Six Harts, One Cause: The Hart Bothers of Alabama

A few years ago, I learned about a man named Derrill Wason Hart. He had played basketball at the University of Kentucky in the early 1900s and led a life of varied accomplishments, but what especially interested me was that his father had been a Confederate soldier. This combination of two of my passions – UK basketball and the Civil War - intrigued me, and it led to the discovery that he also had five uncles who fought for the Confederacy, a factoid that I felt warranted further study.

Derrill’s father Robert was born January 9, 1843 in Montgomery, Alabama, the sixth son (seventh child) of Benjamin and Anne (Falconer) Hart. Robert mustered into Company K of the 22nd Alabama Infantry as a fourth sergeant on October 6, 1861 and stood 5 feet, 11 inches tall with a fair complexion, blueish-gray eyes, and brown hair.

The 22nd Alabama organized in Montgomery in late 1861. In the next year, it fought at Shiloh and joined in Braxton Bragg's invasion of Kentucky.

After leaving Kentucky, this regiment suffered heavy losses at Stones River and then fought at Chickamauga and Missionary Ridge. The regiment battled in the Atlanta campaign before moving to Tennessee under General John B. Hood, seeing action at Franklin and Nashville. It surrendered at Greensboro, North Carolina in late April of 1865.

During the war, Robert earned promotion to 1st sergeant in May of 1862 and transferred to Company E of the same regiment. He was later elected 2nd Lieutenant in that company in September 1862. He also served as a staff officer briefly, perhaps in the quartermaster department and an August 1863 report describes him as “a good officer.”

He suffered an undisclosed illness in mid-1864 while near Atlanta and went on furlough due to his sickness.

About a week after Robert became ill, his brother Benjamin was killed in action on July 28, 1864. How did Robert find out about his brother's death? Was he still with their regiment, was he in the hospital, or had he started his furlough? Did he personally deliver the news home to his family?

However it happened, this was a difficult time, but he did eventually return to his unit and fought until the end of the war, as a "Parole of Prisoners of War" form in his file lists his name among the signatures dated April 27, 1865, near Greenville, Alabama, where he had surrendered or been captured. His regiment had surrendered in North Carolina, so perhaps Robert was on detached assignment, though it is may be more likely that he (and maybe others) had become demoralized and deserted the army in an attempt to return home.

With his military career over, Robert Hart returned to civilian life, during which he studied medicine in Baltimore, practiced it in Alabama, and eventually moved to Woodford County, Kentucky, where he took over the medial practice of Robert Wason, his future father-in-law.

Robert married Rebecca Wason in 1876. The couple produced five children, including future athlete, navy sailor, journalist, and dahlia expert Derrill Wason Hart.

Dr. Robert Singleton Hart was also an elder in the Pisgah Presbyterian Church before passing away at home on March 21, 1916 due to heart issues that had plagued him for weeks.

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The highest-ranking Hart brother of the war was Colonel Benjamin R. Hart. Born April 7, 1834 in Ramer, Alabama, Benjamin was the second oldest family child and was named for his father and paternal grandfather. He lived with his grandfather in South Carolina while attending school as a teenager. He was a planter before the war.

When he enlisted in Company K of the 22nd Alabama Infantry on October 6, 1861 (the same day his brother Robert joined that company) Benjamin was 27 years old, 6-feet tall, with brown hair and a fair complexion. He was elected as a captain upon his enlistment.

At Shiloh in April of the next year, he was wounded, but remained with the regiment.

He earned promotion to Major on December 13, 1862. An August 1863 document labeled him “very efficient,” and some online sources state he was injured at Chickamauga on September 20, 1863. He was promoted again, to Lieutenant-Colonel, on September 23, 1863 and later received a promotion to Colonel on February 11, 1864.

Several months later, however, his fortunes changed. The Battle of Ezra Church and the Struggle for Atlanta describes an incident of July 28, 1864: “Now Col. Benjamin R. Hart of the 22nd Alabama took command of the brigade only to be hit so quickly that he could not make his presence felt.”

Another book, Confederate Colonels: A Biographical Register, reports that Benjamin was: “shot once leading a charge and a second time when being helped off the field. Body fell into Union hands and presumably was buried on the field. A pure patriot and a gallant soldier.”

Benjamin was just 30 years old when he met his fate. He left behind no wife or children, but his mother and several siblings did survive to mourn him.

