Sandy Wills hadn’t just freed himself and his family tree, but his service in the Union Army helped liberate millions of African-Americans who were enslaved in this country. She knew what she had to do.
“I turned on the light and began typing the first chapter of ‘Die Free: A Heroic Family Tale,’ a book about my family history,” she wrote. “My Mom, brothers and sisters were thrilled to finally know more about my father’s relatives [her father Clarence was killed in a motorcycle accident when he 38 when Cheryl was 13] even though our last name came from a slave master.”
She began travelling all over the world telling Sandy’s story, even addressing august bodies of dignitaries at the United Nations. “Now Sandy Wills can rest in peace, knowing that his story is an inspiration around the world,” she wrote.
Sandy’s bravery was typical of many of former slaves who volunteered to fight against the Confederacy. Noted historian James M McPherson, in his book “The Negro’s Civil War,” recounts a young Black man and former slave from Tennessee who, like Sandy, performed heroically in a major battle. “I was in the Battle of Nashville when we whipped old Hood [General John Bell Hood]. I went to see my mistress on my furlough, and she was glad to see me. She said, ‘You remember when you were sick and I had to bring you in the house and nurse you?’ and I told her, ‘Yes’m, I remember.’ And she said, ‘And now you are fighting me!’ I said, ‘No’m, I ain’t fighting you, I’m fighting to get free.’”
This young man returned from battle to see his former mistress. Sandy wanted to see his mother, but the two soldiers had a similarly mission—to be free.
Tracking Sandy’s liberation also delivered a measure of freedom to Cheryl. One of the revelations she uncovered during her research occurred at the National Archives. “I couldn’t peel my eyes away from the reprinted original,” she said upon viewing an important document about Sandy’s condition. “‘Occupation: slave.’ Really?” she asked herself. “Was slavery really a means of earning a living? Honestly?! Slavery is not an activity in which a person is engaged; that would be an occupation.
“Slavery is not a profession,” she added. “To add insult to injury, in the ‘remarks’ section of the form, [the officer] added, ‘owned by Edmund Wills, Haywood Co. Tenn.’ As if to say, if the war is lost and the Confederacy wins, these slaves should be legally returned to Edmund Wills.”
But the Confederacy did not win, and Sandy went home in victory and to find his mother, marry and raise a family that Cheryl has gloriously enshrined.
The photo accompanying the article is from an illustration by Randell Pearson as depicted in “The Emancipation of Grandpa Sandy Wills” (Lightswitch Learning, 2015).