Cheryl Wills sits in her home in Freeport. (March 6,...

Cheryl Wills sits in her home in Freeport. (March 6, 2011) Credit: Ed Betz

Cheryl Wills, a Freeport resident with an intense interest in her family's history, did not know of any ancestors who preceded her great-grandfather until she was surfing the Web two years ago.

So when the reporter and anchor for NY1 News came across the name of Sandy Wills in 1870 census records from the Tennessee county from which the Wills clan hailed, she was electrified at the prospect that she had identified her great-great-great grandfather.

Subsequent research not only proved Sandy Wills was her great-great-great grandfather, but also yielded the fact that he had run away from the plantation where he had been a slave to enlist in the Union Army during the Civil War.

Cheryl Wills' research on Sandy, his wife, Emma, and other slaves who escaped the plantation became the basis for her book "Die Free: A Heroic Family Tale" published in January by Bascom Hill. Wills timed the book for release ahead of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, which began in April 1861.

Wills, 44, said she wrote the book to fill in holes in her family's story - finding Sandy Wills led to her discovery of great-great-grandfather Alex Wills, through Emma Wills' application for a military widow's pension. From there, Cheryl Wills traced the family tree to the present.

When Wills saw Sandy's name on, she said "something just told me that I was related to this guy." And then she saw that the census records included the acronym "UCT."

"My heart skipped a beat" because she knew that meant "Union Colored Troops" - he had served in a black regiment to help wipe out slavery.

He had not shown up in earlier searches, she later learned, because when he enlisted, his name was recorded as Sandy Willis. But he later filed paperwork to correct his name in government records and the census reflected that.

To determine if he was actually a relative and what his relationship was to the five other "brothers in bondage" with the same last name who enlisted from the same plantation, she hired a professional genealogist. He told her they had all fought in the same regiment and had all been owned by Edmund Wills.

The four youngest of those six slaves fled the plantation first, traveling to Kentucky where on Aug. 27, 1863, they enlisted. For some reason, the two oldest slaves, including Sandy Wills, remained behind for a month and a half, and then he and fellow slave Dick Wills escaped. The regiment remained on garrison duty in Kentucky but in one skirmish drove off 30 Confederate guerrillas. After the war, Sandy Wills returned to Haywood County and worked as a sharecropper and married in 1869.

Wills said one of the proudest moments of her life was when she saw Sandy Wills' enlistment document. It showed his occupation as farmer rather than slave, unlike most other escaped slaves. "That meant," Wills said, "he was not a slave in his heart."

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