The Black War Hero Who Saved The American Flag

The year was 1863, and Company C of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment was the first black regiment in the state. Together, they those derogatory voices who claimed black men would never fight for their freedom. Early that same year, William H. Carney joined the army. He will forever be known for his heroic deeds during the July 18, 1963 siege that earned him the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Here’s is an excerpt of Sergeant Carney’s account of that day:

‘… We were all ready for the charge, and the regiment started to its feet, the charge being fairly commenced. We had got but a short distance when we were opened upon with musketry, shell, grape shot and canister, which mowed down our men right and left. As the color-bearer became disabled I threw away my gun and seized the colors, making my way to the head of the column … In less than 20 minutes I found myself alone, struggling upon the ramparts, while the dead and wounded were all around me, lying one upon another. Here I said, ‘I cannot go into the battery alone,’ and so I halted and knelt down, holding the flag in my hand. While there, the muskets, balls and grape-shots were flying all around me, and as they struck, the sand would fly in my face.

The Storming of Fort Wagner by the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, Morris Island, Charleston, S.C., July 18, 1863.

I knew my position was a critical one, and I began to watch to see if I would be left alone. Discovering that the forces had renewed their attack farther to the right, and the enemy’s attention being drawn thither, I turned and discovered a battalion of men coming towards me on the ramparts of Wagner. They proceeded until they were in front of me, and I raised my flag and started to join them, when from the light of the cannon discharged on the battery, I saw that they were my enemies. I wound the colors round the staff and made my way down the parapet in to the ditch, which was without water when I crossed it before, but now was filled with water that came up to my waist.

Out of the number that came up with me there was now no man moving erect, save myself, although they were not all dead but wounded. In rising to see if I could determine my course to the rear, 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.

Soon after I saw a man coming towards me, and then within halting distance I asked him who he was. He replied, ‘I belong to the One Hundredth New York,’ and then inquired if I were wounded. Upon replying in the affirmative, he came to my assistance and helped me to the rear. ‘Now then,’ said he, ‘let me take the colors and carry them for you.’ My reply was that I would not give them to anyone else unless he belonged to the Fifty-Fourth Regiment. So we passed on , but we did not go far before I was wounded in the head.

We came at length within hailing distance of the rear guard, who caused us to halt, and upon asking who we were, and finding I was wounded, took us to the rear and through the guard. An officer came, and taking my name and regiment, put us in charge of the hospital corps, telling them to find my regiment. When we finally reached the latter the men cheered me and the flag. My reply was, ‘Boys, the old flag never touched the ground.'”

That’s when, exhausted from his injuries, Sergeant Carney collapsed in a dead faint.

In May, 1900, Sergeant Carney became the first Black American to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor. His bravery is memorialized by the Saint-Gaudens Monument in Boston Common, and the flag he rescued is enshrined in Memorial Hall.

Eight years later, on December 9, 1908, William Harvey Carney passed away in his home in New Bedford, Massachusetts. He is buried in the Oak Grove Cemetery, where his grave bears a very rare headstone. Made of white marble and engraved with gold is a beautiful image of the Congressional Medal of Honor. This stone marks the graves of fewer that 3,500 Americans. It is a tribute to the courage and conviction of a great soldier who loved his country and honored the American flag.

H/T Richard Sanborn and Father John Whiteford

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