A Tuskegee Airman and His Civil War Soldier Grandfather

I have a big regret. I didn’t drive down to Warrenton, North Carolina to meet the late Joel Foster Miller. He had taken the AncestryDNA test, and he shares a significant amount of DNA with me, my mother, and her siblings. When I say “significant,” I don’t mean that he was probably their unknown half-brother. DNA-sharing amounts, in centiMorgans, suggest that our relationship to him is “not so distant,” probably around third cousins. I had been researching to figure out how he is biologically connected to us.

Mr. Miller passed away on Saturday, April 6, 2019, at the age of 95. Last week, I got curious if there was an online obituary, to learn more about him. Indeed, I learned something that was quite awesome. He was a Tuskegee Airman! He was featured in several articles. Even my colleague, historian and filmmaker Frederick D. Murphy, founder of History Before Us, had interviewed him in his home in 2016.

I certainly wished I had known this before April. Nonetheless, for this Veterans Day, I decided to write this post about him, to include other historical information that I wonder if he knew. Last week, I discovered that his paternal grandfather, Joseph Miller of Augusta, Arkansas, had fought in the Civil War with the 112th and 113th Infantry Regiments of the United States Colored Troops (USCT)! To add, Joseph’s older brother, Charles Miller, also of Augusta, had also served with the 113th Infantry. None of the online articles mentioned this, and Frederick conveyed that he didn’t mention this piece of history during his interview. Nearly 180,000 African American men, both free and runaway slaves, had fought in the Civil War with the Union Army; another 20,000 served in the Union Navy.

91-year-old Joel Miller watches the U.S. Marine Corps Silent Drill Platoon perform at the Marine Corps War Memorial in Washington, D.C., April 18, 2015. Miller was assigned to the 332nd Fighter Group, known as the “Red Tails,” and he served from Nov. 17, 1942 to Dec. 7, 1944. (Source: U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Devin S. Michaels / Released)

Mr. Joel Miller lived an eventful life. The youngest child born to Roland & Ethel Miller in 1923, he hitchhiked 115 miles to and from his hometown of Augusta, to the campus of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff to complete high school. Afterwards, he found employment in Memphis, Tennessee, where he worked on the construction of several downtown buildings. He also landed a job at the airport, where he learned how to fly Piper Cubs. Shortly after the United States entered World War II, he joined the military on Nov. 17, 1942. His desire to fly planes led him to enter into the U.S. Army Air Corps, the predecessor of the U.S. Air Force. (1)

In a November 2013 interview with the Warren Record, Mr. Miller recounted, “There were some Black officers, but they could only go so far with their authority, not as much as the white officers. We (Blacks) were put through strenuous tests. The least little thing would wash us out. It was stressful.” (2)

Mr. Miller attended basic training and passed the Air Corps exam, after he was initially denied to take it two years prior. He did not give up. He shared, “It was thought that Blacks did not have the intelligence to handle advanced equipment.” (3) He was finally given a chance to take the exam, passed it on the first try, and was assigned to the celebrated 332nd Fighter Group, known as the Tuskegee Airmen, who was headed to Europe. The 332nd consisted of the 100th, 301st and 302nd Fighter Squadrons at Tuskegee Army Air Field, Alabama. These airmen were coined the Red Tails because they painted the tails of their Republic P-47 Thunderbolt aircrafts red. The Tuskegee Airmen were the first African American military aviators in the United States Armed Forces. Their story was told in the 2012 movie, “Red Tails.”

Eight Tuskegee Airmen in front of a P-40 fighter aircraft, c. May 1942-Aug 1943
(Source: Wikipedia, public domain)

However, near completion of his training, Mr. Miller unfortunately injured his back and received a medical discharge on December 7, 1944. He then attended a semester at Howard Univ. before becoming a truck driver. After over 50 years of driving 18-wheelers around the country, his hearing forced him to retire in 2000, at the age of 77. In 1990, he and his wife Joyce had moved to Warrenton, where he joined the ancestors this past April. (4)

One of those ancestors was Joseph Miller, whom I had found in the 1870 and 1880 census, residing in Woodruff County, Arkansas. I had determined that our connection to Mr. Miller is via his paternal grandfather. He shares 81, 94, and 90 cM over multiple chromosome segments with my mother, her brother and sister, respectively. In genetic genealogy, those amounts are in the range of a third cousin, or even a second cousin once or twice removed.

