Two new books focus on different cross sections of Americans who received the Medal of Honor.
By Cheryl Stringer
Heroism, like cowardice, has always been colorblind and ob-livious not only to race but also to class, gender, creed, nationality and ethnicity. But that fact has been only grudgingly admitted, even by the more enlightened segments of the American population.
It is good, therefore, to discover a book that gives credit where credit is long overdue. Black Valor: Buffalo Soldiers and the Medal of Honor, 1870-1898 (Scholarly Resources, Inc., Wilmington, Del., 1997, $19.95), by Frank N. Schubert, is a well-written, informative account of the individual military careers of 23 black American soldiers who were presented with the Medal of Honor between the end of the Civil War and the start of World War I–the majority being men who served in the 18701891 Indian wars. The book deals frankly with the dehumanization of the black soldiers during the Civil War and in other wars that followed, despite which black men, most of whom were illiterate former slaves, still wanted to join the Army as a means of advancement.
The Civil War saw the first black Americans accepted into the U.S. Army. The Medal of Honor was presented to 12 soldiers from the five then-existing regiments of U.S. Colored Troops on April 6, 1865; four others were awarded medals shortly after the war ended.
During the postwar years, six Regular Army regiments were set aside for black enlisted men. Those men came to be called “buffalo soldiers” by the Plains Indians, who admired their courage and thought their hair resembled the buffalo’s. In addition, some former slaves married into the Seminole tribe, and many of their progeny became scouts for the Army. Known as the Seminole Negro Scouts, they had a considerable impact on Indian warfare.
One all-black regiment was the 9th Cavalry, in which Emanuel Stance, an educated free farmer, had enlisted on October 2, 1866. In the autumn of 1869, Stance fought in two major battles with the Kiowa and the Comanche. In a later expedition, Stance and his comrades battled 500 Indians between the Clear Mountain Fork and Double Mountain Fork of the Middle Brazos River on May 20 and 21, 1870. His company commander, Captain Henry Carroll, wrote, “The gallantry displayed by the sergeant and his party, as well as good judgment used on both occasions, deserves much praise.” With Carroll’s recommendation, Stance became the first postCivil War black Regular to be awarded the Medal of Honor on June 28, 1870.
The son of a white Frenchman and a black American woman, Sgt. Maj. Edward L. Baker, Jr., kept a journal of his more than 28 years of service with the 10th Cavalry, including service during the Spanish-American War. On July 1, 1898, Baker had taken cover under heavy Spanish fire when he heard a groan and saw Private Lewis Marshall lying wounded in the San Juan River. Ignoring the advice of others, Baker ran through shells that passed so close beside him that he could feel their heat, reached Marshall, dragged him to safety and went for a surgeon. Less than 30 minutes later, Baker helped cut the barbed wire the Spaniards had strung around their positions; then he and the rest of the 10th Cavalry joined the advance that drove the enemy from San Juan Hill. On July 3, 1902, Baker received the Medal of Honor for the gallantry he displayed there.
Black Valor gives a vivid description of fron-tier warfare and the special challenges black troops had to face–and of 23 cases when the buffalo soldiers won recognition for valor from a society that previously had not acknowledged their achievements.
Another cross section of American Medal of Honor recipients is recognized in Men of Honor: Thirty-Eight Highly Decorated Marines of World War II, Korea and Vietnam (Schiffer Publishing Ltd., Atglen, Pa., 1997, $29.95), by Kenneth N. Jordan, Sr. Men of Honor selectively highlights several U.S. Marine heroes from the past half century. In a manner similar to Black Valor, Jordan’s book concentrates on a single service and a selected time period–in this case the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
During World War II, General David M. Shoup supervised the landings on Tarawa Island from November 20 to 22, 1943. Although in a state of shock from the near-miss of an exploding shell and suffering from a serious, infected leg wound, Shoup gallantly led his troops through relentless artillery, machine-gun and rifle fire to reinforce the hard-pressed, thinly held American positions. For this heroism, Shoup was awarded the Medal of Honor and two Legion of Merit medals, and his unit, the 2nd Marine Division (Reinforced), earned a Presidential Unit Citation.
During the Korean War, a posthumous Medal of Honor was presented to the widow and daughter of 1st Lt. Frank N. Mitchell. On November 26, 1950, Mitchell sacrificed his life by single-handedly covering the withdrawal of wounded fellow Marines, despite his own multiple wounds. For prior gallantry in action near Hamhung, Lieutenant Mitchell was also awarded the Silver Star.
The chapter on Vietnam features several eyewitness accounts of heroism, such as that of Maj. Gen. James E. Livingston, a veteran of 33 years of outstanding service. During assaults on the village of Dai Do on May 2, 1968, Livingston was wounded twice, but he continued to direct his men. Later, at Dinh To, Livingston was wounded so badly that he could not walk; nevertheless, he supervised the evacuation of wounded Marines before allowing himself to be evacuated. Livingston’s awards include the Medal of Honor, the Silver Star and the Bronze Star.
Although Schubert writes about black soldiers and Jordan writes about Marines, all these fighting men had “the medal” in common, and the accounts of their valor are equally compelling.