America’s national cemeteries were first authorized on July 17, 1862, as part of a congressional act to fund the Union military forces during the Civil War. Initially, national cemeteries were intended for the burial of those who served with the U.S. (Union) forces.
A majority of early national cemeteries were established in the defeated South and, out of necessity, numerous federal laws were passed to protect the cemeteries and graves of Union soldiers buried there. Many laws in the immediate aftermath of the war, rewarded Veterans of the Union forces for their role in defeating what was called, at the time, “the rebellion.
One example was the first Veterans preference law, enacted on March 3, 1865, which created a federal policy of giving preference to military Veterans when hiring positions for government agencies. As a consequence, the Army’s Quartermaster Department made it their policy to employ Veterans of the U.S. forces for its growing national cemetery system, which was a winning arrangement for both the department and the Veterans.
In 1878 Maj. George W. Ford, a “Buffalo soldier” of the reorganized Army after the Civil War, became one of the first African-Americans appointed as superintendent of a national cemetery.
George William Ford was born on Nov. 23, 1847, near Alexandria, Virginia, and was the grandson of West Ford, a slave of President George Washington’s family in Virginia. His grandfather obtained his freedom from Bushrod Washington, who inherited Mount Vernon, and became a significant landowner in Fairfax County in the 19th century.
After the Civil War ended, the U.S. Army was reorganized, and because of the U.S. Colored Troops’ success during the war, the new Army included segregated regiments of African-American soldiers. George enlisted with the segregated 10th Cavalry in 1867 and served in Kansas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas during the government’s wars with various Native American tribes until his honorable discharge in 1873.
On Nov. 9, 1878, George Ford was appointed as superintendent at Chattanooga National Cemetery in Tennessee, but was transferred shortly afterwards to Beaufort National Cemetery in South Carolina. There he soon met and married Hattie Bythewood and started a family. He was superintendent at Beaufort for roughly 15 years, until 1894, when he was transferred to Fort Scott National Cemetery in Kansas.
During the Spanish American War he took a short leave of absence and served with the Second Battalion of the 23rd Kansas Volunteers. In 1904, after roughly 10 years at Fort Scott, he was transferred to Port Hudson National Cemetery in Louisiana. By that time his family had grown to include 7 children. Two of his sons went on to graduate from Meharry Medical School and served in World War I.
His tenure at Port Hudson National Cemetery was short-lived, one of his shortest — two years, as he was transferred, again, in 1906 to Camp Butler National Cemetery near Springfield, Illinois. He spent the remainder of his career at Camp Butler National Cemetery, retiring on Oct. 20, 1930. He enjoyed a long 52 year career overseeing five national cemeteries. He died on June 30, 1939 at the age of 91 and was buried at Camp Butler National Cemetery.