Sgt. William Carney, Former Slave and Medal of Honor Recipient

William H. Carney, a former slave, was bought out of slavery as a boy and sent north. When the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment formed for Black soldiers in 1863, he joined. In the Battle of Fort Wagner, Carney took decisive action to save the flag, for which he received the Medal of Honor.

A colorized professional photo of a young and distringuished Carney in his dress uniform that he would have worn as part of the 54th Regiment.
Sgt. William H. Carney

Most medals awarded to Civil War veterans were not given until long after the war. William Carney received his medal in 1900. He lived another eight years.

The attack on Fort Wagner is depicted in the film, Glory.

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Early Life

William H. Carney, Jr. (1840-1908) was born into slavery in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1840. It is believed that his father escaped from slavery through the Underground Railroad. The group helped William Carney, Sr., arrive safely in in New Bedford, Massachusetts—an area that was deemed safe for former slaves.

Carney was dedicated to bringing his wife and son north. He found a job and was eventually able to buy them out of slavery and bring them to New Bedford.

Little is known about William H. Carney, Jr’s childhood. At some point he learned to read and write. There were laws against slaves going to any type of school, so whether Carney gained the knowledge while still a slave, or afterward when he and his mother moved north, is not known.

In New Bedford, Carney was inspired by the church and intended to become a minister.

The Emancipation Proclamation

In September of 1862, President Abraham Lincoln laid out what he hoped would become an important document that would influence the war. The Emancipation Proclamation, finalized on January 1, 1863, pronounced Southern slaves should henceforth be “forever free.” (It did not provide for a change of status for northern slaves.) It also proclaimed that Black men could enlist or be recruited for the Federal Army.

The announcement deeply affected William Carney. He saw that his desire to go into the ministry needed to be set aside. The first task to be accomplish collectively was the fight for freedom.

About the 54th Massachusetts Regiment

The 54th Massachusetts was one of the first all-Black volunteer regiments to be formed. Carney’s location in New Bedford was fortuitous, and he signed up quickly.

The man selected to recruit and train local men was an upper-class Bostonian, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. Shaw was seeing a lot of action with the 2nd Massachusetts, so he was disappointed to step away from the fighting. But he was a man who obeyed orders and stepped in immediately. Within a few months, he pulled together and trained a regiment for the 54th.  Among those who joined were two sons of Frederick Douglass.  

By early July, the 54th was assigned to James Island in South Carolina.

Here is what was happening nearby

The War At That Time

Two years into the Civil War, Fort Sumter, located in the central portion of the harbor in Charleston, was still in the hands of the Confederates. The Union Army wanted to gain footing in the area. If they could capture Fort Wagner, the Union would be in good position to fire on Sumter and eventually take Charleston.

The first Union attack on the Charleston area began that summer on July 11, 1863. Brigadier General Quincy Gillmore was assigned to seize Morris Island. This would allow the Union to capture Fort Wagner and Fort Gregg. They could then mount rifled guns to neutralize Fort Sumter, permitting the North to take Charleston.

Gillmore’s effort was partially successful. His unit claimed a portion of Morris Island but the Confederates kept beating them back. They had to give up on Fort Wagner.

When military leaders looked around for what regiment could go in for another attack, they didn’t have to wait long. Colonel Shaw volunteered the 54th Massachusetts. Shaw wanted to get back into the fighting and was determined to demonstrate the strength and valor of his men. (Black troops were largely untested at this time in the war. There was skepticism and controversy over it.)

Despite this, the location of the men in South Carolina and Shaw’s willingness to take them into battle meant the assignment was soon theirs.

In the meantime, the Confederate Army knew the Union would attack again. They called  for reinforcements. Though the fort was nothing more than a hastily plastered-together structure made of sand, earth and palmetto logs, it was proving tough enough to withstand the onslaught of attacks. 

The Attack of the 54th Regiment

A color lithograph from 1890 depicting the stormingof Fort Wagner. William Carney is shown carrying the flag. Many lie dead and dying. Library of Congress Alison & Kurtz

At 7:45 p.m. on July 18, the 54th used the cover of night to make their way up the beach. Between cliffs and water’s edge, there was not much space. The regiment had to proceed slowly, sometimes going single file.

Despite the darkness, the Confederate guards spied their progress. The rebels began firing shot after shot blindly because of the dark. Many of the 54th were killed or injured. Those that were unharmed kept going.

Once they reached the fort, members of the 54th climbed the embankment and then waded through the moat. After that, they faced how to get over sharp wooden sticks that were in place to dissuade intruders.

Once in Fort Wagner there were other obstacles. The layout of the fort involved passageways in an “X” formation. This meant that if a Union soldier entered the fort and aspired to run down a passageway, he would be a prime target for a rebel. The Confederates could keep a gun trained on the place where passages crossed.

As expected, Colonel Shaw and his color bearer took the lead to move the unit forward.

The Importance of the Flag

Union regiments generally carried two flags, often referred to as the colors. One was the American flag; the other was the regimental flag. Both were items of great pride and importance.

Color bearers served several purposes. Because they marched in the front with flags held high, they set the pace for marching. They also provided orientation for where the action was going. Battlefields were almost always smoky and confusing. If the soldiers could keep an eye on the flags, this let them follow the action.

As a result of their front-and-center position, color guards were in high-risk locations. The flags were heavy and awkward, so the men didn’t carry weapons. This increased the likelihood of being killed or wounded.

