William Harvey Carney was born in Norfolk, Virginia, the son of William Carney and Ann, a former slave. Little is known of his early years. As a young boy he expressed an interest in the ministry, and at the age of fourteen, in 1854, he attended a covertly run school under the tutelage of a local minister. Later he moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he took odd jobs in the hope of saving sufficient funds to acquire his religious training.In 1862, despite strong opposition, Abraham Lincoln signed a bill authorizing the recruitment of African American troops. Parties...
William Harvey Carney was born in Norfolk, Virginia, the son of William Carney and Ann, a former slave. Little is known of his early years. As a young boy he expressed an interest in the ministry, and at the age of fourteen, in 1854, he attended a covertly run school under the tutelage of a local minister. Later he moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he took odd jobs in the hope of saving sufficient funds to acquire his religious training.In 1862, despite strong opposition, Abraham Lincoln signed a bill authorizing the recruitment of African American troops. Parties attempting to suppress the bill argued that African Americans were incapable of being trained, that in battle they would cower from the enemy, and that arming them was tantamount to giving them the means for insurrection. In January 1863 Governor John Andrew of Massachusetts was authorized to raise a regiment of African Americans. Since the African American community was relatively small in that state, recruiters also turned to enlisting men from other states. It took some time to convince enough African Americans to enlist, given the availability of employment in the North for African Americans, the threat of being put to death by the Confederate army if they were captured as Union soldiers, and the fact that they would have to serve under white commissioned officers. With such prominent individuals as Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and Wendell Phillips acting as recruiting agents, by the end of April the ranks of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment were filled, and Governor Andrew began securing men to fill the Fifty-fifth Massachusetts Regiment. In February 1863 Lieutenant James W. Grace, a businessman turned recruiting agent, opened a recruiting office in New Bedford, a town considered ideal for enlisting suitable men because of the large community of educated African Americans residing there. That year, at the age of twenty-three, Carney joined the Morgan Guards, which eventually became Company C of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Regiment rather than a separate regiment. Evidently Carney was viewed as having strong potential, for when the New Bedford enlistees left for camp he was listed on the roster with the rank of sergeant.Within two months of active duty, Carney participated in one of the bloodiest battles witnessed by African American soldiers during the Civil War, the assault of July 18, 1863, on Fort Wagner on Morris Island near Charleston, South Carolina. Two days prior to the assault, the men of the Fifty-fourth were first put to the test, seeing action on James Island, South Carolina. Under heavy fire they came to the aid of the Tenth Connecticut Regiment, possibly saving three companies from total annihilation by the Confederate forces. The unwavering front of African Americans coupled with the shower of mortar from the Union navy forced the enemy to retreat. The performance of the regiment impressed General Alfred H. Terry, commander of the 4,000-man division, and as the Union troops withdrew, the Fifty-fourth received its orders to proceed to Morris Island, which controlled the harbor entrance to Charleston.From its inception, the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Colored Infantry, under the command of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the scion of a wealthy Boston merchant family, had to prove itself worthy of entering the battlefield in Union blues. Thus, even though they had been deprived of sleep, food, and water for several days, Shaw volunteered his men to lead the charge on the bastion, a mission that exacted a terrible toll because of the lack of normal assault preparation. Although open at the rear, Fort Wagner, or Battery Wagner, was only approachable from the south and presented a formidable structure. Equipped with sixteen to twenty guns mounted on the ramparts, its bombproof interior could house an entire regiment of men. Moreover it had artillery support from other Confederate strongholds nearby, including Fort Sumter, James Island, Sullivan's Island, and Fort Gregg. To compound the difficulties of an assault, any frontal invasion would encounter unfavorable terrain, with marshland on the left, sea and then sand stretching in front, and a ditch that forced men advancing from the right flank to wade through knee-high water.The Union orders were to take the fort by storm with the Fifty-fourth leading the way, followed closely by other units and aided by artillery support from the navy. Thus the men of the Fifty-fourth entered the battlefield, muskets loaded but not capped, bayonets fixed, only to find later that the Ninth Maine, Tenth Connecticut, Sixty-third Ohio, and Forty-eighth and One-hundredth New York were not in position to lead the second wave of the assault. At 7:45 p.m. on July 18th the assault unfolded as the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Regiment, following the lead of Colonel Shaw, marched toward the fort. When the advancing line was within approximately two or three hundred yards of the perimeter, the Confederate troops opened up a barrage of fire, quickly bringing down the formation. Despite heavy casualties from shell and musket fire, the men of the Fifty-fourth pressed forward.Prior to the assault Brigadier General George C. Strong, the field commander for whom the battery was later renamed, had addressed the Fifty-fourth, telling the recruits to do honor to the nation. When he asked who would carry the national flag in case the color-bearer fell in action, Shaw replied that he would. Shaw was one of the first to reach the summit, but as he raised his sword to rally his men on, shouting “Forward, Fifty-fourth,” he was fatally struck in the chest. At the same time the color sergeant, John Wall, who was carrying the flag, also began to fall. Carney was close enough to see both men start to topple, and he heroically commandeered the colors and prevented the flag from falling to the ground. Despite wounds in both legs, his chest, and his right arm, he determinedly forged ahead, clutching the flag, which he planted on the crest next to the regimental colors. He managed to keep it aloft even as he lay on the outer slope surrounded by a hail of bullets. The lines of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts were decimated by the time a second charge of reinforcements reached them. Only then was Carney able to creep back to friendly lines, albeit on one knee, still determined to protect the colors. When he eventually staggered into a hospital tent, he collapsed, uttering the words, “Boys, the old flag never touched the ground.”For his act of courage, Sergeant Carney was one of four soldiers from the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts who received the Gilmore Medal, and he was the first African American awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. The citation of the latter read, “For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life, above and beyond the call of duty, in action involving actual conflict with an opposing armed force.”When Carney was discharged from the army in 1864, he returned to New Bedford, Massachusetts. After spending some time at home he moved, for no known reason, to California. He returned to New Bedford in 1870. For the remainder of his years he resided in Massachusetts, where he worked as one of four African American letter carriers, retiring in 1901 after thirty-one years of service. Following his retirement from the postal service he worked as a state employee in Boston. He died probably in Boston.Carney's home in Norfolk, Virginia, is a historic site, officially known as the “Sergeant Carney Memorial House.” The American flag saved by Carney resides in Memorial Hall, Boston, Massachusetts, and his features are enshrined on Boston Common in the monument sculpted by Augustus Saint-Gaudens that pays tribute to Colonel Shaw and his warriors.
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