Mr. Miller also shares significant DNA with my mother’s maternal second cousins, and they are all the great-grandchildren of Edward Danner, Sr. & Louisa Bobo Danner of Como, Mississippi. Since we are also sharing DNA with a descendant of Mr. Miller’s great-uncle, Charles Miller, this clue and other indicators strongly suggest that Grandpa Edward Danner and Joseph & Charles Miller were closely related. But how?

Born about 1835 in Union County, South Carolina, Grandpa Edward was purchased from Thomas Danner’s estate by Dr. William J. Bobo, who took him to Panola County, Mississippi c. 1859. He was forever separated from his family back in South Carolina. DNA has been revealing who some of his family members were. DNA has also been revealing that he had close family ties in neighboring Spartanburg County, South Carolina. However, the censuses consistently show that Joseph & Charles Miller, who lived next-door to each other, were both born in Tennessee in the mid-late 1820s. What am I missing?

1880 U.S. Census, Woodruff County, Arkansas: The household of Joseph Miller, with wife Sarah, and their seven children, Tisha, Frank, Albert, Sally, Abraham, Roland (Joel’s father), and Azalee Miller. Another son, Malachi Miller, was born later, in 1882.

A major breakthrough occurred last week when I saw the name Joseph Miller, with a dependent Sarah Miller (widow), from Arkansas in the Civil War Pension Index: General Index to Pension Files, 1861-1934. I needed to know if this Joseph was the same person. I soon hopped on the Metro, headed into D.C. to the National Archives, and retrieved his Civil War pension file. Grandpa Edward had also fought in the Civil War; he enlisted near Memphis, Tennessee with the 59th Infantry of the USCT in 1863. His widow, Grandma Louisa, filed for a widow’s pension in 1890, which created a thick pension file chockful of genealogical and historical information. Luckily, he was the same Joseph Miller, and his pension file was an informational goldmine, too.

I learned a lot about Joseph, especially from the depositions of his widow Sarah, her brothers, Ransom “Rance” and Mason Roddy, and from his brother, Charles. Rance Roddy had also served with the 113th Infantry. They testified about being present at their wedding, likely a “jump the broom” ceremony, which was held on Christmas Day on Thomas Booker Roddy’s plantation in 1858. They also provided testimony about his service in the Civil War and his subsequent illnesses before he died on May 5, 1894.

In her deposition, dated March 11, 1896, his widow Sarah Miller testified:

“My age is about 58, occupation is house work, residence and post, Riverside, Arkansas. I am the identical person who is the widow of Joseph Miller who enlisted, as shown on his discharge papers I show to you, on April 20, 1864, Company E, 113 U S Col Vol Inf (United States Colored Volunteer Infantry), and discharged April 9, 1866 as a Private and who died in this house on May 5, 1894. Cause of death was typhoid malaria fever, so Dr. B. A. Fletcher said ….. I was married Christmas Day the year Mary Roddy was born. I belonged to her father Booker Roddy. Yes sir, the marriage was before the War but there was talk of war. I was married by Rev. Sam Snow, now dead. Those who know about my marriage are Fred Gilchrist, Chas Miller, and Mason Roddy. I was married about 3 miles east of Augusta on my master’s farm. No sir, there was no license, simply the consent of my master, now dead …. My husband was born in Haywood Co., Tennessee. James Miller brought him to Arkansas but his owner was Wilson Miller, and he owned him up until time of enlistment …. A bunch of Yankee soldiers came and took him to Devalls Bluff and made him a soldier. I do know that he was a perfectly sound man when he enlisted. I know he has often said that his rheumatism came upon him in the service and he also had heart trouble ….” (partial transcription) (5)

In his deposition, dated March 13, 1896, Charles Miller testified:

“My age is about 68 years old, occupation farming, residence and post office, Augusta, Arkansas. I enlisted in 1864, Company C, 113 U S Col Vol Inf and discharged within three months. I left and went home on account of sickness. I know Sarah Miller. I know the soldier. He was my brother. He was born in Haywood Co., Tennessee near Wesley and owned by Ellick Roddy. At age 4 or 5, we were brought here and sold to Wilson Miller who carried us back to Haywood County, Tennessee. I was there and so was he about 7 or 8 years and I think it was about 20 years before the War Joe and I were brought back to Arkansas …. He was sound and healthy when he enlisted. I was examined with him ….” (partial transcription) (6)

The next day, on March 14, 1896, Sarah’s brother, Mason Roddy, testified:

