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    Black History Month: The Medal of Honor



    Story by Petty Officer 3rd Class Adam Ferrero 


    During Black History Month, it is important to remember the service and sacrifice of African American service members in our nation’s history. In keeping with the spirit of this monthly observance, one may look to those awarded the highest and most prestigious personal military decoration one can receive: the Medal of Honor.
    Established in 1861 during the first year of the American Civil War, the Medal of Honor was first awarded to an African American in 1864, an escaped slave named Robert Blake.
    According to the South Carolina Legislature website,, Blake was born into slavery in Santee, South Carolina. Blake’s owner's plantation was burned during a Union naval expedition up the Santee River in 1862. During this time, Blake and about 400 other slaves were taken onto Union ships and sent to North Island in Winyah Bay, a coastal estuary in Georgetown County, South Carolina, where Blake volunteered to serve in the Union Army.
    By 1863, Blake was serving as a steward to Lt. Cmdr. Richard Worsam Meade aboard the gunboat USS Marblehead. On the morning of Dec. 25, the Marblehead came under fire from a Confederate howitzer at Legareville on Johns Island in Charleston County, South Carolina. Blake followed Meade to the quarterdeck as Meade gave the order to return fire. Upon reaching the gun deck, an exploding Confederate shell knocked Blake down and killed a nearby powder boy manning one of the guns. Blake was not assigned a combat role, but rather than retreating to safety below deck, he stripped to the waist and began running powder boxes to the gun loaders, taking over the powder boy’s responsibilities. When asked by Meade what he was doing, Blake replied, "Went down to the rocks to hide my face, but the rocks said there is no hiding place here. So, here I am, sir."
    Eventually, the Confederates abandoned their position. For his actions during the firefight, Blake was awarded the Medal of Honor on April 16, 1864.
    Despite being the first African American to receive the Medal of Honor, Blake was not technically the first to earn one. That honor went to Sgt. William Harvey Carney.
    According to, Carney was born into slavery in Norfolk on Feb. 29, 1840. Like his father before him, Carney escaped slavery through the Underground Railroad, traveling to Massachusetts to join the Union ranks.
    On July 18, 1863, Carney participated in the assault on Fort Wagner, South Carolina. When the color guard was killed, Carney took hold of the flag. Despite being wounded, he planted the flag on the parapet, holding it there until the Union troops charged. When the troops were forced to retreat under fire, Carney carried the flag back across the battlefield, sustaining further serious wounds in the process. Turning over the colors only after he’d returned to the Union lines, Carney was quoted as saying, "Boys, I only did my duty. The old flag never touched the ground."
    Carney received his Medal of Honor on May 23, 1900, nearly 37 years after the events at Fort Wagner.
    Though the rules now state that the Medal of Honor can only be awarded through acts of valor, in the past, it could be awarded to those who went above and beyond the call of duty in times of peace as well.
    Prior to World War II, it was possible to receive the Medal of Honor for acts of bravery during peacetime. One such recipient, Robert Augustus Sweeney, earned the award not once, but twice.
    According to an article on, Sweeney was serving in the Navy aboard the Mohican-class sloop-of-war USS Kearsarge in October 1881, when a shipmate fell overboard. Without concern for himself, Sweeney jumped into the water after the man and, despite the strong tide, saved him from drowning, earning his first Medal of Honor. Sweeney earned his second medal two years later in December 1883 while he was serving aboard a wooden-hulled screw gunboat, USS Yantic, docked at the Navy Yard in Brooklyn, New York. A boy on another docked ship fell overboard, prompting Sweeney to perform another rescue.
    To date, Sweeney is the only African American to have earned the Medal of Honor twice, one of only 19 double recipients in total.
    As time went on, many more African Americans would go on to receive the prestigious medal, seven of which served in World War II, including Army Lt. John Fox.
    According to Fox’s citation on the Congressional Medal of Honor Society website,, he served as a member of Cannon Company, 366th Infantry Regiment, 92nd Infantry Division. In the early morning of Dec. 26, 1944, Fox was serving with the 598th Field Artillery Battalion as a forward observer in Sommocolonia, Italy, when German forces began a heavy barrage of artillery. Enemy soldiers in civilian clothes had slowly infiltrated the town under the cover of night, and with Sommocolonia now under mostly German control, the majority of Allied forces were forced to withdraw. Fox and some members of his observer party volunteered to remain behind, however, in order to direct defensive artillery fire.
    As German forces pressed their attack toward Fox’s location, he continued to direct fire closer to his position until he was told that the next adjustment would target his own position. Acknowledging the danger, Fox insisted they fire anyway. The shelling delayed the enemy advance until other units could reorganize to repel the attack, eventually retaking the position. After the battle, Fox's body was discovered, along with the bodies of about 100 enemy soldiers.
    For his brave sacrifice, Fox was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in 1997.
    The history of the United States military is a rich tapestry woven by servicemen and women who go above and beyond, and Black History Month is a time to reflect on African American service members in particular. They will be forever remembered for their contributions to this nation.
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    Date Taken: 01.31.2020
    Date Posted: 02.06.2020 09:46
    Story ID: 361961

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