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Carney, William Harvey (1840–after 1901), Union army sergeant and first African American awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, was born in Norfolk, Virginia, the son of William Carney and Ann, a former slave. Little is known of his early years. As a young boy he expressed an interest in the ministry, and at the age of fourteen, in 1854, he attended a covertly run school under the tutelage of a local minister. Later he moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he took odd jobs in the hope of saving sufficient funds to acquire his religious training....

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Kit Carson. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-107570).

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Carson, Kit (24 December 1809–23 May 1868), mountain man, army officer, and Indian agent, was born Christopher Houston Carson in Madison County, Kentucky, the son of Lindsey Carson, a farmer and revolutionary war veteran, and Rebecca Robinson. In 1811 Lindsey Carson moved his family to Howard County, Missouri, to find “elbow room.” He died in 1818, hit by a falling limb while clearing timber from his land. Christopher enjoyed no schooling and never learned to read or write, other than signing his name to documents. In 1825 his mother and stepfather apprenticed him to David Workman, a Franklin, Missouri, saddler whom Kit described as a kind and good man. Nevertheless, he ran away because he found saddlemaking tedious and distasteful work and yearned to travel. Following in the footsteps of a brother and a half-brother who were in the Santa Fe trade, Carson joined a caravan as a “cavvy boy” (an assistant to the wrangler in charge of the horse and mule herd). Though not unsympathetic, Workman was obliged by law to advertise for his runaway. But he misleadingly suggested to readers of the ...

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Dooly, John (1744–1780), Georgia Revolutionary War leader and folk hero, was likely born in Ireland or Pennsylvania, the son of the frontier farmers Patrick and Ann Dooly. In the late 1760s John became a frontier South Carolina merchant, surveyor, and land developer. He had a son from a first marriage (wife unknown) and at least one daughter and two sons by Dianna Mitchell. In January 1772 he mortgaged 2,050 acres of his lands to finance a major investment in neighboring frontier Georgia, where he became a surveyor and took over a five‐hundred acre plantation on the Savannah River. He borrowed heavily to make improvements on the property....

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Kelly, Colin Purdie (11 July 1915–10 December 1941), army pilot, was born in Madison, Florida, the son of Colin Purdie Kelly, Sr., and Mary Mays. After attending high school in his hometown, Kelly spent a year at the Marion Military Institute in Florida before receiving an appointment to West Point in 1933. While there, he met Marion Wick, a stenographer, whom he wed in 1937, shortly after graduation; they had one son. Although commissioned as a second lieutenant in the infantry, Kelly requested to be assigned to the Army Air Corps, and in September he was sent to Randolph Field to receive his pilot’s training. In October 1939 he went to Texas for advanced training. In January 1940 formal induction into the Army Air Corps followed and Kelly was assigned to the Nineteenth Bombing Group at March Field, California. Kelly made captain on 9 September 1940. His career would have been similar to that of most young officer graduates in World War II had it not been for circumstances surrounding his death....

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Murphy, Audie (20 June 1924–28 May 1971), soldier and film actor, was born Audie Leon Murphy in Hunt County, Texas, the son of Emmett Murphy and Josie Bell Killian, tenant farmers. Murphy was reared in the rural poverty familiar to Texas sharecropping families in the 1920s and 1930s. With barely a fifth-grade education, he left home at fifteen, facing what looked to be a bleak future. Then came Pearl Harbor, and, just after his eighteenth birthday in June 1942, he enlisted in the army. Shorter, thinner, and younger than the average GI, Murphy as an infantryman capitalized on his hunting skills and, from Sicily, through Italy and France, and into Germany, exhibited uncommon aggressiveness against the enemy. His prowess and initiative in combat earned him a battlefield commission and his country’s highest decorations, including the Congressional Medal of Honor for his daring standoff (firing a machine gun atop a burning tank destroyer) against a German counterattack at the Colmar Pocket in Alsace in January 1945....

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Rocco, Louis Richard (19 November 1938–31 October 2002), soldier and Medal of Honor recipient, was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the son of Louis Rocco, an Italian American, and Lita Rocco, a Mexican American. He always went by the name Richard Rocco. Growing up in a poor family with eight siblings and a father often unemployed, Richard experienced much hardship. As a youngster in the Albuquerque suburb of Barelas, he stole potatoes and corn from local fields to provide for his family. When he was ten years old, the family moved to the San Fernando Valley in California. As a teenager, Richard joined a barrio gang in Wilmington, spent time in jail, and found himself in constant trouble with the authorities. At the age of sixteen, he prepared to be sentenced for armed robbery. While expecting the worst, Richard visited an army recruiting station in Los Angeles and talked candidly to a sympathetic recruiter about his problems. The recruiter talked to the judge, who decided to send Richard to a delinquency home for a year and then allow him to join the army when he turned seventeen after his parents signed a waiver. Richard was also ordered to stay in school and avoid involvement with the gang....

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Shelby, Isaac (11 December 1750–18 July 1826), first governor of Kentucky and revolutionary war hero, was born near Hagerstown, Frederick County, Maryland, the son of Evan Shelby and Letitia Cox, farmers. The Shelby family originally came from Wales to Pennsylvania and then to Maryland. In 1773 the family moved to the Holston area of western Virginia, where they established a fort and small trading post....

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Patrick G. Williams

Sisson, Jack (1743?–1821), soldier, was also known as Tack Sisson, Guy Watson, or Prince. He was one of those African-American patriots whose lives were allowed by their contemporaries to become shrouded in obscurity. Little record exists of his whereabouts, activities, or circumstances before or after the exploit for which he is noted—the July 1777 abduction of Brigadier General Richard Prescott, commander of the redcoat garrison at Newport, Rhode Island. Sisson was among the forty volunteers Lieutenant Colonel ...

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Zachary Taylor. Photograph by Mathew B. Brady. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-13012 DLC).

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Taylor, Zachary (24 November 1784–09 July 1850), army hero and twelfth U.S. president, was born in Orange County, Virginia, the son of Richard Taylor, a revolutionary war officer and pioneer political leader, and Sarah Strother, a cousin of James Madison and Robert E. Lee...

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Alvin York At the site of his successful 8 Oct. 1918 battle in the Argonne Forest, France. Courtesy of the National Archives (NWDNS-111-SC-49191).

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York, Alvin Cullum (13 December 1887–02 September 1964), World War I soldier, was born in Pall Mall, Tennessee, the son of William York and Mary Brooks, farmers. A skillful hunter and marksman, York worked as a farmer, a laborer, and a blacksmith before the war. He received approximately three years of formal schooling. His drinking and brawling earned him a reputation as a local rowdy, but an emotional religious experience in 1915 prompted him to join the Church of Christ in Christian Union, a deeply conservative congregation originally founded in reaction to the carnage of the Civil War period. Because church members rejected violence, York sought conscientious objector status when the United States entered World War I, but the Selective Service denied his appeal. Once York was drafted, his Eighty-second Infantry Division superiors persuaded him that America was fighting God’s battle in the war, an argument that transformed the pacifist from the Tennessee mountains into a veritable soldier of the Lord....