Mike Wise's father had always said his ancestors fought on both sides of the Civil War. After his dad's death, the Washington Post columnist hired ancestry.com to look into it. Here, he finds out the truth for the first time. (Jason Aldag and Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

The heavy steel army trunk that moved with my father all his life was still padlocked when my sister and I came to clean out his apartment in Napa, Calif., 18 months ago. Like the black onyx arrowhead collection of his Nevada youth and the Moody Blues vinyl albums, that trunk contained mementoes of a past he could not bring himself to part with.

Among the Christmas ornaments and wedding rings and old diaries was one yellowed document that caught my eye immediately.

It was a statement from Mamie Belle Stout, my father’s maternal grandmother, declaring that we had relatives who fought on both sides in the Civil War. My father had always told me he believed this to be true.

“Need to research further,” a notation on the document read, in his handwriting.

I put it off for a year after his death in February 2013. But this March, I finally contacted Ancestry.com, sending the world’s largest online genealogy resource an incomplete family tree along with a question: Were members of my family literally brother against brother?

Months went by before the research was complete, but I often received updates saying “we have found something interesting,” which piqued my imagination. Finally, a form titled “Family Tree Finds” appeared in my e-mail inbox. I was again teased with a message stating, “We don’t often find what we’ve found with you.” To preserve my authentic reaction to the discovery — and, frankly, because I wanted help in processing what they found — I promised I would not open the file before Brock Bierman, Ancestry.com’s director of education, explained their finds to me personally two weeks ago in The Washington Post’s television studio.

Although I had anticipated this moment for months, I still was not ready for what I was about to hear:

My great-great-grandfather, Samuel Goodwin Stout, was a Confederate soldier who fought at Gettysburg. He enlisted at 18 in Raleigh, N.C., on Aug. 19, 1861. He was with the 1st North Carolina Light Artillery, 10th Regiment, Company C (also called the Charlotte Artillery). He wrote home during his entire Civil War experience, 65 letters of which a living relative had digitized on Ancestry.com.

Raring to go, Samuel was all adrenaline writing to his mother, Sarah, on New Year’s Day 1862, less than five months after he enlisted:

“. . . From what news I can get, a war between old Abe and England is quite probable at this juncture. I hope that a good providence will speedily intervene and cause this unnatural war on the part of the North to terminate in the independence, final triumph, and glory of the South.”

One-hundred and fifty-two years after those words were written, they are still hard to read from a blood relative. The zeal evident in that letter seemed to show that Samuel was a believer in the cause.

Now I knew I had a Confederate relative who was ready to die for the glory of the South, and all that implied.

I immediately thought of my grandmother, Martha Pearl Stout, Samuel’s granddaughter. The phrase would have been anathema to her. Until the day she died, she drummed it into us: Irrespective of the differences in our complexions, geography and social rungs, we are all in this together.

More disturbing was the realization that the letter was written exactly one week after my other Civil War era ancestor, Tilman Settles, was killed in a Confederate raid walking back to his Missouri home on Christmas Eve in 1861, his body dumped in the Osage River, very possibly still in its Union blues.

Tilman, my great-great-great-grandfather, was my Union Army relative. He was a corporal in Company A of the Hickory County Battalion of the Missouri Home Guards, a local militia raised from Union loyalists. He served five months — the shortest length of service was three months — and was discharged Dec. 20, 1861. Four days later he was likely returning home from his battalion when he was killed near Warsaw, Mo., by members of Price’s Missouri Expedition, essentially the Confederate cavalry. He was 44. He left seven children — two boys and five girls — including Eliza Ann Settles Booth, my great-grandmother Mamie’s mother.

This was all detailed in a widow’s pension request by Tilman’s wife, Nancy, 12 years after his death, in 1873. The document, titled “WIDOWS CLAIM FOR PENSION,” is filled in with elaborate cursive writing in the copy preserved in the National Archives.

Under the heading INCIDENTAL MATTER on the claim’s last page, was the cold-hearted decision: “Rejected on the grounds that soldier was killed after his discharge from the U.S. service.”

Think about that: A widowed woman with seven children, whose husband’s death was directly related to his service and an armed enemy pursuing and killing him, would not be compensated by the U.S. government on a technicality.

Reading this a century and a half later, I choked up. Nancy was now real to me. I genuinely felt sick for the woman, realizing how this conflict to preserve the Union had destroyed her own union, as it did so many others’.