If a color bearer was shot down, a member of his guard would immediately pick up the colors to avoid the disgrace of a captured flag.

During the Attack

A young William H. Carney in dress uniform holds up for display the American flag. It is a black-and-white grainy photograph.
Sgt. Carney displaying the flag that he carried.

As Colonel Shaw and the color bearer led the way forward, they were both targeted and killed. When William Carney saw both men fall, Carney tossed aside his musket to save the flag.

Despite continual gunfire, he ascended the parapet of Fort Wagner and held the flag in place so that others in the 54th could follow. The regiment had been told they were also backed up by reinforcements from New Hampshire, New York, Connecticut, and Ohio.

But as smoke surrounded the fort and the Confederacy continued to blast at the sand surrounding Fort Wagner, a new plan was needed.

Mounting Losses

The Union soldiers needed to fall back to regroup. Fortunately, William Carney saw that the others had turned back. He waited for a reduction in the fighting so that he could follow.  When the path cleared somewhat, he wrapped the flag around the staff and bolted for the embankment.

While fleeing, Carney was shot in the chest. Another bullet hit his right arm and his right leg. Carney held on to the flag and kept going until he reached the remaining

men from his unit. As he ran, soldiers saw that he was injured and offered help. But Carney was not relinquishing his responsibility.

He personally delivered the flag to where the remaining regiment waited. Later he said: “Boys, I only did my duty; the old flag never touched the ground.”

Serious Casualties

Federal casualties for that battle totaled more than fifteen hundred men. The 54th lost 42 percent of their men–250 of them were killed, wounded, or captured.  Confederate losses numbered only 174.

An official black-and-white photograph of William Carney.
Sgt. William Carney

When daylight broke, a Southern officer described the scene: “In front of the fort the scene of carnage is indescribable. I have never seen so many dead in the same space.”

The 97th Pennsylvania was assigned by the Union leaders to work rescue. It was said that the 97th was ordered to give priority to the Black soldiers as the military knew that they would be tortured and killed if captured. But acceptance of Blacks in the Army still had far to go. This directive would have been counter intuitive to white soldiers, However, for leaders trying to consciously of maintaining higher numbers of men to fight, the order would have been wise.


Because of the massive losses, the Union troops were unable to mount a new assault right away. The Confederates had called for reinforcements. Then the rank-and-file threaded their way through the fallen men. They took souvenirs and stripped the soldiers of footwear or usable parts of their uniforms. The bodies were then dump into mass graves.

When the Confederate men found Colonel Shaw, the Union man whom they viewed as having the audacity to mount an assault using Black men, they wanted a fitting way to disgrace him. Normally, the bodies of white officers would have been set aside. Sometimes they were embalmed and sent home. But for Shaw, the Confederates could nothing more appropriate than dumping his body into the mass grave with his Black soldiers. His sword however was saved, as were most valuables on the dead and wounded on both sides. To read about how and where Colonel Shaw’s sword was found, click here: A Treasure Rediscovered: The Civil War Sword of Robert Gould Shaw, 54th Regiment.

Waiting for the Next Step

Though the numbers of the 54th regiment were greatly diminished, their new leaders saw that their wisest move would be to remain on Morris Island to keep up the pressure. Though the Federal Army launched no more frontal attacks, they steadfastly continued shelling from land and sea.

By September 7, 1863, the Union finally wore down the Confederates. The rebel army abandoned Fort Wagner on that date.  

Both the military brass and journalists in the area took note of the 54th. General George Strong, who was part of the attack noted: …”in all these severe tests, which would have tried even veteran troops, they fully met my expectations.”

The New York Tribune wrote: “It is absurd to say these men did not fight and were not exposed to perhaps the most deadly fire of the war when so many officers and so many of the rank and file were killed.”

Carney’s Injuries

Carney suffered multiple bullet wounds, and his recovery took many months.

Before he was discharged from the military for his disabilities, he was promoted to sergeant for his heroism. When he was well enough to leave the hospital, he returned to his home in New Bedford, Massachusetts.

Sometime later, he got a job with the town of New Bedford, maintaining city lights. He married and started a family.

He went on to be a letter carrier and was one of the founders of the New Bedford Branch of the National Association of Letter Carriers. Later he worked as a messenger for the Massachusetts State House.

As his accomplishments became known, he was often invited to be a guest speaker for community groups in the area.

Medal of Honor

More than half the Medal of Honor awards to soldiers from the Civil War were presented twenty or more years after the fighting ended. This was the case with William H. Carney. On May 23, 1900, he was presented with the Medal of Honor, the country’s highest honor for military valor.

The citation reads:
“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 fierce fire in which he was twice severely wounded.”

This professional photograph shows an older Carney dressed in a gray suit and wearing the Medal of Honor. Perhaps the photo was take in 1900 when he received the Medal.
Sgt. William Carney wearing his Medal of Honor.

What It All Meant

Though the 54th Regiment did not defeat the Confederates at Fort Wagner, their bravery and success was noted across the country. Ultimately, they were an inspiration to other Black men who signed up to fight in the war.

In a National Park Service article about the 54th, the writer quotes a correspondent for the New York Post of the day: “No man can pass among these sufferers…and not be inspired with the deepest abhorrence of slavery and an unquenchable desire for the freedom of their race.” 

For another story about a Civil War battle where Black soldiers played a decisive role, read Last Battles of the Civil War: Forks Road.

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