Saturday, February 18, 2012

William Carney: Union Soldier, Congressional Medal of Honor Recipient

This particular blog is dedicated to the celebration of African American History Month. I hope it inspires pride in our shared history, both the history that is past and the history that is yet to come. It also is dedicated to my husband and son, descendants of Col. Robert Gould Shaw of the Massachusetts 54th; and to David Roderick, television producer, musician, former colleague – and descendant of William Carney.

Boston, MA
Spring, 1863

About 600 African American soldiers, all armed and ready for battle, muster on Boston Common.
Detail of the Saint-Gaudens memorial to the Massachusetts 54th

It is May, a saucy month in New England. The gardens are greening and life seems full of possibility. This particular day is no exception. It is, in fact, absolutely golden: warm, sunny, a day to wrap your arms around.

To be precise, it is late in May: the 28th, and despite the pleasant weather, we are at war with ourselves. Shiloh. Harper’s Ferry. Antietam has too-recently made its blood offering. Fredericksburg. Chancellorsville. Already this is a history of near loss for the Union Army, and a history of wondrous survival for the Confederates.

But here, on Boston Common, there is both celebration and boldness in the air as the first Northern “coloured regiment” of the Union Army, the Massachusetts 54th, gets ready to march off to battle. Trained and armed just like their white counterparts, they are also uniformed and paid – just like their white counterparts.

The 54th Massachusetts in Boston, c. 1863
But unlike their white counterparts, these soldiers and their white officers march with a death sentence over their heads. On Christmas Eve, 1862, nearly a month before Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ General Orders #111 declare that any and all commissioned Union officers be considered “as robbers and criminals deserving death” upon capture.

Further, whether the black soldiers be free men or runaway slaves, it it would not matter once they crossed Southern lines. At that time, all were considered “slaves [who were to be] “at once delivered over to...the respective States to which they belong to be dealt with according to the laws of said States.”

Most of these men are free, but not all. They have come from Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, far away as Bermuda. They all know the risks of serving in this regiment. In spite of these risks, perhaps because of these risks, they stand here now in regimental trim, ready to make their mark on history.
Lewis Henry Douglass, son of Frederick Douglass

Among the souls here today are Lewis Henry Douglass and Charles Redmond Douglass, sons of the former slave and great abolitionist, Frederick Douglass

James Caldwell, grandson of Sojourner Truth, is here as well.

So, too, is Stephen Atkins Swails, a young man who will survive to become a Re-Constructionist lawyer, town mayor, and member of the 1868 electoral college.

William Harvey Carney is here. Twenty-three years old, Carney was born into slavery. Both his parents were slaves. Now they live in New Bedford, Massachusetts. When he was 15, he “embraced the gospel” and later believed he would become a minister (The Liberator November 6, 1863), but he is here, instead, responding to a different type of calling:

"Previous to the formation of colored troops, I had a strong inclination to prepare myself for the ministry; but when the country called for all persons, I could best serve my God serving my country and my oppressed brothers." (The Liberator 1863).
The Union flag. Lincoln refused to remove any stars.
Leading these men are the sons of socially prominent, white abolitionist families: Col. Robert Gould Shaw, of Boston, who was married just a month prior, and Col. Norwood "Needles" Hallowell and his younger brother, Lt. Col. Edward "Pen" Penrose Hallowell, will go on to lead the Massachusetts 55th, a second African American regiment formed after the success of the 54th.

They are gathered now, in front of the State House and will march to Boston Harbor, famous for a different party during a different war. From there, they sail south. Their ultimate destination is Fort Wagner, South Carolina.
William Carney with his medal, c. 1890s

They arrive July 18, 1863 having seen some prior skirmishes the month before. The fort is located on Morris Island and guards the southern approach into Charleston harbor. This battle will be the second attempt in a week to win the fort. The first attempt resulted in over 300 Union dead compared to the loss of 12 Confederate soldiers (

Five thousand Union soldiers attack the fort. The Massachusetts 54th leads the way. Their approach is along the beach. They need to cross over a 30’ defensive embankment. It is here that Col. Shaw, leading his men by foot, raises his sword to storm the enemy walls.

“Forward 54th!” he cries. His men follow. Shaw is one of the first to reach the top of the wall.
Col. Robert Gould Shaw of the Massachusetts 54th

The Union dead number into the thousands. Of the 600 soldiers of the 54th, 220 die as a result of the day’s battle. One of those soldiers, shot through the heart, is Col. Shaw. One of the survivors is William Carney.

At battle’s end, the Confederacy strip Col. Shaw’s body, briefly put him on display, then throw him into the bottom of a mass grave with other soldiers of the 54th. The action is intended as an insult, not least because officers’ bodies were, in those days, collected and returned from the battleground to the family for a formal burial. Not so in this case.

The intended insult ends up as a point of honor between Col. Shaw and his men. His family says that this is where their son would want to be, that he would have considered it an honor to be buried with his men.

His widow never remarries.

In the fire of battle, however, Carney sees the flag-bearer drop the company flag. Without giving it any thought, he picks up the flag before it can be captured and fights his way to the Fort Wagner wall. He is said to have kept the flag waving for 20 minutes during that desperate battle. When he finally gives up his position, family legend says that he actually wraps himself in the flag in order to protect it.
Lithograph of the Fort Wagner debacle, July 17, 1863
The action also makes him a very special moving target: a former slave, a black Union soldier, a company man bearing the company colors. Carney is wounded four times before he gives up the flag in safety. Twice in his body. Once in his arm. The last bullet grazes his head.

Even when a member of the NY 100th offers to carry the flag for him, Carney keeps going, refusing to give up the flag to any but a member of the 54th (“America’s Civil War” Hammond, March, 2007).

“The old flag never touched the ground,” says Carney right before he collapses.
William Carney with the Union flag

In 1900, 37 years after his act of bravery and 38 years after the medal’s inception, William Carney is awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor “to be presented in the name of Congress, to such officers and non-commissioned privates as shall most distinguish themselves by their gallantry in action.”

William Harvey Carney is the medal's first African American recipient.

"I only did my duty,” says Carney upon receiving it.

Here is the full roster of soldiers who served in the Massachusetts 54th. A link to the Congressional Medal of Honor website and Carney's citation is here. A memorial to the Massachusetts 54th stands on the Beacon Street side of Boston Commons, across from the State House. Designed by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, you can see the memorial at this link.

Let if fly!
Col. Robert Gould Shaw and the men of the Massachusetts 54th (litho)

partial source listing:
Duncan, Russell, ed.: Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune: The Civil War Letters of Col. Robert Gould Shaw

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