Object of the Month

“Boys, I but did my duty; the dear old flag never touched the ground”: Sergeant William H. Carney, a Hero of Fort Wagner

William H. Carney Cabinet card

William H. Carney

Image 1 of 1
    Choose an alternate description of this item written for these projects:
  • Main description

[ This description is from the project: Object of the Month ]

This photograph depicts Sgt. William Harvey Carney wearing the Quincy A. Gillmore medal for his meritorious service during the Battle of Fort Wagner on 18 July 1863. The photograph was taken ca. 1890 by Headley & Reed of New Bedford, Mass.

The Fifty-fourth Massachusetts and the Road to Glory

The story of the Massachusetts Fifty-fourth Regiment during the Civil War has been dramatically recounted in the motion picture Glory and in numerous works of history, poetry, and art, including the monument to the regiment which faces the Massachusetts State House. The stories of individual and collective bravery by the African American members of the regiment who faced down racism at home and on the battlefield are legion, but few more compelling than the story of Sergeant William H. Carney of New Bedford, Mass., a member of Company C.

The Battle Ensues

As evening fell on 18 July 1863, the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts prepared to lead the assault on the Confederate forces at Fort Wagner, S.C. Despite battling hunger, lack of sleep, and the sultry and changeable weather, the regiment was in "excellent temper and spirits" according to their Captain Luis F. Emilio. Advancing across three-quarters of a mile of sand, the Fifty-fourth encountered little fire at first but when they slowed to pass through a narrow spot, Fort Wagner, in Emilio's words, "became a mound of fire, vomiting shot and shell ... the air was full of deafening explosions ... the mound seemed fairly to rock and tremble with internal heavings." Still the regiment advanced, hurtling toward the enemy while all around them, comrades and officers fell. An article published in the Liberator on 28 August 1863 recounts the horror of the scene and William Carney's actions under fire:

When about 100 yards from the fort, the rebel musketry opened with such terrible effect that for an instant the first battalion hesitated—but only for an instant, for Col. Shaw, springing to the front and waving his sword, shouted, "Forward, my brave boys!" and with another cheer and a shout they rushed through the ditch, gained the parapet on the right, and were soon engaged in a hand-to-hand conflict with the enemy. Col. Shaw was one of the first to scale the walls. He stood erect to urge forward his men, and while shouting for them to press on, he was shot dead, and fell into the fort. His body was found, with twenty of his men lying dead around him, two lying on his own body ...

But above all, the color-bearer deserves more than a passing notice. Sergeant John Wall of Co. G. carried the flag in the first battalion, and when near the fort, he fell into a deep ditch, and called upon his guard to help him out. They could not stop for that, but Sergt. William H. Carney of Co. C. caught the colors, carried them forward, and was the first man to plant the Stars and Stripes upon Fort Wagner. As he saw the men falling back, himself severely wounded in the breast, he brought the colors off, creeping on his knees, pressing his wound with one hand and with the other holding up the emblem of freedom. The moment he was seen crawling into the hospital with the flag still in his possession, his wounded companions, both black and white, rose from the straw upon which they were lying, and cheered him until exhausted they could shout no longer. In response to this reception, the brave and wounded standard-bearer said: "Boys, I but did my duty; the dear old flag never touched the ground."

William H. Carney in His Own Words

After the battle, Carney recounted the story of his life in a letter that was published in the 6 November 1863 issue of the Liberator:

I was born in Norfolk, Va., in 1840; my father's name was William Carney; my mother's name before her marriage was Ann Dean; she was the property of one Major Carney, but, at his death, she, with all his people, was by his will made free. In my fourteenth year, when I had no work to do, I attended a private and secret school kept in Norfolk by a minister. In my fifteenth year I embraced the gospel; at that time I was also engaged in the coasting trade with my father.

In 1856, I left the sea for a time, and my father set out to look for a place to live in peace and freedom. He first stopped in the land of William Penn ... but he rested not there; the black man was not secure on the soil where the Declaration of Independence was written. He went far. Then he visited the empire State—great New York—whose chief ambition seemed to be for commerce and gold ... she only had time to spurn the man with a sable skin, and make him feel that he was an alien in his native land.

