Voices of the Civil War Episode 20: “Medal of Honor”

Voices of the Civil War Episode 20: “Medal of Honor”


“Once let the black man get upon his person
the brass letter, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder
and bullets in his pocket, there is no power on earth that can deny that he has earned
the right to citizenship.” Frederick Douglass, 1863 More than 180,000 African-American soldiers
served in the Union Army during the Civil War, and their role in direct combat was increased
following the Emancipation Proclamation. Of these African-American soldiers, sixteen would
go on to earn the Medal of Honor, which was established by President Lincoln, in 1861,
as a way of awarding personal acts of valor that were above and beyond the call of duty. This recognition came to only a few black
soldiers, despite the fact that by the end of the war, they made up 12 percent of the
Union Army. They also faced prejudices and dangers that white soldiers did not experience.
Black soldiers received low pay, inferior weapons, and inadequate medical care. And
because the Confederate Army did not always take black prisoners, capture frequently meant
death rather than confinement (Schubert 4). The first African-American soldier to earn
a Medal of Honor was Sergeant William H. Carney of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.
Carney was born into slavery in Norfolk, Virginia in 1840, but escaped through the Underground
Railroad to Massachusetts, where he enlisted in the army at the age of 23. In his detailed
account of the battle at Fort Wagner in Charleston, South Carolina—one of the bloodiest battles
of the war—he remembered seizing and shielding the regimental flag after the color bearer
was shot down. He then held the Stars and Stripes aloft while running through a volley
of Confederate bullets. In the process, Carney was twice severely wounded, but eventually
reached friendly lines (Sutherland 96): “We came at length within hailing distance
of the rear guard, who caused us to halt, and upon asking who we were, and finding I
was wounded, took us to the rear and through the guard. An officer came, and taking my
name and regiment, put us in charge of the hospital corps, telling them to find my regiment.
When we finally reached the latter the men cheered me and the flag. My reply was, ‘Boys,
the old flag never touched the ground'” (Coffin 196). Another soldier who received the Medal of
Honor was Private James Daniel Gardner. In 1844, Gardner was born in Gloucester County,
Virginia, and worked as an oysterman before enlisting into the 2nd North Carolina Colored
Volunteers, part of the 36th U.S. Colored Infantry, on September 15, 1863. In 1864, the African-American war correspondent
Thomas Morris Chester was inspired to write: “The 36th is a model regiment and wherever
it has operated, it has been distinguished by the undaunted bravery of the men and gallantry
of its officers” (Bryant 5). James Gardner received his Medal not for nobility or gallantry,
but for the aggressiveness of his actions during the Battle of New Market Heights at
Chaffin’s Farm, Virginia on September 29, 1864. At one point during the offensive, a
defiant Gardiner rushed in advance of his brigade, shot a rebel lieutenant who stood
on a parapet rallying his troops, then ran the man through with his bayonet. Fourteen of the sixteen Medals of Honor awarded
to African-American soldiers were given away for actions at the Battle of New Market Heights,
where over 50 percent of the black troops were killed, wounded, or captured. One soldier,
Corporal Miles James, had his arm mutilated and quickly amputated, but nevertheless he
loaded and fired his weapon with one hand, urging his troops forward. Others, like Thomas
R. Hawkins and Christian Fleetwood, were decorated for seizing and bearing the regimental colors
after the color bearers had been shot down—an act fraught with danger. During the Civil War, the battlefield provided
a platform for African-Americans to actively earn the respect of whites. As historian Joseph
Glatthaar puts it: “For them, combat was a great opportunity to demonstrate to all others
their willingness to lay down their lives on behalf of their country, for the restoration
of the union and the termination of slavery” (Glatthaar 121). At the same time that African-American men
fought for citizenship on the battlefield, American women, black and white, were seeking
a path to equal opportunity on the home front.

2 thoughts on “Voices of the Civil War Episode 20: “Medal of Honor”

  1. US COLORED TROOPS US ARMY
    18 CONGRESSIONAL MEDAL OF HONOR AWARDS.
    15 USCT Regiments
    1 William H Carney 54Th Mass.
    1 Andrew J Smith. 55Th Mass.
    1 Bruce Anderson. 142nd New York Infantry Regiment.
    US NAVY 8 BLACK NAVAL CONGRESSIONAL MEDAL OF HONOR AWARDS.
    1. Robert Blake. 1st Black to Receive the actual Medal of Honor in 1864.
    2. Aaron Anderson.
    3. William H. Brown
    4. Wilson Brown
    5. Clement Dees. Medal of Honor rescinded due to desertion.
    6. John Lawson
    7. James Mifflin
    8. Joachim Pease.
    Total Awards Issued 26.

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