In this series of videos and articles, the Trust visited three historic battlefields with modern recipients of the MoH to follow in the footsteps of soldiers who earned the award during the Civil War and to tell the story of both the past and the present.
The first video I watched was Sgt. Melvin Morris, a black American who earned his MoH during the Vietnam War. Morris travelled to Morris Island in South Carolina to visit the site where Sgt. William Carney of the 54th Massachusetts became the first black American to earn the MoH.
After a boat ride over to the island where Fort Wagner once stood, Morris walked along the site of the battle and told the story of Carney.
On July 18, 1863, the 54th Massachusetts, with Carney, was the lead regiment of the assault on Fort Wagner in Charleston. With the ocean on their right and the swamp on their left, the men had no choice but to advance on the beach, directly into the guns.
The attack lagged at the walls of the fort. The commanding officer of the 54th Massachusetts, Col. Robert Gould Shaw, was killed, along with the color bearer carrying the flag.
Just when it seemed all was lost, Carney jumped forward, took the flag from the dead color sergeant, and rallied the unit to follow him. With Carney leading the way, the 54th reached the parapet of the fort, where he was wounded but still carried on.
The 54th captured the parapet but could go no further and was forced to retreat under fire. Despite his wounds, Carney brought the flag he carried into the fort back out again. In the process of doing so, he was wounded twice more.
When Carney made it back to the Union lines, he turned over the flag to another member of the 54th and said, “Boys, I only did my duty. The old flag never touched the ground.”
Carney survived the battle, but his wounds were so bad he would never fight again. He was given an honorable discharge on medical grounds.
For his bravery in battle, grabbing the flag and leading the 54th, Carney was awarded the MoH several years later by President Teddy Roosevelt.
In 1969, Morris was part of a mobile strike force in Vietnam. Morris was bringing up the rear when he got a call that his team sergeant had been killed.
“I told myself I got to take charge” Morris said. He went forward, and when he reached the spot where the sergeant had been killed, “the woods opened up.”
With bullets flying everywhere and men pinned down, Morris got two bags of hand grenades and charged into the enemy positions, throwing grenades into every bunker he could find.
He then got the body of the team sergeant out, but in doing so the map case fell out of the dead man’s pocket. His mission was completed, as Morris had brought the body out, and he could have stayed safely where he was. But he wouldn’t leave the map case behind.
“I could have left it but I would give the enemy a lot of valuable information. So I gotta go back again,” Morris said.
Just as he found the map case, Morris was shot in the chest. Then he was shot in the arm. He had one grenade left, and he threw that before he was shot again. He then fired his rifle, using all the magazines he had as he made his way back out with the map case.
“I don’t know how I could run that far with three bullet holes but I did,” Morris said.
But Morris did make it back, and for his actions that day he would be awarded the MoH.
The rest of the videos of the “Brothers in Valor” series are equally as good and equally as emotional to watch as the one on Morris and Carney.
The other videos of this series focus on Hershel “Woody” Williams, who earned his MoH on Iwo Jima during World War II, visiting Gettysburg where 64 Medals of Honor were earned; and Britt Slabinski, who earned his MoH in Afghanistan, visiting the Slaughter Pen Farm on the Fredericksburg Battlefield where George Maynard earned his MoH in 1862.
I would urge everyone to see all three videos and read the accompanying stories on the American Battlefield Trust website as they give a true insight of the sacrifices made for the people of this country.
To see the videos and read the stories, go to https://www.battlefields.org/learn/topics/brothers-valor.
Ned Jilton II is a page designer and photographer for the Times News as well as the writer of the “Marching with the 19th” Civil War series. You can contact him at [email protected]