FREDERICK, Md. (AP) — Actress Ashley Judd learned the truth about her great-great-great-grandfather from George Wunderlich, executive director of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick.
She thought her ancestor had lost a leg as a Union soldier in the Civil War.
“He supposedly lost his leg at the prison camp in Andersonville, that’s all that she knew,” said Wunderlich. “What we found out was that he never was a prisoner of war in Andersonville, Ga. He lost the leg in the Battle of Saltville, Va.”
The information came to light when the two were working on “Who Do You Think You Are,” an NBC television series that traces the genealogy of celebrities such as Judd. Wunderlich was doing research for the program.
He showed her how her ancestor would have been treated and what would have happened to him after surgery.
“She was shocked when she heard how the leg was amputated and what conditions were like in the hospital,” said Wunderlich, 48.
“She got rather emotional. At one point on the camera she teared up, which was … something I did not expect.”
Wunderlich began working with history-related TV programs in 1999. He and a group of people who work with him try to find out the truth about history, mostly from the 1800s.
“It’s a bit like a 19th-century myth-buster,” he said.
Wunderlich also serves as a commentator, although he rarely sees himself on television because he hasn’t owned a TV for 12 years.
He has done 17 shows over the past 2 1/2 years. Among the shows he’s worked on are “The Real Cowboys” and “Battlefield Detectives” for the History Channel, “Who Do You Think You Are” for NBC, “The History Detectives” for PBS and a tourism program for the BBC.
“I consider myself an historical windbag,” he said.
It started with his interest in banjos. Then he became interested in ballistics and medical history. Now he’s delving into more general history. His main area of expertise is from the 1830s to the 1890s.
“It’s kind of expanded expeditiously since I first started doing this back in the 1990s,” he said. “I’ve gotten a reputation for being a fairly easy person to work with. People know that I’m not a pain. People see me on film, evidently like what I did and will ask me to do different things.”
When he provides commentary he might be on the air two or three minutes for one show, much longer for another. He finds being on TV is good for the museum.
“Every time I’ve done a show, people arrive at the front desk (at the museum) and say, `We just saw your director on television and we want to see the museum,”‘ he said. “It brings tourists to Frederick and it helps keep our museum in the public eye.”
The exposure has also given him a public face, which has led to lecture engagements at universities throughout the country.
Many of the programs in which he is involved are filmed in Frederick County.
“If you saw the show and you see me at a gun range, the chances are very good it was the Frederick city police gun range,” he said.
And Judd isn’t the only celebrity he’s worked with. He did another “Who Do You Think You Are” episode with Brooke Shields about her Civil War ancestor. Unfortunately, his part never aired.
They found out she was related to King Louis XIV of France and aired that instead.
“It was awesome meeting her,” Wunderlich said. “She was the teen heartthrob of my generation. So getting to spend an afternoon with her was quite an experience.”
Wunderlich had his first TV exposure in 1999, one year before he became the National Museum of Civil War Medicine’s director of education and three years before he became its executive director.
He was invited to appear on PBS’ “The Woodwright’s Shop” with host Roy Underhill because he had been making banjos — mostly in the style of the 19th century — since 1992.
“I was scared to death at first, but he really put me at ease,” he said. “In that show, I was actually building banjos and, at that time, it was something I could practically do in my sleep.”
From there he appeared on “History Detectives.” Soon, other offers started coming in.
He works with a research group from the museum — including his top researcher, Terry Reimer, director of research for the museum.
The group will examine the smallest details. They once did a ballistic test on a ham to help determine if a cowboy was shot with a soft-tipped arrow or a rifle.
“We provide research and fact-checking and story line recommendations,” he said. “They come to me and say, `We are thinking of doing a show like this. What is your professional opinion?”‘
His favorite show was “The Real Lonesome Dove,” on the History Channel. He spent many days in New Mexico following the exploits of Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving, friends and cattle ranchers of the American West. He researched the type of coffin used when Goodnight brought Loving’s body back to Texas.
“He got a coffin made out of tin and soldered it closed,” Wunderlich said. “Then he put the coffin in a wooden box filled with charcoal to absorb any fluids that might come out of the body. We even put a jack rabbit in a coffin and surrounded it with ash to see if it would work.”
He still plays the banjo and put on a conference about the history of the banjo. But now he’s developed more interests.
“I tend to like all history, even if it’s something that is not my normal study,” he said. “It’s fun when I prepare for those shows to do the historical research. I’ve come from being primarily a banjo guy to being a medicine, ballistics, Civil War, history guy.”
Information from: The Frederick (Md.) News-Post, http://www.fredericknewspost.com
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)