A history of valor - Albuquerque Journal

A history of valor

The first African-American to receive the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military award, was born a slave.

Associate Professor Robert F. Jefferson Jr. will discuss and sign copies of “Brothers in Valor” at 4 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 9, at Page One Bookstore, Mountain Run Shopping Center, 5850 Eubank NE, and at 3 p.m. Saturday, Feb.23 at Barnes & Noble, Coronado Shopping Center.

His name was William Harvey Carney, and his act of bravery came as a soldier of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first black Union regiment. The regiment fought in the Civil War battle at Fort Wagner, a Confederate-held garrison of strategic value in the Charleston, S.C., harbor.

The battle was in July 1863, six months after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. The proclamation authorized the War Department to allow Massachusetts to create a volunteer regiment of free Northern blacks.

The recent book “Brothers in Valor” describes Carney’s heroism. In the face of enemy fire, “Private Carney dropped his rifle and seized the regimental colors when Sgt. John Wall, the unit’s regimental flag bearer, was wounded,” the book says.

Though he had serious chest, arm and leg wounds, Carney marched as part of the Union assault on the fort, never dropping the colors. The book says he was overheard proudly telling fellow soldiers, “Boys, the old flag never touched the ground.”

The Carney profile was one of the battlefield stories in the book of the 89 African-Americans awarded the medal. Profiled were Medal of Honor-winning black soldiers who fought in the Indian Wars of the last three decades of the 19th century, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.

The author is Robert F. Jefferson Jr., associate professor of history at the University of New Mexico.

Jefferson said “Brothers in Valor” grew out of his first book, which studied the African-Americans of the U.S. Army’s 93rd Infantry Division during World War II.

“For me, I wanted to understand how soldiers saw themselves in uniform in some of the fiercest fighting in the country’s history and how did their ideas of valor stand in terms of their communities,” Jefferson said.

The author did some research at the Library of Congress, which had lithographs of an exhibit that W.E.B. Dubois, a famous black historian and early civil rights activist, organized of black Medal of Honor recipients with biographical sketches. “That was phenomenal. It allowed me to meet them up close and personal,” Jefferson said.

Regarding Carney and his fellow soldiers in the 54th, Jefferson said, “They realized they were fighting not only for their own freedom … but they readily came to see the unit flag as the embodiment of what they were fighting for – fighting for family members, for their communities. … The flag was extended to represent citizenship for them. They were thinking about that.”

Carney was later promoted to sergeant. However, the author writes, Carney had to wait more than four decades to receive public recognition for his courage. The delay in recognition was not explained.

The 54th and the Fort Wagner battle, which the Confederates won, were subjects of the 1989 feature film “Glory” starring Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman.

Book of the week review

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