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We Are Essay

1382 words - 6 pages

Since the dawn of the nation, the armed forces have included black Americans. As early as 1652, leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony mandated that all Indians and people of African descent residing in "settled" areas enlist in a local militia. Prince Duplex, Sr. was one of nearly 300 men of African descent to enlist in the Connecticut militia during the Revolutionary War, and Oscar Marion, a slave on the South Carolina plantation of war hero General Francis Marion, fought side by side with his master, also serving as "personal assistant, bodyguard, sous-chef, bugler, courier, confidant, and oarsman." When the Medal of Honor—the nation's highest award for military valor—was established in ...view middle of the document...

The first African American to earn the Medal of Honor was Sergeant William Carney, a flag-bearer in Company C of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry. Though Carney was part of the 18 July 1863 assault on Fort Wagner, a Confederate stronghold in South Carolina, he would not receive the medal until 1900. Such delays were not uncommon, however, among both white and black soldiers that served in the Civil War.

The first African American to actually receive the Medal of Honor was the contraband sailor Robert Blake, who was awarded it in April 1864 for his naval exploits the previous December. While serving on the U.S.S. Marblehead, a Union battleship operating on the Stono River in South Carolina, he helped fend off heavy Confederate fire with his rifle. Another critical moment in Medal of Honor history occurred on 29 September 1864, when, during the Battle of New Market Heights in Virginia, thirteen black soldiers earned the award for their valor in leading the charge against Confederate fortifications after many of their officers were killed or wounded. The last Civil War soldier to be honored with the medal was Sergeant Andrew Jackson Smith, who fought in the Battle of Honey Hill in 1864 but whose medal was not awarded until 2001. His original nomination had been considered, but was ultimately turned down because his regimental commander, wounded early in the battle, was not aware of Smith's actions, leaving Smith's heroics unreported in the battle record.

After the Civil War, as African Americans transitioned from volunteer service members to career military men, the potential for combat action increased. Through the end of the nineteenth century, thirty-two black soldiers and sailors earned the medal while serving in the Indian Wars, the Spanish-American War, and the intervening peacetime years. The most significant of these men were the eighteen "Buffalo Soldiers" and scouts, men like sergeants Moses Williams and John Warrior, who, in a bitter twist of fate, helped conquer the western frontier from 1866–1890. (Notably, while the Medal of Honor today is reserved for only combat feats of heroism, prior to World War II the Navy awarded two versions of the medal, one of which was for peacetime acts of heroism. Robert Sweeney, the only double Medal of Honor recipient among African Americans and one of eight black peacetime recipients—all in the Navy—earned his awards in 1881 and 1883, both times for saving a man from drowning.)

It was not until World War I that the color of a man's skin came to be a serious barrier to Medal of Honor consideration. Though there was no written policy specifying discrimination, all branches of the military were well in step with the Jim Crow conditions of racism, and would continue to be so until the Korean War over thirty years later. As a result, no African Americans were awarded the Medal of Honor during World War I and World War II, and only a few were even considered for the award.

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