Photo by Houghton Library, Harvard University
Original sketch by Frank Vizetelly of the Union assault on Fort Wagner, South Carolina in 1863 by the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, an all-Black Union Army regiment.
History should be taught in schools, great people overlooked too long
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. 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.
The 1960s was the start of the Civil Rights Movement and how African Americans were finally given the inalienable rights afforded to them in the U.S. Constitution. Those rights started with the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
The decade also marked the first major deployment of an integrated military to Vietnam, which for my family was my dad’s draft and service in the war.
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 the attitude in previous wars 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.
Following the Vietnam War and the phasing out conscription, the number of African Americans volunteering to join the Army grew exponentially, enlisting at rates far above their share of the population, according to pbs.org.
An African American who I didn’t learn about in school is Sgt. William Carney who fought in the Civil War.
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 of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, according to www.historynet.com.
I have to admit that I didn’t know a lot about the 54th until I watched the movie “Glory” in the early 1990s. After watching it my interest was piqued. I wanted to know more about this all-black regiment. I also wanted to know how much of the movie was factual and how much was “Hollywood.”
The more I read about the regiment the more I realized there were quite a few factual parts to the movie. For example, who can forget Denzel Washington’s portrayal of the troubled Pvt. Trip. Little did I know that part of Washington’s portrayal, the end of the movie, was actually based on Carney’s bravery during the Battle of Fort Wagner outside of Charleston, South Carolina.
Who can forget the scene with Washington picking up the colors and yelling, “Come on!” after the Soldier who carried the colors was mortally wounded.
During the real 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 now 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 because he thought help was on the way, but realized that hope was false when he noticed 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 two times, 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 said, “No” because 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 the 54th.
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.”
After reading about Carney’s heroism, I had to ask, could I be that brave in the face of adversity? I don’t know. I wouldn’t retreat, but I don’t know if I could advance without having a weapon. With a weapon, I would at least have a fighting chance. However, Carney didn’t think about defense, his only thought was the colors not touching the ground.
I wish I had learned about Sgt. William Carney and the 54th in school while I was learning about the Civil War. Instead of being taught about these men, I had to learn about African-American history from a movie.
Although Black men and women have become generals and served at the military’s highest echelons, we continue to have firsts in 2021. This year, retired Gen. Lloyd Austin, the 33rd vice chief of staff of the Army and the last commanding general of United States Forces-Iraq Operation New Dawn, became the first African American to serve as the secretary of defense when he was confirmed by the U.S. Senate Jan. 22.
It’s also been said that African-American history shouldn’t be recognized in just one month. I agree because my history is more than one month. Since Black history is becoming inclusive with American history, there is still a need to highlight the accomplishments of prominent African Americans because our story hasn’t always been taught as part of mainstream history.
Pentagram Editor Catrina Francis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Catrina Francis