Opinion: First Black Chattanooga National Cemetery superintendent a little known story

Staff File Photo By Robin Rudd / Canada geese fly past a crest of the Chattanooga National Cemetery, as the rising sun illuminates headstones on November 9, 2022.

The first Black superintendent of the Chattanooga National Cemetery wasn't appointed in the post-civil rights era as a progressive symbol, or even any time in the last 50 years.

No, the first Black superintendent of what was once the nation's second largest national cemetery, according to numerous online histories, was appointed on Nov. 9, 1878, a scant few years after many people of his race in the South had been enslaved.

But you won't be able to find the grave of George W. Ford among the cemetery's rocky 120 acres on this Memorial Day weekend, when each of its more than 50,000 plots are decorated with tiny American flags. He was here only a short time before being transferred to Beaufort National Cemetery in South Carolina.

Yet, Ford is part of the often untold stories of Blacks in the history of the august grounds, which were appropriated and later purchased during the Civil War that was fought in part over slavery.

Many people who are somewhat familiar with the history of the cemetery know it is the burial site of members of Andrews Raiders, whose 1862 military raid commandeered a Confederate train and took it northward from Marietta, Georgia, back toward Chattanooga and attempted to damage the Confederate-held Western and Atlantic Railroad line as they went.

Some also may know it for the relatively recent burials of Medal of Honor recipients such as Charles Coolidge, for whom Coolidge Park is named, and Desmond Doss, the first conscientious objector to be awarded the medal and the subject of the 2016 movie "Hacksaw Ridge," which starred Andrew Garfield.

But few may know that the cemetery is the final resting site for more than 880 members of the United States Colored Troops, who were Union Army regiments of mostly Black soldiers and who toward the end of the war made up about one-tenth the manpower of the army.

Tennessee was responsible for the third largest number of the Colored Troops, following Louisiana and Kentucky. Their regiments never fought in the Battles for Chattanooga, according to an American Battlefield Trust map, but were as close as Nashville and Decatur, Alabama.

Nevertheless, according to the National Park Service, "hundreds, possibly thousands, of African Americans worked for the armies, and, at times found themselves in harm's way." It cites examples of men such as Peter Dabney, who was liberated in western Tennessee, then hired to attend an officer in a Union regiment, where he remained through the Battle of Chickamauga; John McCline, who served with other teamsters and laborers as troops passed through Chattanooga to Chickamauga; and Silas Chandler, an enslaved man who remained with the Confederate soldier he served who was wounded at Chickamauga and accompanied him back to Mississippi.

In addition, according to a monument to United States Colored Troops erected on the Memorial Circle of Honor at the Chattanooga National Cemetery in 2021 by the City of Chattanooga Neighboroots Program with the Unity Group of Chattanooga, Black troops were responsible for locating Union dead in the vicinity of Chattanooga following the battles here and burying or re-burying them.

But Ford, though here for only a short time, has an interesting story of his own. Born in 1847 to free parents in Alexandria, Virginia, on the plantation of George Washington's Mount Vernon, he was the grandson of West Ford — according to an oral history but refuted by historians — the Black son of Washington, the Revolutionary War hero and the nation's first president. As a young man, George Ford worked as a guard at the late president's tomb.

He enlisted in the 10th Cavalry in 1867 and served two tours of duty with the unit, which became to be known as the Buffalo Soldiers for their western conflicts with Native Americans. After he was honorably discharged from the Army in the mid-1870s, he worked at Arlington National Cemetery before being appointed superintendent at Chattanooga.

Eventually, Ford would manage five different national cemeteries, interrupting that service around 1897 at age 50 to voluntarily enlist in the Spanish-American War with the Second Battalion of the 23rd Kansas Volunteers. He was a delegate from Kansas to the Republican National Convention, which nominated his Spanish-American war acquaintance Theodore Roosevelt for vice president, in 1900. He died in 1939 and was buried, appropriately, in the Camp Butler National Cemetery in Springfield, Illinois, of which he was superintendent for 24 years.

One hundred and sixty years after the Chattanooga National Cemetery opened to bury the dead of the Civil War, Memorial Days don't distinguish among the races of those who gave their all for their country. But it is always instructive to learn how much of a shared sacrifice this country has seen.