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The third oldest Hart child, William Falconer Hart, was born October 5, 1835. On April 26, 1861, just two weeks after the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter Abraham Lincoln reacted by requesting 75,000 volunteer militiamen, 25-year-old William cast his lot with the Confederacy, enlisting in Company G of the 3rd Alabama Infantry regiment. He enrolled for one year but died in a hospital on July 11, 1861, in Norfolk, Virginia before even the fighting at Bull Run occurred.

His cause of death remains unknown, but since he had already been in camp, around hundreds of other men and possibly near unclean water, he likely contracted a disease such as typhoid fever, dysentery or malaria.

His younger brother Edward joined the same company a few weeks before William's death, but lived through the war.

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Edward Heron Hart was born April 13, 1837 in Montgomery, the fourth son of this family.

His military career began in confusing fashion, at least in terms of the paper trail, with a touch of sadness as well.

He enlisted in Company G of the 3rd Alabama Infantry, the same unit which his brother William had joined. Edward enrolled for a term of 12 months in the middle of June, about a month before William’s death.

Another form, however, shows that Edward attempted to join an artillery unit, Lee's Light Battery, at the same time. What exactly happened is unclear. Some of the men in that infantry unit left the regiment to join an artillery unit. Edward Hart was among the men who attempted to do so, but a muster roll card for Captain Andrews' Company, Starks' Battalion, Light Artillery, Lee's Light Battery, stated Edward was absent with the note "retained in 3rd Alabama Reg.,” meaning that he was not permitted to join the artillery group. (More descriptions of the maneuvering with these infantrymen and the artillery units, including involvement of the Montgomery True Blues Artillery Battery, are available via online search, but are beyond the scope of this article.)

No matter what happened in June of 1861, Edward remained part of company G, the Lomax Sharp Shooters, of the 3rd Alabama Infantry. He was promoted to corporal on June 15, 1862 and one record from the middle of 1863 indicates he was an orderly sergeant.

The 3rd Alabama was organized at the Montgomery Fairgrounds. It was the first Alabama unit in Virginia and was in Norfolk for a year; after the Confederates evacuated that city, the 3rd Alabama was assigned to what became the Army of Northern Virginia.

Under this command, it saw action in several famous battles in the Eastern Theater, though Edward’s story does belong with those of his brothers who served in the west.

More than 300 of the regiment’s men died during the war.

Paperwork from October 1864 indicates that Edward had served on detached duty as provost guard. This record lists him as 1st Lieutenant, though others show his highest rank as 2nd Lieutenant.

The 3rd Alabama was present at Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, though with just nine officers and ninety-three men by that time.

Before the war, Edward had been a teacher living with Thomas Meriwether, a wealthy planter and slaveowner, in Montgomery in 1860. Their exact relationship is unknown - perhaps Edward needed a place to stay as he ventured out on his own.

After the fighting ended, an 1866 tax list shows Edward still in Montgomery, where he owned fifty-six hogs, worth $560.

A family history website reports that he died on July 24, 1868, just 31 years of age, another Hart brother gone early in life. He is buried, along with his parents, sister, and maternal grandfather in the Falconer Cemetery in Sprague, Alabama.

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Derrill Middleton Hart, the namesake of Derrill Wason Hart, was born in Montgomery on August 4, 1840, the fifth son and sixth child of this family.

On May 10, 1862, Derrill enlisted in Semple's Battery, an artillery battery named for Captain Henry C. Semple. Derrill enlisted at Mobile, Alabama, for "three years or the war."

When Semple was promoted to Major in 1864, Richard W. Goldthwaite took over the battery's leadership and the unit was sometimes referred to as "Goldthwaite's Battery," though at least one form called it “Mark’s Battery” as well.

Derrill enlisted as a private, but earned three promotions, to Corporal on July 20, 1863, to Sergeant on February 10, 1864 and to 2nd Lieutenant on May 7, 1864.

The battery remained in the western theater. It participated in Braxton Bragg's invasion of Kentucky, including at Perryville where two of its guns took part in an artillery duel, while other guns remained closer to the town. Major General William Hardee's battle report referred to the unit as "a fine battery of 12-pounders, under Captain Semple." A marker noting its role in the battle stands on the battlefield.

After this campaign, the battery remained in the newly renamed Army of Tennessee, fighting at Stone’s River and other major battles including Chickamauga. After that Confederate victory, General D. H. Hill referred to the unit as "Semple's magnificent battery.”

The battery also saw action during the Atlanta campaign and at Franklin and Nashville. It suffered losses of men and/or horses in several of its engagements.

Late in the war, it was ordered to North Carolina, but eventually surrendered at Augusta, Georgia in April 1865.

