Valor Friday

| February 25, 2022

William Harvey Carney was a black man born into slavery in Norfolk, Virginia in 1840. He learned to read and write, despite laws making such illegal. It’s unclear exactly how Carney came to freedom. Some accounts say his father escaped via the Underground Railroad and bought his son’s freedom. Other accounts say that he escaped himself by the Underground Railroad.

Whichever path was taken, Carney and his father were soon joined in freedom in the North by Carney’s mother when her enslaver died. Once free, his family made their way to Boston, at the time one of the epicenters of the abolitionist movement.

William had wanted to pursue a career in the church, but the outbreak of the Civil War led him to consider military service as his calling instead. In 1863 when blacks were finally allowed to enlist into the Union Army after the Emancipation Proclamation, he joined up.

In an October 1863 letter, Carney wrote;

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 by serving my country and my oppressed brothers. The sequel is short – I enlisted for the war.

If you’ve seen the 1989 film Glory about the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry Regiment, then you’ll be familiar with the unit that William Harvey Carney enlisted into. Because of that movie, the 54th are often now called “The Glory Regiment.”

The 54th Massachusetts was a black regiment (with white officers, as was most common at the time) raised in Boston, with the backing of powerful abolitionist leaders like Frederick Douglass. In fact, two of Douglass’s sons were in the 54th Mass and served in Company C alongside Carney.

Most volunteer regiments of the Civil War (and before that) were raised locally. Prominent local leaders, often with a wealthy or politically connected backer who would become the regiment’s colonel, enlisted men from their community to fill out the ranks. However the 54th Mass went far beyond the bounds of the Boston-area. The free black network recruited for the regiment from as far away as the southern states.

In fact, the 54th Mass had so many volunteers that they began a rigorous medical screening process. The Massachusetts Surgeon-General claimed that “a more robust, strong and healthy set of men were never mustered into the service of the United States.”

William Carney enlisted as a private into a militia unit in February 1863. This militia joined with the 54th in March 1863, and Carney was soon promoted to sergeant. The regiment trained at Camp Meigs outside Boston with Colonel Robert Gould Shaw commanding. They enjoyed significant local support from abolitionists, including Ralph Waldo Emerson.

The 54th mustered into federal service soon thereafter in May. Morale was high even though just months earlier Confederate President Jefferson Davis said that black Union soldiers (and their white officers) would be subjected to a death sentence if captured for inciting servile insurrection.

The 54th arrived in Beaufort, South Carolina to much fanfare. They were greeted by local blacks and abolitionists. In South Carolina the 54th joined the 2nd South Carolina Volunteers. The 2nd South Carolina Volunteers was another black infantry regiment, made up of freedmen, and led by Colonel James Montgomery of Kansas.

The 2nd South Carolina had their first taste of combat on 1 June 1863 in the Raid at Combahee Ferry. Accompanied by Harriet Tubman, they freed 800 slaves in the successful operation.

The 54th Mass had their first mission, alongside the 2nd South Carolina, to raid the town of Darien, Georgia. With Colonel Montgomery in command of the combined forces, they found the town deserted. Montgomery ordered the town to be looted and then burned to the ground. The 54th’s Colonel Shaw protested above Montgomery’s head.

Outraged at the order, Shaw ordered his men to only take that which was militarily useful and only committed a single company to the endeavor. He refused Montgomery’s order to have his men set fire to the town, and apparently Montgomery was fully willing to take responsibility for the action.

On 11 July, Union forces attacked one of the Confederate’s strongest redoubts at Fort Wagner. Fort Wagner was a well constructed fortification on Morris Island that protected the southern approach to the strategically important Charleston Harbor. The Union’s attack was easily repulsed by the Rebels, with the Union suffering heavy losses.

In response to this defeat, the Union planned to attack it again in force, but first they would feint. The 54th was part of both the feint and the later battle at the Second Battle of Fort Wagner.

Carney and the 54th’s first combat was at the Battle of Grimball’s Landing. The 16 July 1863 battle was part of the feint to draw Confederate attention and forces away from the coming Second Battle of Fort Wagner.

