Season 8, Episode 5

Bradley Whitford

Watch on

Bradley Whitford explores his family’s lineage in civic engagement and discovers which side of the Civil War his ancestors fought for.

Actor and political activist Bradley Whitford grew up in Wisconsin and had a close relationship with his grandmother Hazel before she passed away many years ago. He invites his older sister Ann over to look through some family photos and they both reminisce about their grandmother and what a loving person she was. However, her heritage has always been somewhat of a mystery to them. They know her maiden name was Neu and they think she was German but other than that it’s a blank slate. Bradley is interested in finding out more about Hazel’s line of the family and is lucky to have been sent a family tree from a genealogist that will hopefully give him and Ann some answers. The tree follows his maternal grandmother’s line back two generations to his 2nd great-grandparents, Charlotte Schwartfuger and Frederick Neu. Bradley and Ann discover that Frederick was born in Prussia in 1832 and that he came over to the United States when he was 14 with his dad, also named Frederick Neu, and four siblings. Bradley wonders what would drive his 3rd great-grandfather to make such a perilous journey, were they running from something or to something?

Grand Army of the Republic


Grand Army of the Republic

Pledging fraternity, charity, and loyalty, the Grand Army of the Republic served as an advocate and fraternal association for Union veterans.

Learn more


See how expanding the familial search led to even more details about Bradley’s 2nd great-grandfather.

Read more


Bradley meets with Dr. Mellissa Betts, a genealogist, at a café nearby to find out why his Neu ancestors immigrated to the U.S. in 1846. He learns that Prussia at that time was not a pleasant place to live, citizens didn’t have the right to vote or inherit land. America, with its promise of land and opportunity, seemed like a very attractive alternative. Bradley wants to know what happened after their arrival in America and reads a document saying his 2nd great-grandfather Frederick became a U.S. citizen at the age of 21. Dr. Betts suggests that this might have been because he wanted the right to vote—and back then the voting age was 21. Bradley is touched by his ancestor’s desire to participate in democracy and reflects on how important civic engagement was in his own family growing up. He notices that the document was written in 1854, which is close to the time of the Civil War. He wonders if Frederick served in the war and is told that the best place to answer that question is the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

Bradley arrives in D.C. anxious to know if his 2nd great-grandfather was on the right side of history when it came to slavery. He meets with Dr. Joseph Beilein, a historian who shows him an enlistment record of volunteer Union soldiers and is relieved to discover his ancestor Frederick fought for the Union. Bradley also learns that Frederick enlisted with both of his younger brothers, John and Valentine. He reflects on how hard that must have been for them to leave their families. The historian explains that Frederick and his brothers were part of an army in the west led by Ulysses S. Grant and were given an important mission to take Vicksburg, Mississippi. If the Union could take Vicksburg, it would be a death knell for the Confederacy because they would control the entire Mississippi River and cut off supplies to many of the southern Confederate states. Bradley concludes that he needs to go to Vicksburg in order to find out how his ancestors fared in battle.

Bradley is excited to meet with a local ranger on the battlefield in Vicksburg where his ancestors Frederick, John and Valentine fought together. He quickly learns that the Confederate fortifications were a formidable obstacle. Their triangular-shaped fort, called a stockade redan, was 17-feet high and heavily guarded. However, the Union troops led by Grant were undeterred and on May 19, 1863 thousands of them charged towards the redan. Frederick and his brother John were corporals and tasked with making sure that no matter what, their fellow soldiers did not stop until the redan was taken. With bullets flying, the soldiers slowly moved forward, wading through felled trees, wires, and dead comrades until finally they arrived at the Confederate fort. The only problem was that they forgot to bring scaling ladders. Grant, still determined to take the city, orders his troops to charge the redan again, two days later. But again, they don’t take it and Grant admits defeat. Bradley is eager to know if Frederick and his brothers survived such a horrific battle and is amazed to learn that all of them do! Grant tries one last time to take Vicksburg by starving them out with a siege and six weeks later Confederate troops finally surrender. This was a huge turning point in the Civil War and Bradley is proud that his ancestors played a part in its success.



Discover the harrowing stories your ancestors may have lived through during the Civil War.

Discover the harrowing stories your ancestors may have lived through during the Civil War.

There are still two more years of war left and Bradley wants to find out what happened to his ancestors during that time. He meets with a historian who shares with him a newspaper article written by Frederick’s regiment and published in their home state of Indiana about a year later. Bradley reads that the regiment was upset with the Indiana legislature because, as they claimed, legislators were sympathetic to the confederate cause and would not allow soldiers to vote in the field. Bradley finds Frederick’s signature on the document and is blown away by the fact that his ancestor was advocating for the same issue that he feels so passionately about today; that everyone should have the right to vote. Bradley also learns that a year later Frederick and his brothers were part of the huge celebration in Washington, D.C. called the grand review, which marked the end of the war. He can’t believe that they all made it through the entire war together.

Bradley is interested to continue following Frederick’s life after the war and finds out he was living in Nebraska. He meets up with a historian in Nebraska City and discovers through the 1870 census that Frederick was doing well: he had a wife, six kids, and a successful farm. Bradley is happy to learn this news, but also saddened by the fact that his brothers John and Valentine did not follow him to Nebraska. The historian hands Bradley a book found in the very location where they’re meeting, the G.A.R. Hall. The G.A.R., or Grand Army of the Republic, was a support and political advocacy group for veteran soldiers. Bradley finds Frederick’s name in the book that contains the minutes from their meetings and is amazed to realize he’s sitting in the same room Bradley is given one last document, Frederick’s obituary, and reads that he lived a long life and died a wealthy farmer and a well-respected member of the community. Bradley is moved to tears when he finds out Frederick’s funeral was at the G.A.R. Hall and his grandmother Hazel, who would have been in her 20’s at the time, was probably there too. The obituary says Frederick was buried not far from town and Bradley knows he must go pay his respects. He finds Frederick’s gravestone and expresses his gratitude for the incredible legacy he left behind and the values he fought so hard to preserve.