Derrill led a long post-war life, marrying twice and having six children. His first wife was Mary Louisa Armistead, whom he wed on December 4, 1865 in Montgomery. They had four sons (Benjamin R, Derrill M, Robert S and Louis Armistead) - the first three named for Derrill and his brothers and father, the last with Mary's maiden name as his middle name.

On the 1870 census, Derrill, Mary, Benjamin and Derrill Jr. still lived in Montgomery, but in 1878 they moved to Weatherford, Texas.

Mary died May 12, 1884 at 39 years of age and was buried in City Greenwood Cemetery in Weatherford.

Derrill then married S.F. Leach on June 15, 1886, also in Parker County. Her initials probably stood for "Sarah Frances," based on other records showing her name as Sarah, Frances or Fannie, with Fannie likely being a nickname. Derrill and his new bride had two sons, Alonzo and Hardin.

The website for the Texas State Cemetery shows that Derrill worshipped as a Presbyterian and worked as a farmer. He moved into the Confederate Home for Men in Austin on April 14, 1911 before dying there on May 28, 1914 at age seventy-three. He is buried in the state cemetery.

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John Stewart Hart, the seventh son and eighth (and final) child of the Hart clan, was born on September 20, 1844. When the Civil War began, he was just 16 years old and watched five of his brothers join the Confederate army. He did not wait long to join them. On June 14, 1863, while a student at the University of Alabama, the 18-year-old joined Storrs' Cadet Corps, which consisted mainly of university students. He was enlisted by Captain Charles Paddock Storrs in Tuscaloosa, probably on the school’s campus.

This company served as part of Alabama's coastal defenses before being transferred to the forces of Nathan Bedford Forrest in October 1864 as company F of the 7th Alabama Cavalry. It served as an escort for Colonel Edmund W. Rucker.

The cadets also aided in the defense of Alabama against Federal invasion. This included an unsuccessful attempt to defend Tuscaloosa, and the campus itself, from a raid by forces commanded by Union General John T. Croxton.

This corps proved to be a frequently commemorated unit in the post-war years, as two historical markers commemorating the actions of these students came into being. In 1914, a marker provided by the United Daughters of the Confederacy listed how many soldiers the university had supplied to the Confederacy and noted that:

“Recognizing obedience to state, they loyally and uncomplainingly met the call of duty, in numberless instances sealing their devotion by their life blood.

And on April 3, 1865, the Cadet Corps, composed wholly of boys, went bravely forth to repel a veteran Federal invading foe, of many times their number, in a vain effort to save their Alma Mater, its buildings, library and laboratories from destruction by fire, which it met at the hands of the enemy on the day following.”

Another on-campus marker, “placed by survivors and friends in honor of the devoted service, signal valor and noble record of this company” in 1916 describes the unit as “made up of cadets from the University of Alabama and of patriotic young men from Montgomery and vicinity,” and details its service record, including praise from an 1868 book, Campaigns of Forrest: “The unconquerable tenacity, the brilliant valor of these boys, who faced and fought all odds, until their ranks were cut to pieces, excited general notice and praise.”

A newspaper article found on ancestry.com, marked 1931, but without further details, reads, in part: “At Paris Landing, on the Tennessee river, Storrs' company of cadets accomplished the unprecedented feat of capturing a Federal gunboat which had steamed unharmed past the masked batteries of the Confederates, and they amply rewarded by a splendid feast about to be served to those on board the gunboat..."

The university later commissioned a painting, Alabama Corps of Cadets Call to Battle, from artist John Paul Strain, to commemorate the 145th anniversary of the group’s defense of the campus.

John Hart survived the war and by 1870 was living with the Isabelle Hodge family in Plano, Texas while working as a farm laborer. Another resident of the household, Elisabeth Dudley, became John's bride on July 28, 1872.

By 1880, John was a farmer in Dennison, Texas with Elisabeth and sons John, Eddy and Benjamin. Records show that the Harts moved to Florida, where they had two more children, Carolina Falconer, in 1883, and Hugh Henry in 1885.

When and where the elder John died remains unknown.

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These stories of the six sons of Benjamin and Anne Hart exemplify several of the challenges and opportunities the Civil War offered soldiers – promotions, illness, wounding, deaths in battle and a hospital, fighting in famous battles, marching in long campaigns, life in both the western and eastern theaters, and the finality and sadness of defeat and surrender. Like most of their comrades, they lived and fought in relative obscurity, but soldiers like the Harts formed the foundation of the Confederate armies.

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