The 54th’s first trial by combat saw them engage in an intense battle. A 54th Mass first sergeant (a Bermudian who was a veteran of the British Army) described the assault. He said three companies of the regiment were about a mile in advance of the main body of the force. These 250 men faced a Confederate infantry and cavalry charge of some 900 men, supported by another 3,000. The men of the 54th had to conduct a fighting retreat to their own lines. The regiment received a commendation for brave and gallant conduct from the commanding general.

The second assault on Fort Wagner was conducted two days later, on the 18th of July. To soften the target, an eight hour bombardment with siege guns and mortars commenced during the day. The fort’s sandy walls and revetments were minimally damaged and the 1,800 men within the fort had taken refuge in the bomb-proof shelter. After hours of bombardment, only 20 or so were injured and a handful killed.

The 54th Mass led the charge, beginning the assault about 1945 hours. The 5,000 or so Union men attacked from three sides. Colonel Shaw led his men across the moat and towards the fort’s walls shouting “Forward, Fifty-Fourth, forward!”

With the end of the bombardment, the fort’s garrison came out of their shelter. When the 54th was about 150 yards from the walls of the fort, the Confederates opened fire with cannon, rifle, and hand grenade.

As the shells and bullets ripped through their ranks the 54th faltered in their advance. Colonel Shaw, by now at the very wall of the fort, mounted the parapet and urged his men forward. The 25 year old officer was cut down by at least three Confederate bullets to the chest and as many as seven times, his body falling outside the fort.

Despite their heavy losses, the 54th pressed forward to the parapet their commander had just died upon. As they moved ahead the 54th’s color sergeant fell wounded. William Carney, without missing a beat, took up the American Flag.

The importance of the flag bearer is hard to understand now, but it was a critical role at the time. Entire regiments and brigades would direct the movement of battle over distances. Along with the bugler or trumpeter, the position of the color bearer was one of the most important for communicating over the din of battle. The rank of color sergeant (even today still a senior NCO rank in the British Army) was a trusted NCO of the regiment. The junior officer rank of ensign (an Army rank from colonial times until 1815 and a currently constituted Navy rank) draws its title from the flag as well, which the junior officer was responsible for.

In addition to the importance for communication (to signal moving forward or retreat when the flag moves), the flag is obviously important for a unit’s morale. Losing the colors, or having the colors fall, can demoralize a unit in combat.

For all these reasons, the man carrying the colors was a very visible and critical man for the enemy to target. Which is why it was considered such a valiant act for a man to pick up the colors, particularly during a losing battle, and carry them forward into the fight.

Though wounded already, Sergeant Carney brought Old Glory to the parapet and planted the flag thereupon. It was said he was “pressing his wound with one hand and with the other holding up the emblem of freedom.”

They fought hard, to the point of hand-to-hand combat with the fort’s defenders, but were driven back. Carney carried the flag off the field of battle, wounded twice more in the process.

Carney even refused to give up the colors to others as they retreated. Finally arriving back at the safety of friendly lines, Carney handed off the colors to another survivor of the 54th. He told them, “Boys, I only did my duty; the old flag never touched the ground!”

The bloody battle had claimed many lives, including Major General George Crockett Strong (mortally wounded), Colonel Haldimand S. Putnam of the 7th New Hampshire Volunteers (shot in the head while in the salient giving the order to withdraw), and Colonel John Lyman Chatfield of the 6th Connecticut Regiment (mortally wounded).

The 54th numbered 600 men at the outset of the Second Battle of Fort Wagner. By the end of the day, after just two and a half hours of battle, 270 were killed, wounded, or missing in action. This included the death in action of the regiment’s colonel and two company commanders. The 54th Massachusetts sustained the heaviest casualties of all the Union formations that day.

After the battle, the Confederates returned the bodies of the fallen Union officers with the exception of Colonel Shaw. He was cast into a mass grave with the black soldiers of the 54th. Intended as an insult, friends and comrades of Shaw said being buried with his men is where he’d want to be.

The 54th’s regimental surgeon wrote;

We would not have his body removed from where it lies surrounded by his brave and devoted soldiers. … We can imagine no holier place than that in which he lies, among his brave and devoted followers, nor wish for him better company. – what a body-guard he has!

