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This White officer led Black troops during the Civil War. 110 years after his death, he was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery


By Phil Gast, CNN

It wasn’t just bullets and slashing swords that Isaac C. Hart had to fear during the Civil War.

As a White Army officer leading Black troops, Hart faced the possibility of being treated harshly if taken captive by the Confederacy. The men in his company, part of United States Colored Troops 2nd Regiment Cavalry, had similar concerns, including a threat by the Confederacy to enslave them.

The valor of the major and the troopers was remembered Thursday at Arlington National Cemetery during an unusual burial ceremony: Hart died 110 years ago and his ashes went unclaimed until a great-great niece recently retrieved them. The warrior was finally laid to rest following a stirring service involving the Army’s 3rd Infantry Regiment, which is also known as the Old Guard that guards the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the cemetery.

His descendant, Rachel Bender, knew some things about Hart — including that he served in two Massachusetts regiments before he joined the USCT regiment for the last year and a half of the war. The cavalry unit helped capture the strategic Bermuda Hundred and took part in the sieges of Richmond and Petersburg, Virginia.

But the Albion, Indiana, resident got the shock of her life last November. A man who was at a Cincinnati cemetery spotted Hart’s tagged remains in an urn and reached out to her.

“What do you do if you have an email and someone says they found your relative on a shelf?” Bender said.

Hart, who died at age 74 in 1913, left behind a family, but Bender has not learned why he was never buried or even when he moved to Cincinnati.

After the discovery, she contacted Arlington about the possibility of Hart being buried there. The wheels were set in motion.

“Arlington was very professional,” Bender told CNN on Friday on the eve of returning home. “They listened to me and did not believe I was crazy. They helped me every inch of the way.”

Thursday’s burial was emotional for Bender’s family and others who attended. “This really touched everyone’s heartstrings. It is a come-together story,” she said.

Army Chaplain Capt. John Ulrick spoke of his five children, four of whom are Black.

“I love my children with all my heart, and I personally owe a debt of gratitude to Maj. Isaac Hart for fighting for them, for their freedom and for me to be able to be their father,” he told the gathering, according to an Arlington blog post.

At the conclusion of the service, a Black park ranger briefly spoke with Bender.

“We both cried and hugged,” she said.

Bender said she hopes the ceremony will prompt more African-American families to dig into the little-known stories of ancestors who fought for the Union unit.

A history professor and a park ranger, both African-American, told CNN that while increased attention has been given in recent decades to the service of nearly 200,000 men in the USCT, there’s more to be done.

A push to tell more of their stories

Emmanuel Dabney was only 16 when he started working as a seasonal ranger with the National Park Service. He’s now museum curator at Petersburg National Battlefield, and he’s given numerous talks that include information about Black troops who fought for the Union.

There was racial prejudice, despite the remarkable contributions the soldiers and sailors made, he said.

Dabney said it was common for USCT cavalry units to not receive proper equipment and horses.

Congress did act to remove a disparity in pay between White and Black soldiers. But getting money into the field was challenging. “Some of these soldiers would die and would never get paid,” Dabney said.

Now 38, Dabney recalls when he began work he thought, “Where are the stories about Black people?”

Over the years, the National Park Service has increased interpretation of the topic, he said. “There is definitely a lot more work to be done.”

The park curator and Holly A. Pinheiro Jr., assistant professor of history at Furman University, praise the 1989 film “Glory” about the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, a famous African-American unit.

But, as Dabney says, the movie came out a long time ago.

“For a whole generation, they have no idea in a popular sense that there were black Civil War soldiers.”

Dabney and Pinheiro would like to see more documentaries and books about the contributions.

Pinheiro, author of “The Families’ Civil War: Black Soldiers and the Fight for Racial Justice,” said the International African American Museum in Charleston, South Carolina, which opens this summer, will help widen who shares and provides history.

The professor said the contributions of African-American soldiers and their families were erased in much of the country after the Civil War because of the “Lost Cause” ideology — the belief that states’ rights, not slavery, was the Confederacy’s principal cause, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Author Ta-Tehisi Coates, writing several years ago in The Atlantic, detailed the dearth of Blacks studying the Civil War. He wrote that the war involved forces for and against slavery, but the legacy did not belong to African-Americans. Rather, Coates wrote, there was a “comforting story of tragedy, failed compromise, and individual gallantry.”

Pinheiro says the study of the Civil War remains challenging for millions.

“I understand why it is difficult. I have family members who were formerly enslaved.”

Black volunteers were motivated to strike the blow

About 40,000 Black troops died during the Civil War, from combat, casualty and disease, according to the American Battlefield Trust. The organization says the volunteers were the embodiment of Frederick Douglass’ belief that “Who would be free themselves must strike the blow.” Some, in fact, were returned to slavery.

Their service during the Civil War led to three new constitutional amendments, including one that gave them citizenship and provided equal protection for all.

Dabney, the curator at Petersburg, finds a metaphor in the story of Hart, who was a captain promoted to brevet major in 1865 as the war ended.

The officer’s remains were not interred and his story dwelt in the shadows. But with the burial on Thursday, the story of Hart’s fighting to ensure freedom for all is now in the open, Dabney said. So, too, are the sacrifices Black soldiers made. “I hope more of the fog will be lifted from the minds of America,” he said.

A Facebook post by Arlington National Cemetery about the burial elicited numerous comments praising Hart’s service.

“May Army Captain Isaac Hart’s final place of rest at Arlington National bring his descendants immense pride knowing their ancestor willingly offered his life upon the altar of freedom to secure both liberty & justice for all,” read one commenter.

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