William H. Carney Became the First Black Soldier to Earn the Medal of Honor.
On the evening of July 18, 1863, Sergeant William H. Carney of the 54th Massachusetts Colored Volunteer Infantry made a decision that would alter his life. As his regiment was leading the assault on the Confederate Battery Wagner outside Charleston, South Carolina, the flag-bearer was shot dead. Carney retrieved the flag and attempted to rally his comrades, but then spotted a group of Rebel soldiers heading toward him—when most of his comrades had already either been killed or wounded, or were pinned down under heavy fire.
Carney had few options at that moment: Drop the Stars and Stripes and flee for his life, or wrap the flag around its staff and attempt to escape, even though “Old Glory” would slow him down and make him an easy target. In that split second he resolved that, whatever the price, the Rebels would not get their hands on his regiment’s flag. Though he was wounded three times, in the hip, chest and head, as he struggled back to his lines, he somehow made it through with the colors. For his selfless action, William Carney would become the first African American in U.S. history to earn the nation’s highest combat decoration, the Medal of Honor.
Carney had been born into slavery on February 29, 1840, in Norfolk, Va. Aside from the fact that he attended a secret school at age 14 where he learned to read and write, we know very little about his early years. It’s also not clear how Carney gained his freedom. One account suggests that he and his family were emancipated when their master died. Another maintains that his father escaped to Massachusetts, where he earned enough money to purchase the rest of his family. Still another source has it that young William and his father were both runaways who eventually pooled their resources to buy the other family members. Whatever the circumstances, we do know that the Carneys settled in New Bedford, Mass., then known as “the whaling capital of the world.”
Young William had no problem finding work on the waterfront, eventually signing on as a sailor on whaling ships—though that was not his chosen profession. “I had a strong inclination to prepare myself for the ministry,” he wrote. If not for the Civil War, he likely would have followed a much different path. But once the call for black Union soldiers went out, Carney decided, “I could best serve my God by serving my country and my oppressed brothers.”
On February 17, 1863, the 23-yearold former slave “enlisted for the war.” Along with nearly 50 other African Americans from New Bedford, Carney signed up for service in the newly created 54th Volunteer Massachusetts— the brainchild of Massachusetts Governor John Andrew, and the first black regiment raised in the North. Much depended upon its success. Many whites believed that men of color could not hold their own on the battlefield. It was therefore essential that the 54th demonstrate fearlessness and bravery in combat if other such regiments were to be raised.
Governor Andrew handpicked the regiment’s commander, Robert Gould Shaw. The 25-year-old son of a socially prominent Boston family, Shaw had already seen his share of fighting, especially at Antietam on September 17, 1862, the single bloodiest day’s battle of the war. Shaw was promoted to colonel upon taking command of the 54th. Although Carney left no record of how he felt about his commanding officer, another New Bedford enlistee, James Henry Gooding, expressed enormous respect and fondness for Shaw, indicating that he and the rest of the regiment would have followed their youthful commander anywhere. There was some resentment that Shaw and all of his fellow officers were white, but the men of the 54th appreciated the fact that their leaders held “firm Anti-slavery principles” and had “faith in the capacity of coloured men for military service.”
Such loyalty would prove critical when the 54th went into action. After two months of basic training at Camp Meigs, just outside of Boston, Sergeant Carney and his fellow soldiers were ordered to the Sea Islands off the coast of Charleston. Arriving in late May 1863, the 54th was part of an assault force assembled to capture the port popularly known as “the cradle of secession.” In the previous month, the Union Navy had launched an unsuccessful attack on the city. What the Navy couldn’t accomplish on its own, the Army was now hoping to achieve as a joint effort. Its immediate objective: Battery Wagner—“Fort” to the Union men.
Located on Morris Island, Wagner guarded the southern approach to Charleston Harbor. If that strongpoint was secured by Union forces, a naval fleet could sail into the harbor and seize control of the city.
But securing the battery would be no easy matter. Its main wall was some 630 feet around and 30 feet high, and a wide trench, partly filled with 2 to 3 feet of water, stretched in front of it. Much of Wagner was made of earth barriers and sand-bagged emplacements. It wouldn’t be difficult to climb up to the parapet—the low, protective wall along the top of the fort—unless its defenders were firing artillery and muskets down on the invading force.
To minimize Confederate resistance, Union Maj. Gen. Quincy Gillmore, commanding the operation, ordered a massive bombardment of the fort for the morning of July 18. The artillery barrage lasted all day, but did little damage. The Confederate defenders found safety in a sunken bombproof shelter within the fort; less than 30 of the 1,620-man garrison were killed or wounded in the Union bombardment.
While his men prepared for combat, at command headquarters Shaw was asked whether he wanted his regiment to lead the attack. He intrepidly replied, “Yes”—anxious to prove that his men were as good as any on the battlefield.
Brigadier General George Strong, who commanded the frontline regiments, met with the men of the 54th for a final word of encouragement. Reminding them that he too had Massachusetts roots, he said he hoped they would bring honor to the state and follow him into Battery Wagner. Then he ordered the man holding the Stars and Stripes to step forward. “If this man should fall, who will lift the flag and carry it on?” the general asked. “I will,” Colonel Shaw responded.
