By Peter X. Accardo, Scholarly and Public Programs Librarian
Born into slavery in 1840, William Harvey Carney and his family left Virginia sometime in the 1850s before settling in New Bedford, Massachusetts, an active hub on the Underground Railroad and the same town where Frederick Douglass had brought his own family in 1838 at the start of his prophetic career. Carney was among the first to join Company C of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, an all-Black Union army regiment under the command of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, member of a prominent New York-Boston family and a former Harvard student (Shaw’s family letters are in the collection of Houghton Library and were consulted during the production of the 1989 film Glory).
In May 1863, the regiment left Boston and marched towards South Carolina, where, on July 18, they led the Union attack in what would become known as the Second Battle of Fort Wagner. Located on Morris Island south of Charleston, the fort was an earthwork that had been constructed to defend the city’s harbor. As Colonel Shaw and his men readied themselves for battle, federal ironclads offshore pummeled the sandy ground nearby.
Frank Vizetelly, an artist and British war correspondent for the Illustrated London News, arrived in Charleston just before the Union assault and was a first-hand witness to the bloody chaos that ensued, recording what he saw in his sketchbook. “The period chosen for my illustration is the moment when the last shell fired from the fleet bursts over the battery, and the troops, illumined by the glare, are seen rushing to the parapet to repel the assault. Some of the [Union troops] have already reached the crest of the work, but only to pay for their temerity by falling where they stand.” In the artist’s drawing, the Union standard is faintly visible above the parapet.
Among the battle’s early casualties were Colonel Shaw and John Wall. Desperate not to see the Union flag fall into Confederate hands, Sergeant Carney rescued it with his own. Under heavy fire, he seized the flag and attempted to rally the regiment, which had already begun to collapse in the onslaught. He then rolled the flag upon its staff and struggled down a treacherous embankment through seawater, gunfire, and darkness. Multiple times, he was struck by rebel bullets. When he finally reached the Union rear guard, a passing soldier offered to relieve him of the colors. Carney responded that he “would not give them to any man unless he belonged to the 54th regiment.”
Wounded and exhausted, Carney collapsed at a Union field hospital, but not before proclaiming to his jubilant comrades, “Boys, I did my duty; the dear old flag never touched the ground.” Carney’s was a triumph in a battle that ended in defeat for the Union and which resulted in massive loss of life: of the 600 troops of the 54th Massachusetts who participated in the assault, nearly half were killed, wounded, or captured.
After the war, Carney spent over 30 years as a letter carrier in New Bedford. In May 1897, he reunited with veterans in Boston at the dedication of Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ bronze monument honoring Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment. The monument captures the triumphant scene on Beacon Street 34 earlier when the regiment received a glorious send off from a grateful city. Onlookers cheered as the regiment’s survivors paraded through the streets, with Sergeant Carney once more carrying the flag he loved.
In a letter published soon after his heroism at Fort Wagner, South Carolina, Carney introduced himself to readers of William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator: “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 sequel in short — I enlisted for the war.” In a later recounting of his wartime service in a Boston Daily Globe interview, he noted that “while the government refused to pay us equally, we continued to fight for the freedom of the enslaved, and for the restoration of our country.”
Thirty-five years after the end of the Civil War, on 23 May 1900, William Carney belatedly received the Medal of Honor for his actions at Fort Wagner, taking his rightful place in the long line of African-American patriots who have defended the United States of America, in times of peril and in times of peace.