At last he set his weary feet upon the sterile rocks of "Old Massachusetts." The very air he breathed put enthusiasm into his spirit. O, yes, he found a refuge from oppression in the old Bay State. He selected as his dwelling-place the city of New Bedford, where "Liberty Hall" is a sacred edifice. Like the Temple of Diana which covered the virgins from harm in olden time, so old Liberty Hall in New Bedford protects the oppressed slave of the 19th century. After stopping a short time, he sent for his family, and there they still dwell. I remained in the city with the family, pursuing the avocation of a jobber of work for stores, and at such places as I could find employment. I soon formed connection with a church under the charge of the Rev. Mr. Jackson, now chaplain of the 55th Mass. Volunteers.

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

Honored for His Heroism

Carney's actions earned him the notice and commendation of his superior officers. In the featured photograph, Carney is wearing the Quincy A. Gillmore medal, first issued on 28 October 1863 by Union Major General Quincy A. Gillmore to troops serving under his command in South Carolina. It features an image of Fort Sumter and the date Aug. 23, 1863 on the obverse (front), and the motto "For Gallant and Meritorious Conduct Presented by Q. A. Gillmore Maj. Genl." on the back.

Carney was also awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery during the battle of Fort Wagner. The accompanying citation noted, "When the color sergeant was shot down, this soldier grasped the flag, led the way to the parapet, and planted the colors thereon. When the troops fell back he brought off the flag, under a fierce fire in which he was twice severely wounded." Carney was the first African American awarded this highest of military honors. 

What Happened to Carney After the War?

Although Carney continued to serve with the Fifty-fourth after the Battle of Fort Wagner, he was eventually discharged due to disability at the end of June 1864 and returned to New Bedford. In October of 1865, he married Susanna Williams in New Bedford and had a daughter Clara. For many years, he was a letter carrier, and later he worked in the Secretary of State's office in Boston. Tragically, Carney's leg was crushed in an elevator accident at the State House on 23 November 1908. According to newspaper accounts, the hospitalized Carney "minimized his wound and his suffering, and his own courage seemed likely to insure his recovery," but he succumbed to his injury on 9 December. According to an account in the Boston Globe, "a continuous file of visitors," including national and state officials, viewed Carney's body as he lay in state at the funeral parlor of Walden Banks in Boston. The following day, Carney's body was taken by train to New Bedford for his funeral. He is buried at Oak Grove Cemetery in New Bedford.

For Further Reading

The Massachusetts Historical Society's digital collection on the Fifty-fourth Regiment presents images pertaining to the regiment as well as sources for further research text

In addition, the MHS's website features a large number of manuscripts, objects, and photographs pertaining to members of the regiment; Search the MHS Website for 54th Regiment

The website of the Boston African American National Historic Site has a feature on William H. Carney, as well as a photograph of him holding the battle-torn American flag

Blatt, Martin H., Thomas J. Brown, and Donald Yacovone, eds. Hope & Glory: Essays on the Legacy of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001

Burchard, Peter. One Gallant Rush: Robert Gould Shaw and His Brave Black Regiment New York: St. Martin's Press, 1965.

----. "Stand by the Union": Robert Gould Shaw and the Black 54th Massachusetts Regiment New York: Facts on File, 1993.

Emilio, Luis F. The Assault on Fort Wagner, July 18, 1863: the Memorable Charge of the Fifty-Fourth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteers Boston: Rand Avery Co., 1887.

----. History of the Fifty-Fourth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, 1863-1865 Boston: The Boston Book Co., 1894.

"Interesting Correspondence," The Liberator, vol. 33, no. 45 (Nov. 6, 1863), p. 4

Lange, Katie. "Meet Sgt. William Carney: the First African-American Medal of Honor Recipient" (February 10, 2017), U. S. Army (website)

"The Mass. 54th at Fort Wagner," Liberator, vol. 33, no. 35 (Aug. 28, 1863), p. 2

Wachs, Eleanor. "It Wasn’t in her Lifetime, but it was Handed Down": Four Black Oral Histories of Massachusetts Boston: Office of the Secretary of State, 1989 contains an account of William Carney's life and service, as well as recollections by one of his descendants.