With the Memorial Day holiday just days away, we remember the soldiers that fell in battle that paid the price of our freedom. That sacrifice was never so keenly felt as in Charleston, SC during the Civil War. The 54th Massachusetts was a regiment completely staffed with free African-American soldiers, who were fighting to free many of their brethren. They knew that if captured, they’d be executed.
The 54th Massachusetts was given the task of taking Battery Wagner by a frontal assault. Although they breached the wall briefly, they were hurled back with horrendous casualties. Their commander, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw was killed. One sergeant was later awarded for incredible bravery during the attack, Sgt. William Carney was awarded the Medal of Honor nearly 37 years later in 1900.
Carney was born into slavery in Virginia in February 1840, he eventually made his way to Massachusetts via the Underground Railroad where he met up with his father. The family settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts where William learned to read and write and hoped to enter the ministry. But the war ended all of that.
African-Americans were not allowed to join the army until 1863. When the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Colored Infantry was formed early in 1863, he joined as a sergeant in Company C. It was the first regiment fielded by the Union of African-American troops.
On July 18, 1863, the 54th led the charge on Battery Wagner. During the charge across the open beach in front of the fort, the unit’s color guard was shot. Carney, who was just a few feet away, saw the man go down, and he caught the falling flag.
Despite being wounded himself several times, Carney refused to let the flag touch the ground, holding it aloft for all of his troops to see. Upon reaching the base of the Confederate fort he sunk the flag into the ground and exhorted the troops onward. He soon realized that he was all alone on the wall of the fort. He tried to make his way back to the Union lines with dead and wounded troops all around him.
He reached a ditch that had been dry when they arrived but was now waist deep in water. He was crouched down low to keep away from the heavy fire all around him. Then he made a mistake, as he rose to get a better look at the situation. He later wrote: “The bullet I now carry in my body came whizzing like a mosquito, and I was shot. Not being prostrated by the shot, I continued my course, yet had not gone far before I was struck by a second shot.”
As they were being forced back under murderous fire, Carney refused to let the colors touch the ground, despite nearly bleeding to death.
Even as he was being helped to safety by troops from the 100th New York, he grasped the colors tighter to his body, refusing to let them go. He was then grazed on the arm and again taking a shot to the side of his head.
When he reached what was left of the 54th Massachusetts, the sight of Carney carrying the colors was a huge morale boost for the battered and bloodied troops. He was cheered loudly and told the troops, “Boys, the old flag never touched the ground!” When daylight broke, a Confederate officer described the scene, “In front of the fort the scene of carnage is indescribable. I have never seen so many dead in the same space.”
Out of the 600 men under Shaw’s command, 272 were either killed, wounded or missing. The Union troops lost 1515 men, the Confederates just 174. But word of their bravery, especially Carney’s spread. More African-Americans flocked to the military to take up arms against the Confederacy. President Lincoln noted the effect the 54th Massachusetts had on the overall war effort.
Carney would be forced out of the army because of his wounds less than a year later in June 1864. He returned to Massachusetts and married Susannah Williams in October 1865. They had a child Clara who later became a very accomplished music teacher in New Bedford.
Carney worked for a time as the director of streetlights in New Bedford and later became a letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service where he worked for 32 years until he retired. He was a founding vice president of the New Bedford Branch 18 of the National Association of Letter Carriers in 1890.
Carney’s heroism at Battery Wagner was finally honored on May 23, 1900, when he was awarded the Medal of Honor. That was nearly 37 years after he took part in what was termed, “One Gallant Rush” with the 54th Massachusetts Regiment. He was the first black soldier to receive the award. When asked about his actions on that day, he simply said, “I only did my duty.”
Carney’s Medal of Honor 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.”
Carney then worked as a messenger in the Massachusetts State House. He was injured in an elevator accident which eventually claimed his life on December 9, 1908. His body lay in state for a day as thousands of Massachusetts residents by then had memorized the details of that battle from so long before and the flag “that never touched the ground.” The flag at the Statehouse of Massachusetts flew at half-staff in his honor. At that time, that honor was reserved normally for deceased governor, senator, congressman or US President.
Carney is buried in the family plot in Oak Grove Cemetery in New Bedford. Etched on his stone monument is an engraving of the Medal of Honor.
The charge of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry was captured in the feature film Glory.
Pictures: US Army