Profiles of Valor: William Carney
“Boys, I only did my duty; the old flag never touched the ground!”
William Carney was born into slavery in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1840. His father escaped to the North by way of the Underground Railroad and accumulated enough money in Massachusetts to purchase the freedom of his family.
In March 1863, then-23-year-old Carney joined the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. The 54th was the second, but most famous, infantry regiment composed of black Americans, as authorized by Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Just four months later, Carney would find himself in pitched battle.
On July 11, 1863, in the First Battle of Fort Wagner, the stronghold protecting the strategic southern approach to Charleston Harbor, Union forces were turned back after suffering 339 casualties to the Confederates’ 12 casualties. But a week later, the famous Second Battle of Fort Wagner was led by the 54th Massachusetts under the command of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (as depicted in the Oscar-winning film “Glory”).
On the morning of July 18th, Brigadier General Quincy Gillmore attacked Ft. Wagner with an artillery barrage from land-based batteries followed by a bombardment from 11 ships. As that attack subsided, just before sunset the 54th charged to a point about 150 yards from the fort walls. Confederate forces opened fire with musket and cannon, decimating the ranks of the black soldiers, but the 54th moved forward and reached the fort parapet, where Shaw, after yelling “Forward, 54th!” became one of many casualties.
After the 54th’s color guard was killed, young Sgt. William Carney retrieved the U.S. flag and pressed forward. He held it high under heavy fire, being severely wounded twice. When the attack was stalled, he planted the flag staff in the sand, defiantly keeping it upright. After an extraordinarily brutal battle, in the dark of night, the black infantrymen were ordered back. They had suffered a 40% loss of their unit, with 20 killed, 125 wounded, and 102 missing (presumed dead or take prisoner).
But, at the end of the day, the men of the 54th were hailed for their valor and bravery.
Sgt. Carney was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions — becoming the first black American to receive our nation’s highest military decoration, though others had received the Medal earlier for actions after those of Carney.
For his part, Carney recounted that rising at one point with the flag in hand, he was shot: “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.” He added, “Boys, I only did my duty; the old flag never touched the ground!”
Carney was honorably discharged in June 1864 and returned to New Bedford, where he married his sweetheart and became a mail carrier for the next 32 years. He died in 1908.
Footnote: In honor of the 54th Massachusetts, the Shaw Memorial was erected on Boston Common. On May 31, 2020, on the anniversary of the dedication of that memorial, “Black Lives Matter” rioters badly defaced the monument, one of many in their nationwide effort to whitewash our shared history.
Semper Vigilans Fortis Paratus et Fidelis
Pro Deo et Libertate — 1776
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