In 2020, it is hard to talk about race in the United States. Being on the “right” side of history is difficult due to the borage of facts and figures that are constantly hurled at you. Americans want to talk about race in this country, but it tends to be a subject that people avoid. This is because there’s too much to know. There are too many facts and too many figures. There are too many stories to hear in order to have the most up-to-date opinion.
So instead of the traditional shit-flinging, let’s do a little celebrating of someone we never learned about in history class.
William Harvey Carney was the first black American to receive the most prestigious award in the United States military: the Medal of Honor. He was one of fourteen black soldiers to receive the award for the Civil War.
His bravery and strength in war won him first spot on the list of black American heroes to come.
In the spring of 1863, just four months after the Emancipation Proclamation and six months before the Gettysburg address, the United States Colored Troops were formed. Other people of color, such as Native Americans, Pacific Islanders, and Asian Americans fought in the USCT as well. However, the regiments were primarily made up of free black men from both north and south.
The Battle of Fort Wagner
Just three months later, outside Charleston, South Carolina was the battle of Fort Wagner. It was on Morris Island and guarded the entrance of the Charleston Harbor. Taking it would have been a great victory for the Union. Carney’s regiment, the 54th Massachusetts, lead the charge against the fort and burrowed into the sand about 1000 yards from it.
After a long day under heavy fire from the fort, night set in. At this, the 54th Massachusetts was ordered to stand up and march on the fort, where immediately they were met with musket balls and artillery shells from the fort. It was carnage. Men lost limbs in the blink of an eye, soldiers doubled over and fell in the sand. One of of which was the color bearer, whose role was vital to keep the regiment marching forward.
As the man started to fall, Carney threw down his gun and grabbed to flag. Continuing to march, and eventually finding himself against the outer wall of the fort, Carney saw that he was alone and in a clear line of sight of the approaching Confederates. So with bullets striking the ground and pelting him with sand, he wrapped the cloth around the flag pole and sprinted toward a low stonewall. He followed the wall to a ditch where only moments before, he had crossed on dry ground. He now found himself waist deep in the Atlantic Ocean.
He felt alone, surrounded by screams of agony from the wounded. Dead were piled on top of one another. Musket balls whizzed overhead. Artillery shells exploded the sand. But he kept pushing toward the Federal line. To get a better look he stood up, but it was a mistake. 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.”
Carney saw a Union soldier in the distance and struggled his way over. When the blue coat got close enough to Carney, he asked if he was injured. As soon as Carney affirmed that he was injured, he flenched when another bullet grazed hi arm. The soldier from the 100th New York ask Carney to give him the colors, since he was injured. To which Carney replied that he would not consent to anyone but a member of the 54th Massachusetts to carry the flag.
The two soldiers made it back to the Federal lines, but not before Carney was shot yet again when a bullet grazed his head. He was met with praises from the 54th upon his return to which he replied, “Boys, the old flag never touched the ground!”
Unfortunately, the Second Battle of Fort Wagner was unsuccessful in taking the fort. This was due to Morris Island being essentially one long strip of sand that only allowed the Union army to attack two sides of the fort with only one regiment at a time. This forced the Union army to lay siege to the fort, two months after which, the Confederates abandoned it. The ultimate victory was widely attributed to Carney’s regiment, the 54th Massachusetts, and their bravery. This battle of the USCT set a ripple effect throughout the Union army, resulting in thousands of black men volunteering for the army. President Lincoln himself even hailed the 54th’s bravery and their contribution to the ultimate outcome of the war.
Word spread of William Carney’s actions and he was promoted to sergeant. In 1865, after he was discharged due to his injuries, he married New Bedford resident by the name of Susannah Williams. Together, they had a child who went on to become an accomplished music teacher in New Bedford. Carney himself went on to retire from the United States Postal Service after 32 years of service.
Sergeant William Carney’s heroic conduct was honored on May 23, 1900. Forty years after his valor at Fort Wagner, where he proudly fought alongside the 54th Massachusetts, he became the first black person to be awarded the Medal of Honor. When asked about his brave actions, he simply said, “I only did my duty.”