When you disrespect the flag, who else are you disrespecting?

Ned Jilton • Oct 21, 2017 at 5:30 PM

A young black lady steps in front of a group of protesters and proceeds to stomp an American flag lying on the ground. With fist raised she yells “F--k your flag,” at the crowd and then smiles as the National Guard and police providing security for the protest turn their backs to her.

Perhaps out of simple ignorance. Or, maybe she just doesn’t care. But she has just shown great disrespect to some of the most important people in black history.

People like Sgt. William Carney, a member of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, one of the early Black American regiments in the Union army.

July 18, 1863, the 54th Massachusetts, with Sgt. Carney, was the lead regiment of the assault on Fort Wagner in Charleston, South Carolina. With the ocean on their right and the swamp on their left the men had no choice 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 guard carrying the flag.

Just when it seemed all was lost, Sgt. Carney jumped forward and took the flag from the dead color sergeant and rallied the 54th 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 were forced to retreat under fire. Despite his wounds, Sgt. Carney brought the flag he carried into the fort back out again. In the process of doing so he was wounded twice more.

When Sgt. 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.”

Sgt. 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, Sgt. Carney became the first black man to win the Medal of Honor.

His citation reads in part, “When the color sergeant was shot down, this soldier grasped the flag, led the way to the parapet and planted the colors thereon. When the troops fell back he brought off the flag, under a fierce fire in which he was twice severely wounded.”

Then there is the story of the eight regiments of United States Colored Troops, (U.S.C.T.), at the Battle of Nashville in 1864. It was there 5,000 plus black men serving under the “stars and stripes” took part in one of the worst butt whippings ever given to a Confederate army.

On the first day of battle, a brigade containing regiments of U.S.C.T. attacked a lunette, a crescent shaped defensive position topped with cannons, on one end of the Confederate line.

So furious was the fire from the lunette that a white regiment assigned to the brigade attempted to flee the field by climbing down a railroad cut, with several of their soldiers falling to their deaths or to serious injury.

But the U.S.C.T. soldiers held their ground and refused to retreat. Because of their bravery, Confederate Gen. John Bell Hood was unable to take cannons from this end of his line to reinforce the other end where the main Union attack was taking place. At the end of the day Hood was forced to withdraw his entire army to a new position a little farther south.

On day two of the battle the U.S.C.T. joined the main assault, charging up Shy’s Hill. This charge earned these black men the respect of many Confederate soldiers and officers who would write about them after the war.

The combination of black and white Union soldiers charging Shy’s Hill broke the Confederate lines and sent Hood’s army fleeing from the field in disarray, a true rout.

After the battle a Union officer wrote, “The blood of the white and black men has flown freely together for the great cause which is to give freedom, unity, manhood and peace to all men, whatever birth or complexion.”

The courage of these, and 150,000 more, U.S.C.T. helped pave the way for people like Martin Luther King Jr., Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama.

But more importantly, these brave black men shed their blood and sacrificed their lives so that all black people could live their lives as human beings and not a piece of property. Including the young black girl that stomped on, and cursed, the flag that they carried.

Think about it.

Ned Jilton II is 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]

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