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Remembering, Honoring Achievements Of African-American Soldiers
by U.S. Army Catrina Francis
416th Theater Engineer Command
February 25, 2023

Over the years, I’ve heard people say Black History Month is about being divisive and it’s not needed, because we all are Americans. I partially agree with that because I am an American, but I’m also an African American, and my history isn’t inclusive in American history.

Since I was only taught the glossed over version about the accomplishments of African Americans, I read books outside of the classroom. I have also read a little about prominent African Americans who served in the military and were willing to fight and die for a country during a time when equality didn’t apply to them nor was their sacrifice initially appreciated. Although African Americans have fought in each of America’s wars, including the war that formed this country, Black Soldiers were treated like second-class citizens until the military was desegregated in 1948 through Executive Order 9981.

Even though the military started the process of desegregation in 1948, it would take another six years before education began to be equal and another 16 years before the rest of America followed the example set by the Department of Defense with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The passage of these acts finally provided African Americans with the inalienable rights afforded to them in the U.S. Constitution.

Although African Americans were enduring Jim Crow laws in America, more than 380,000 served during World War I, according to the National Archives. About 200,000 were sent to Europe, and more than half of those who deployed were assigned to labor battalions. These troops performed essential duties for the American Expeditionary Force, building roads, bridges, and trenches in support of the front-line battles.

The Vietnam War saw the highest proportion of African Americans ever to serve in an American war, according to pbs.org. There was a marked turnaround from previous attitudes that Black men were not fit for combat. During the Vietnam War, African Americans faced a much greater chance of being on the front line, and consequently a much higher casualty rate. In 1965 alone, African Americans represented almost 25% of those killed in action.

Over the years there have been several movies about the military and I’m not always a fan of military movies because some aren’t always historically correct. I would rather read books about certain events. However, in 1990 I was intrigued by the movie “Glory,” and I admit it was mainly because Denzel Washington was in the movie. I would soon learn about an all-Black unit that I didn’t have any prior knowledge about, nor was it taught in school.

One of best scenes in the movie was when Pvt. Trip, the Soldier portrayed by Washington, was asked to carry the unit’s colors but declined. I wanted to know if that was Hollywood or an actual person. I learned it was a little of both. Trip’s final scene when he picked up the colors after the guidon bearer was mortally wounded was loosely based on Sgt. William Carney’s bravery during the Battle of Fort Wagner outside of Charleston, South Carolina.

The 54th Massachusetts charge against the defending Confederates at the Battle of Fort Wagner, South Carolina, in 1863. (Image provided by U.S. Army photo Catrina Francis, 416th Theater Engineer Command.)
The 54th Massachusetts charge against the defending Confederates at the Battle of Fort Wagner, South Carolina, in 1863. (Image provided by U.S. Army photo Catrina Francis, 416th Theater Engineer Command.)

On Feb. 17, 1863, at age 23, Carney heeded the call for African Americans to join a local militia unit, the Morgan Guards, with 45 other volunteers from his hometown of New Bedford, Massachusetts. The unit would later become Company C, 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, according to www.historynet.com.

During the Battle of Fort Wagner, the color bearer was wounded. Carney noticed that the Soldier was beginning to weaken, and he threw his gun down and grabbed the colors before they could touch the ground. He became the color bearer and moved forward during the assault. Instead of retreating, Carney forged ahead while bullets where flying and his fellow Soldiers were being shot. During the battle, Carney was optimistic as he thought help was on the way, but the Soldiers before him were Confederates.

As Carney advanced, he passed over a ditch with water up to his waist. He decided to use the water as cover. When Carney raised up for a better look he was shot, which proved to be a painful mistake. As he proceeded, he was shot again. Despite being shot twice, Carney continued to advance until he came across a Union Soldier from the 100th out of New York. As the Soldier assisted, he told Carney he would help him carry the colors. Carney declined, as he was adamant about keeping the colors until he could surrender them to a fellow Soldier in the 54th.

The amazing part of Carney is he was hit two more times ... once in the arm and another bullet grazed his head. I think after being shot four times most would have surrendered the colors, but Carney held on to them. The two stumbled to the rear and Carney finally gave the colors to a member of his unit. His famous line about his ordeal was, “The old flag never touched the ground, boys.” Although Carney’s actions that fateful day were selfless, he didn’t receive recognition until May 23, 1900, when he was awarded the Medal of Honor — the first African American to receive the award. When Carney was asked about his heroic actions he replied, “I only did my duty.”

Prior to “Glory,” I didn’t learn about the importance of Sgt. William Carney and the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment because it wasn’t taught in my history class when I learned about the Civil War. Instead, I had to learn African-American military history from a movie.

It’s been said that African-American history is more than one month, and I agree because my history is so much more. Until Black history is more intertwined with American history, we must continue to highlight the accomplishments of prominent African Americans.

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