Military history is as full of firsts as any other part of United States history. Black service members have led the charge for progress through their forgotten valor, despite being largely relegated to roles amounting to little more than domestic staff.
The courageous World War II exploits of cook-turned-gunner Dorie Miller have been immortalized in Pearl Harbor.
Miller lit the path for retired Gen. Colin Powell to become America’s first black secretary of state and the only black person to serve on the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
But there are infinite points in the distance between Miller and Powell that show how black veterans exhibited the strength to endure inequality and obscurity – and overcome.
That spirit of determination is right at the heart of the story of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry.
As one of the premier all-black units to enter the Civil War’s Union Army, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry was a first of its kind. Mostly composed of freed black slaves from northern states, the elite group entered history on July 18, 1863 during the battle at Battery Wagner, a Confederate fort located on an island near Charleston, South Carolina.
Helming the assault on Battery Wagner was a daunting challenge, but these black soldiers answered the call to action with bravery and without hesitation.
Although the raid produced an overwhelming amount of casualties, the standout efforts of a single member of Company C brought acclaim to the 54th after Col. Robert Gould Shaw, the unit’s leader, was killed when the soldiers briefly took a small part of the battery.
When Sgt. William H. Carney saw the color sergeant was wounded, he nearly sacrificed his own life to take up the flag and lead troops to plant the colors on the nearby embankment. Defying orders to retreat, Carney took the flag in the face of heavy fire, before falling back.
Two bullets severely wounded Carney, but he survived the attack. He became the first African-American to receive a Congressional Medal of Honor, on May 23, 1900.
The 54th Massachusetts Infantry – and Black History Month – reminds us that commemorating the contributions of all who have served can only enrich the texture of a nation that finds strength in the ideal of inclusion.