The significance of Shaw’s response is difficult for us to fully appreciate today. The Civil War was the last major conflict in which soldiers followed flags into battle. Regimental and national colors served as rallying points for regiments. If the attack fell back, the flags became a directional signal for the retreat. But most important, the flags symbolized the heart and soul of the combat unit.
At 7:45 p.m. on the 18th, the 54th’s 600 men moved out, the lead unit of a Union force composed of some 5,000 troops. When they came within 200 yards of the fort, the Confederates opened up with everything they had. “At that moment,” in the words of Captain Luis F. Emilio, an officer of the Massachusetts regiment, “Wagner became a mound of fire, from which poured a stream of shot and shell…before which men fell in numbers on every side.” The 54th’s response, Emilio recalled proudly, “was to change step to the double-quick, that it might the sooner close with the foe. There had been no stop, pause, or check at any period of the advance, nor was there now. As the swifter pace was taken, and officers sprang to the fore with waving swords barely seen in the darkness, the men closed the gaps, and with set jaws, panting breath, and bowed heads, charged on.”
Somehow Shaw and a handful of survivors made it to the top of the fort. With uplifted sword, Shaw shouted: “Forward, 54th!” and then fell dead, shot through the heart.
Not far away, Sergeant William Carney discovered the body of the regiment’s standard-bearer, with the U.S. flag nearby. “I threw away my gun,” he wrote, “and seized the colors, making my way to the head of the column.” Despite heavy enemy fire, he made it to the top of the fort, found an entry point, and there waved the flag. But after establishing his position, he later explained, “I found myself alone…while the dead and wounded were all around me, lying one upon another. Here I said, ‘I cannot go into the fort alone,’ and so I halted and knelt down, holding the flag in my hand. While there, the muskets, bullets and grape-shot were flying all around me, and as they struck, the sand would fly in my face.”
After about 20 minutes Carney saw a group of Rebels coming straight at him. He wrapped the banner around the staff and made his way down the slope of the fort into the trench, wading through waist-deep water. In the process he became a prime target, but though he was shot in the hip, he never let the flag out of his hands.
When he finally stumbled out of the ditch, sharpshooters were still taking potshots at him and other retreating soldiers. One 100th New York Infantryman offered to carry his flag, but the wounded Carney refused, insisting that he “would not give that flag to any living man except a member of the 54th Mass.” Soon after that a Rebel bullet hit him in the chest, and another grazed his head.
Cheering comrades greeted Carney as he staggered into their midst, and he proudly proclaimed, “The old flag never touched the ground,” before collapsing. Transported to a hospital, he remained unconscious for more than a day.
Carney’s regiment suffered more casualties than any other in the attack. Of the 600 men in the 54th, well over 40 percent—256 to be precise—were killed, wounded or missing after the assault. Though the Union offensive on Wagner had failed, few could deny the bravery of the black combatants. “I have changed my opinion of the negroes as soldiers, since they showed themselves so efficient at the storming of Fort Wagner,” affirmed one Union officer.
Over the next two years or so, thousands of men of color entered the Union Army—a direct result of the black soldiers who fought so valiantly in July 1863. As The New York Times editor reminded readers: “It is not too much to say that if this Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth had faltered when its trial came, two hundred thousand colored troops for whom it was a pioneer would never have been put into the field….But it did not falter. It made Fort Wagner such a name to the colored race as Bunker Hill has been for ninety years to white Yankees.”
Four of the 54th’s men, including Carney, were awarded Gillmore Medals, named after the general who commanded the assault on Wagner. Several months after the presentation, Carney posed for a photograph holding the flag he had saved.
Discharged on June 30, 1864, Carney returned to New Bedford. But his heroism was not forgotten. Some believed that Carney deserved greater distinction, namely the Medal of Honor—first authorized by Congress for members of the U.S. Army on July 12, 1862, a little more than a year after the fighting began.
Originally intended “to improve the efficiency” of Union forces during the Civil War, the medal became a permanent fixture in 1863. By war’s end, nearly 500 Medals of Honor had been awarded. Some nominees received their medals long after the war ended due to procedural red tape and vague qualification guidelines.
In Carney’s case, it would take nearly four decades before he finally got his medal, on May 23, 1900. By that time other African Americans had already received the decoration, but since Carney’s actions dated back to July 18, 1863, predating heroic acts by all other black honorees, he is regarded as the first man of color in U.S. history to earn the Medal of Honor.
Carney’s postwar life was hardly remarkable. On October 11, 1865, he married Susannah Williams of New Bedford, and they had one child, Clara. He worked in a series of jobs until he received the Medal of Honor, when he became messenger at the Massachusetts Statehouse, an honorary post that he held until his death on December 8, 1908, at age 68.
Following his death all flags in Massachusetts were lowered to half-mast. That gracious tribute had never before been paid to a private citizen and an African American.
New Bedford residents named a school after him, Sgt. William H. Carney Academy. And he is immortalized as one of the soldiers on Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ famous monument at Bos ton Common honoring the 54th Massachusetts Regiment. Not far from the monument is Boston’s Memorial Hall, where the “old flag” that William Carney had risked his life for still hangs.
Gerald S. Henig co-authored with Eric Niderost A Nation Transformed: How the Civil War Changed America Forever.
Originally published in the June 2009 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.