FREEPORT - A Freeport woman did some digging and uncovered an extraordinary chapter in her family history.

Cheryl Wills, of Freeport, was searching on the family tree website when she discovered that her great-great-great-grandfather was a slave who fought in the Civil War.

In 1863, her ancestor Sandy Wills escaped from his master and joined the United States Colored Troops, who were the first black soldiers to serve in the U.S. Army.

Wills was among 200,000 black servicemen who signed up to fight for their freedom and for the liberty of thousands of other slaves. About 90,000 members of the Colored Troops regiments were runaway slaves.

Even as they fought to end slavery, black troops battled racism within their own ranks. They were paid less than their white counterparts, and were typically given tattered uniforms and substandard weapons.

“What I'm proud of is that my great-great-great grandfather never went AWOL, never complained," says Cheryl Wills. "This was the beginning of civil rights because now you have a group of men united fighting for a cause. That had never happened in America.”

Wills documented her family's remarkable journey from slavery to freedom in her book "Die Free: A Heroic Family Tale."

Nearly 40,000 black soldiers gave their lives in the Civil War.