“My age is about 63, occupation farming, residence and post, Riverside, Arkansas. I know Sarah Miller and her husband Joe Miller. Knew them before the War. Knew him since he was a boy owned by Ellias Roddy. He first lived I think in Tipton County, Randolph P.O., Tennessee and was brought to Arkansas in 1833 …. Wilson Miller bought Joe and carried him back to Tennessee and then about 4 or 5 years before the War, he was brought back to Arkansas about the same locality. I knew her (Sarah) every since she was born. She is my sister. She was owned by Booker Roddy. I do know they were married about 3 miles from Augusta on master’s place. I think she was married about 1858 near or about Christmas time ….” (partial transcription) (7)

Fortunately, the pension file revealed who Joseph Miller’s first and last enslavers were. Finding the names of the slave-owners is a great feat in African American genealogy, in order to uncover more about one’s enslaved ancestors. His pension file essentially knocked down that infamous “1870 Brick Wall.”

Joseph and Charles Miller’s first enslaver, Alexander Roddy, Jr. (1757-1840), whom Charles had called “Ellick,” had sold them to Wilson Miller, his daughter Rose Roddy Miller’s son, when they were young boys. A Roddy descendant wrote, “Alexander Roddy, Jr.’s family flourished in Spartanburg County, South Carolina, but as time passed, they longed for more space. In 1823, West Tennessee was opened for settlers, and in 1825, following the deaths of Alexander Roddy III and his young wife from a malignant disease, the family again pulled up stakes and moved to Tennessee. They sold their farms and loaded their belongings into covered wagons and began a journey which would take them through the Appalachian Mountains, all the way across Tennessee to new lands and the Hatchie River not far from the Mississippi River.” (8)

However, the author didn’t mention that Roddy and his family had likely transported the family’s slaves with them to West Tennessee. I plausibly assert that those enslaved people likely included one (or both) of Joseph & Charles Miller’s parents, and one of them was closely related to Grandpa Edward Danner. The 1810 census reported him as having 11 slaves in Spartanburg County, South Carolina. He was not found in the 1820 census, but the 1830 census reported him as having 19 slaves in Tipton County, Tennessee. Shortly afterwards, by 1835, the elderly Alexander Jr., his wife Agnes, and most of their children and spouses had settled in Jackson County, Arkansas and established a plantation called Walnut Woods near Augusta. (Note: Woodruff County was created from Jackson County in 1861.)

Maybe one day, I will uncover the names of those enslaved family members the Roddys had likely transported to Tennessee from South Carolina. Nonetheless, what I have learned so far is a major feat. Quite possibly, none of this would have ever been known if autosomal DNA technology had not revealed a biological connection to Cousin Joel Miller. I may never know if knew about his grandfather and great-uncles’ service in the Union Army. They bravely fought for their freedom. Undoubtedly, he would have been proud, as he was of his own military service. He is now sitting at their feet and listening to their stories, on the other side.

Joel Miller was a member of the American Legion Post 547. Members and community leaders saluted his casket, April 15, 2019. (9)


(1-4) Harris, Jennifer.  “Tuskegee airman endures injury, hardship on journey to 90th year.” The Warren Record, 6 November 2013, http://www.warrenrecord.com.

(5-7) The pension file of Joseph Miller, Nos. 6555317 and 597.327, 1888-1894, National Archives and Records Administration.

(8) Raineshek, Jean. “A Brief History of the Roddy Family in America.” Accessed at http://freepages.rootsweb.com/~hatcher/genealogy/roddy.htm, 6 November 2019.

(9) Hendricks, Ashley. “Beloved veteran laid to rest.” The Warren Record, 17 April 2019, http://www.warrenrecord.com; picture by Delmas Cooper.

3 thoughts on “A Tuskegee Airman and His Civil War Soldier Grandfather

  1. Mary M. McClellan

    Such a beautiful tribute to your cousins and to all those other veterans who fought for freedom through their military service. Your research and the narratives that you create are truly inspirational to the rest of us who are trying to find out about the journey of our ancestors. Thank you!


  2. Mary Cargill

    Melvin!!!! You are awesome. Thank you for this information!!!! I thought Rance and Mason were the brothers of my great grandmother, Sarah, but no one could tell me for sure and you’ve narrowed our connection to your Edward Danner. Not only that, but you found the connection to those the first and last slave owners. Amazing, amazing, amazing. Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

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