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Duty, Honor, Country: Celebrating African American men and women of character

*As published by the Union Recorder*

A message from GMC President, Lieutenant General William B. Caldwell, IV:

On July 18, 1863, a 23-year-old soldier, Sgt. William H. Carney, and 600 other soldiers of the 54th charged against heavy Confederate fire in an assault on Fort Wagner.  A rifle slug struck the color guard that was charging directly ahead of Sgt. Carney and dropped him to the ground.  Sgt. Carney — ignoring the heavy enemy fire — immediately tossed his weapon aside seized the flag before it could touch the ground. A bullet pierced Carney’s leg, but he clung tightly to The Colors. Fighting the intense pain, he thrust Old Glory into the air and continued leading the advance. When he was forced to retreat, he rolled the flag around its staff, tucked it under his arm, and ran for cover. He took another bullet, this one to the chest. Another to the arm.  Another to the leg.

Seeing that he was severely wounded, a member of another retreating unit offered to take the flag for Carney, to which he responded, “No one but a member of the 54th should carry the colors.”  Another bullet grazed Carney’s head, but he soldiered on. When he finally reached safety and handed over the flag to another member of the 54th, Carney collapsed and said, “Boys, I only did my duty. The flag never touched the ground.”

Thirty-seven years later, Sgt. William H. Carney of the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry became the first black man ever to be awarded the nation’s highest award for valor, the Medal of Honor.

Black soldiers have shed blood in every military campaign in American history. Black minutemen fought in the Battle of Lexington and Concord. Seventeen black service members received the Medal of Honor for heroic actions in the Civil War. In 1877, Lt. Henry O. Flipper became the first black man to graduate from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. By the time the U.S. entered World War I, he would be the first of only five.

One of the great honors of my military career and my life has been to learn from the stories of great history-making patriots like Sgt. William Carney and to have the opportunity to serve among great black history-makers even as they broke glass ceilings in our military. These men were pioneers — a great beacon of progress who proved that there were no heights a black officer with character and determination could not achieve.

Men like Benjamin O. Davis, who entered service in 1898 during the Spanish-American War and 42 years later became the first black general officer in the U.S. Army. Men like Roscoe Robinson, who served in segregated units when he first commissioned and went on to become the Army’s first black Four-Star General, and the first black commander of the famed 82nd Airborne Division. And a man I had the profound honor of observing while in uniform, Gen. Colin Powell, who became the first black man to serve as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the first black man to serve as U.S. Secretary of State.

These are great American journeys made by men who fought against history, against ignorance, against racial animosity to achieve what had never been done before. Having had the opportunity to learn about these men, observe them, and emulate them makes it the honor of a lifetime to see another generation of history-makers come of age right here at Georgia Military College Preparatory School.

Delarrion Milner, who served as Battalion Commander at GMC, went on to be the first African-American GMC Prep cadet to be accepted into the Air Force Academy. When he graduates this spring, I will have the honor of administering to him his oath of office to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States.” 

Calli McMullen was GMC’s first female African-American Battalion Commander, and GMC’s first female to receive a fully qualified acceptance into a U.S. Service Academy. She is currently excelling academically and also physically as a member of West Point’s track and field team.

GMC Band Company Commander Alyssa Easley carried on this tradition of achievement last year by accepting an appointment to the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in honor of her mother who passed away when Alyssa was 2 years old. Alyssa wanted to go to the Coast Guard to follow in the footsteps of her mother and her aunt who both served in the military.

Black History Month provides a wonderful learning opportunity for all us to celebrate the contributions of men and women of color like Sgt. William Carney, Generals Benjamin Davis, Roscoe Robinson, Colin Powell; and Cadets Delarrion Miller, Calli McMullen, Alyssa Ealey and so many others that take center stage and illustrate how black American heroes helped weave the fabric of American culture and create the America we know today from our very beginning.