Nancy Wilson married Tilman Settles in Kanawha County, Va., on March 28, 1844. They had 17 years together before he became one of the Civil War’s 620,000 casualties.

Walking out of that Benton, Mo., courthouse, the thought must have crossed her mind that if her husband had been killed four days earlier she would have had a way to support her family. Studying the impersonal document, I ached for her.

Eventually I came to terms with Samuel Goodwin Stout. According to his Company Muster-in and Descriptive Roll Card, Samuel was a 5-foot-10 1 / 2 carpenter when he enlisted. Company C served in Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, the primary military force of the Confederacy, which meant he saw much valor and even more death, perhaps nothing so brutal as three days in July 1863.

On June 28, 1863, he wrote from Chambersburg, Pa.: “Dear Mother, I can inform you that I am well at this time, and I hope those lines will find you all well. I can inform you that we have been through Maryland, and we are now going through Pennsylvania. But we don’t think that we shall get far into Pennsylvania before we shall get into a fight. But we are all in good spirit. We have got a strong army with us — we have got 122,000 now across the Potomac. We get plenty of rations now. If we [run] out of anything, we [poach] it. We don’t suffer for anything at all — we are not destroying the country, but we have what we want. The opinion of the people [is] that the war will soon end. We see it in all of the letters we find. We don’t know which way we are going or how long we shall stay. I can’t tell you anything about that.”

He was but four days and 24 miles from Gettsyburg when the letter was mailed.

On July 2, 1863, he fought in one of the bloodiest days of the conflict, a day before Pickett’s Charge and the turning point of the Civil War. He suffered sunstroke in the searing heat that day, according to the records. His Confederate Pension file reveals he was also “shocked” by shell fire numerous times in other battles.

He also fought in the Wilderness Campaign, at Cold Harbor and Petersburg. And on April 9, 1865, he was at Appomattox, where he was paroled after the surrender.

The war deeply damaged Samuel. His letters gradually changed as the conflict dragged on. Even his penmanship and writing deteriorated, from fluid and precise to long, labored messy strokes and tortured grammar.

Nearing the end of the war, the spirited teen had morphed into a young man who wanted to go home. On Feb. 10, 1864, he wrote to his mother: “I see no cessation of it. Now only to look to the all wide and merciful God for peace and that is the only way we are to have peace any way. We have to [give in] to a higher power than Jefferson Davis or General Lee to end this horrible conflict in which we are struggling.”

Later in his long life — he lived to be 75 — his war injuries prevented him from working.

I don’t know if he believed in shackling fellow human beings for the glory of the South. There is no record of him owning slaves. Courtesy of a photo of his headstone in Moravian Falls, N.C., on Ancestry.com, I know that he died in 1919 — a year after my grandmother was born.

I was at first almost angry to learn that the man fighting against Abraham Lincoln’s principles had lived some 50 years after his service and 30 years longer than fate afforded Tilman Settles. Given a couple of weeks to process it, though, I’m glad one of them survived and was able to marry, have children and return home into the loving arms of family. I like to believe he lived the life Tilman couldn’t.

Mamie Belle Stout, who started this all with the declaration inside my father’s steel trunk, was affected the most by this dual North-South relationship. Her father-in-law had fought on the side that killed her grandfather in Missouri.

She died in 1974. I still remember my grandmother taking me over to her small apartment in Napa as she cleaned up and looked after an infirm woman. As with any 10-year-old, I suppose, I was oblivious to the connections that formed her life, oblivious to all who lost so much so long ago, in fields and rivers on our own soil.

It feels so personal and indelible now. I’m grateful to the ancestry researchers, whose care and vigilant research went into filling in the holes of my history, and to Brock, who spent a couple of hours letting me process what he had told me.

Back into the silver trunk the packet goes. Back into my own closet for my own son to unearth one day. Back to the past, where my father, Roger Francis Wise, so longed to go that I finally took the trip for him.

In hindsight, the tears I shed weren’t for Nancy Settles or Tilman or Samuel. They were for my father. When he said he thought we had ancestors on both sides of the War Between the States, it wasn’t just another embellished tale. He got that right. If he had opened the trunk and shared its contents with my sister and me years ago, we could have discovered the truth together, peeling back the layers of who we are.