After the war, the bodies of all Union men were disinterred and reinterred at Beaufort National Cemetery, by which time they were unidentifiable.

Carney’s wounds kept him from participating in any further action with the 54th Mass. He was mustered out of service in June 1864 with an honorable discharge because of his injuries.

William returned to New Bedford, Massachusetts and took a job as a lamplighter with the city. After that he became a postal carrier for 32 years, one of the first black men in the role in the city. During this time he married and had a daughter.

Sergeant William Carney’s actual Medal of Honor

Carney received the Medal of Honor for his actions during the Second Battle of Fort Wagner in May 1900, nearly 37 years after the fact. About half of the Medals of Honor awarded for the Civil War were awarded 20 or more years later. In fact, the most recently awarded Medal of Honor for the Civil War was a posthumous award to First Lieutenant (Brevet Lieut. Col.) Alonzo Cushing, awarded in 2014, 151 years after he fell in battle.

Captain Luis Emilio was the junior most captain in the 54th Mass during the assault on Fort Wagner. He was thrust into command with the death or wounding of all higher ranking officers. In an 1891 book Brave Black Regiment, Captain Emilio specifically cites Sergeant Carney for commendation “above [his] fellows for especial merit.”

After the war, Carney was an active participant in veterans events. He was a member of the Grand Army of the Republic, attended anniversary and battle memorials, and in 1889 was the featured singer of the Star-Spangled Banner at one such event.

William Carney died in 1908 at the age of 68. He died in hospital after suffering injuries in an elevator accident at the Massachusetts State House, where he was employed at the time for the Department of State.

The flag at the Massachusetts State House was flown at half-mast in Sergeant Carney’s honor after his passing, a prestigious tribute usually reserved for governors, senators, congressmen, or presidents.

Sergeant Carney is the first black recipient of the Medal of Honor by date of action. US Navy Seaman Robert Blake (himself an escaped slave) was the first black man to physically receive the medal, doing so in 1864 for actions on Christmas Day, 1863.

Category: Army, Historical, Medal of Honor, Valor, We Remember

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It gives you chills reading about such great men and what they scarificed to this nation. Bravo Zulu to them, and to all who served and are serving today.


BZ SGT Carney. His awarding of the MoH was for bravery carrying a flag v many that were awarded for simply picking up a flag on a battlefield. The 54th MA were better troops than some of the ossifers that led them. Jus’ saying. The December 1989 issue of Civil War Times Illustrated has a fairly decent article on the 54th and another on the making of the motion picture “Glory”. Worked on/in/with that production, among others. Yes, your beloved Gun Bunny is an Oscar Winning Motion Picture Star, an Internationally World Famous Magazine Model, AND a local media celebrity.

Thanks Mason. I guess doing a write up of Black Confederate Warriors would be not so politically correct these days?


KoB: PLEASE share with Mason and TAH the Black Confederate Warriors…I know there are ALOT of them out there.

They were Heroes as well.

Thank You!


Rest Well, Dearest Sergeant.
A grateful country remem’ers Her bravest.


RIP Sgt Carney.

Beaufort SC not to be confused with Beaufort NC same spelling different pronunciation is home to MCAS Beaufort (Merritt Field), MCRD Parris Island, and a US Navy Hospital in addition to the aforementioned National Cemetery. My parents are buried side by side in the National Cemetery. Included in the section they are buried are a number of USCT United States Colored Troops, and it only about a 4 iron away from the 54th Mass troops from Morris Island (to include Col Shaw) were reinterred.

There are a couple Medal of Honor recipients buried there as well.

If you remember John Wayne’s character from The Longest Day – Lt Col Benjamin Vandervoort is buried there.

Slow Joe

Hard to say anything.
We just don’t measure up to our elders.
I cannot even imagine what they went through.


True hero. I cannot imagine the rage and fury of Civil War Battle. Thank you Mason for sharing another Galant man with us.


“Boys, I only did my duty; the old flag never touched the ground!”

He understands!


As usual, Mason, what a wonderful story of Valor that you share with all of us. Thank You so much.

SGT William Harvey Carney…another Unsung Hero.


Rest In Peace To A Hero That Will Never Be Forgotten.