When Matthew Broderick started his family history journey on Who Do You Think You Are?, he knew one thing for certain about his father’s family: they didn’t talk about the past. His dad’s dad, “Joe the postman,” was ill-tempered and quiet, so noted Matthew’s sister, who also dropped another clue: Joe received money because he got “gassed” while fighting in World War I.
Where would Matthew have to go to learn more?
- National Archives, New York City, NY – Matthew starts by reviewing his grandfather Joe’s military records at the National Archives. He discovers his grandfather served in France and was transferred to the medical department. But what did Joe do there?
- Meuse-Argonne Offensive, near Verdun, France – At the Meuse-Argonne battlefield, Matthew learns his grandfather’s job was to attend to the wounded until stretcher-bearers could arrive. He also discovers that his grandfather received the Purple Heart for injuries sustained during service here.
- Meuse-Argonne Cemetery, near Verdun, France – Row after row of headstones marks the graves of soldiers who died here during World War I, including soldiers who served with Joe. Matthew learns that his grandfather also received a recommendation for a distinguished service cross. His grandfather was a military hero, yet Matthew had never heard this before.
- Connecticut State Archives, Hartford, CT – But there’s another side to his father’s family that Matthew wants to learn about: Mary, Matthew’s grandmother. At the Connecticut archives, Matthew checks Ancestry.com for census records and finds Mary living in an orphanage in 1910. Additional records from the archive note that her father, William, died in a work-related accident in 1908. Following this family further back, Matthew finds William living with his mother and his siblings in 1870 – but where is William’s dad? 1860 doesn’t help (the family can’t be located) but 1850 does. That year William was living with his mother and Robert, his father.
But 1860 raises a red flag for Matthew: Civil War. Was Robert involved? An index of Connecticut residents who served indicates he was. Further research produces Robert’s enlistment date and a physical description. Muster rolls place Robert at Gettysburg, but it wasn’t Robert’s final battle.
- Battlefield near Atlanta, GA - Matthew discovers that it was at the Battle of Peachtree Creek where his great-great-grandfather met his fate courtesy of a musket ball on July 23, 1864. At a nearby rail yard, Matthew sees where fallen Union soldiers were temporarily buried before re-interment a few years later in a national cemetery.
- Marietta National Cemetery, near Atlanta, GA - Matthew visits the grave of his great-great-grandfather. Although soldiers buried in this cemetery had been meticulously documented, until this search, the remains under this simple monument had not been linked to a specific soldier.
Throughout his search, Matthew locates answers in federal census records and military records, both of which can form the foundation of a family tree. At Ancestry.com, the military collection includes American records, some of which date back as far as the revolution and forward to Vietnam, as well as military records from the UK, Germany, and other countries. Big finds can take place in pension records (look for names of other family members, including widows who may have remarried) and draft and enlistment cards, but conducting a search of the full collection and browsing individual titles may help you turn up even more answers.
With military research, just like any other type of family history research, remember to keep an open mind. Family story change as they get handed down – tales of an ancestor’s heroic battle in North Carolina during the Civil War may have actually played out in North Dakota during a different skirmish entirely. Creating a timeline can help root out the truth: a 9-year-old wouldn’t have fought in the Civil War, but a teenaged sibling may have.
If you missed the Matthew Broderick episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, you can catch it online here starting Saturday morning; you’ll also find a few bonus scenes that didn’t make it air there as well. And be sure to tune in next Friday night to find out just how far back Brooke Shields can trace her family tree.
About Heather Erickson
Heather Erickson is Head of Global Communications for Ancestry.com and has been with the company since 2009.