his love of acting. He discovered it in a 7th grade play, and then became passionate about the arts. Many know him from West Wing, a show he was happy didn’t treat politics cynically. Many more know him for the amazing yet painful dystopian epic called The Handmaid’s Tale. But where did he come from?
With his sister Ann Whitford Paul, he looks at family photos. I’ll quickly interject that I see a pattern on this show of women being the bearers of history, whereas the men are constantly newly inducted into said history. His mother Genevieve grew up in a time when women had just gotten the right to vote, and society still expected them to find fulfillment in the act of child rearing. She wasn’t happy just doing that, and instead found fulfillment in the women’s movement. Afterwards she started writing her own books, and taught Bradley the important lesson of finding one’s own voice.
Bradley’s grandma Hazel was a wellspring of love and kindness, yet despite that, he knew shockingly little about her history. With the help of Ancestry genealogist Mellissa Betts, he gets a starting point in a family tree. It shows that Hazel was born in 1887 in Nebraska. From there, he traces her line to his great great grandparents, Frederich Neu and Charlotte Schwartfuger. Fred was born in Prussia, and came over in 1846. Like Bradley, he also came from a large family. After discovering those tidbits, Brad meets Mellissa in person for more information.
The Prussia Frederich left came before a unified or democratic Germany. It was a dangerous time and era, where the citizens were saddled with an oppressive monarchy. There was no chance for social mobility, and thus the American dream drew them closer. A document shows that Frederich Neu, the son, applied for naturalization in 1854 at the age of 21. By then he was in Indiana, which had passed a law that any naturalized citizen could vote. More importantly, this happened right before the Civil War.
In the D.C. National Archives, Bradley meets with Dr. Joseph Beilen with one question in mind – what side of the war did Frederich fight on? To his great relief, he finds Frederich fought for the Union in the 83rd Union Infantry in Indiana. More interesting, brothers John and Valentine joined up at the same time he enlisted, a common practice back then. Better yet, many German immigrants were appalled by slavery, and thus fought ferociously to bring the Confederacy to an end. They were a big part of the campaign to take the Mississippi river away from the Confederate forces. Which takes Bradley to Vicksburg next.
His guide there is ranger John Castaldo. At the national military park in Vicksburg, Bradley is front and center where a pivotal Civil War battle took place. Ulysses S. Grant wanted to avoid a long siege, and so tried to strike the Confederate stronghold fast and avoid a longwinded campaign. All three Neu brothers were there, two as corporals and one as a private. The corporals were tasked to motivate the men and keep them fighting, which turned out to be a difficult job. Because things did not go as Grant was hoping.
It was a bloody and hard battle, and they were ill equipped for the task at hand. Frederich and his brothers got trapped on the battlefield, and only managed to slip away under cover of darkness. Days later, Grant ordered them to try once more with the proper equipment, but they still couldn’t get the job done. Worse, the dead and wounded were left to rot on the battlefield, surely a disheartening sight. Finally Grant had to do what he was trying to avoid, and laid siege to Vicksburg from May until July 1st, when Confederate forces finally surrendered.
Despite happening at about the same time as the Battle of Gettysburg and arguably being more pivotal, this battle got less press and prestige. The war lasted another 2 years after that. It’s clear Bradley is emotionally affected by the history he’s learned, and rooting for all three brothers to survive the duration of the conflict. To that end, he heads to the Old Court House to meet with Dr. Susannah Ural.
Here we get some fascinating historical documents. One shows that the 83rd Union Infantry were prevented from voting in the presidential election, and remarked that their own legislature were sympathizers of the Confederates, and opposed to Lincoln. It’s strongly implied they were disenfranchised by their own state, and 90% of the unit signed a petition in opposition. They were radically engaged, a mirror image of Bradley’s own efforts striving to maintain democracy.
Finally, Mr. Whitford heads to Nebraska and meets with Dr. Nathan Tye at the G.A.R. (Grand Army of the Republic) Hall for more details after the war. Remarkably he finds all three brothers survived the war, but afterwards they went separate ways. An 1870 census shows Frederich became a successful farmer and father to 9 children, while Valentine stayed in Indiana and John floated about. G.A.R. was a support and political advocacy group that likely helped Fred find the brotherhood he was suddenly without. He had a long and good life, and died in 1910. He lived the American dream, which was hard won. Luckily his success meant Bradly got a chance to live his life, and the episode ends with him crying proud tears at Fred’s gravestone.
Another touching and emotional episode of Who Do You Think You Are? Bradley Whitford came out a more whole soul after learning about his ancestors, and saw the rough draft of his own passions in their struggle. Tune back next week for what’s sure to be a fascinating deep dive into the ancestry of Zachary Quinto!