Yesterday, I woke up, in my hotel, in Manassas, Virginia. Turning the television on, the History Channel was showing a program on the 54th Massachusetts Infantry – a unit comprised of United States Colored Troops. Nearing its end, the program highlighted the 54th Massachusetts charge of Fort Wagner, in Charleston, South Carolina. I was very moved by the actions of sergeant William H. Carney. Pulling out my book, on Medal of Honor recipients, I quickly did some research of Carney. The following article was inspired by the program.
William Harvey Carney was born on February 29, 1840, as a slave, in Norfolk, Virginia. Like his father, before him, Carney was able to escape, to Massachusetts, using the Underground Railroad. At the start of the Civil War, Carney was a free man, living in the Boston area. With Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, taking effect on January 1, 1863, Carney enlisted in the 54th Massachusetts Infantry – the famed “colored” regiment, as a sergeant. Organized in Readville, Massachusetts, the 54th would be mustered into Federal service on May 13, 1863. The commander of the 54th was US Colonel Robert S. Gould. Shaw was handpicked, by Massachusetts Governor John Andrew, to lead this famed regiment. Leaving Boston, on May 28, 1863, they would be assigned to the X Corps at Hilton Head, South Carolina. Carney, and his regiment would arrive at St. Simon’s Island on June 9. Moving to Morris Island, from July 16–18, they would prepare for the assault on Fort Wagner.
The 54th Massachusetts Infantry would be called upon, during the battle of Fort Wagner, to charge the Confederate works. With daylight quickly fading, on July 18, Colonel Gould would give his regiment a moving talk, to inspire them before they charged, finishing, “Forward, Fifty-Fourth, Forward!”(i) With a cheer, the 54th would move across the open plain, approaching Battery Wagner. Carney, would be leading his men, towards the ramparts. Approaching under a withering fire, Carney would see the color bearer go down, dropping their regimental flag. Picking the flag up, he would charge to the ramparts, planting the flag there, being wounded in the process. Colonel Gould would also reach the works, being shot through the heart and dying instantly. The 54th would be forced to retreat, during which Carney would be wounded two additional times, the most serious being a shoulder wound. He would return to the Federal lines, before falling from his wounds. Upon reaching the lines, he stated, “Boys, I only did my duty; the old flag never touched the ground!”(ii) Due to Carney’s wounds, he would retire from active service.
After the Civil War, William Carney would be a postal employee and a popular speaker. On May 23, 1900, he would be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his gallantry. Carney’s brave actions were the earliest awarded, a Medal of Honor, to a soldier in the United States Colored Troops. His citation reads:
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 fierce fire in which he was twice severely wounded.”(iii)
Carney died on December 8, 1908, in Boston, at the age of 68. He is buried in the family plot at Oak Grove Cemetery in New Bedford, Massachusetts.
(i) The 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, at Wikipedia.
(ii) William Harvey Carney, at Wikipedia.
(iii) R.J. (Bob) Pfoft, Editor, United States of America’s Medal of Honor Recipients, Fifth Edition, Pg. 829.