• Took decisive action in the Battle of Fort Wagner, earning him the Congressional Medal of Honor.
• Though he is the first African-American soldier to be noted for such heroic action, he was not the first black to receive a Medal. Carney did not receive the Medal until 1900.
William Carney was born into slavery in Norfolk, Virginia in 1840. There are two versions of his background… one is that his mother was a slave to a man named Carney, and this man was William’s father.
The other is that his father was also a slave, escaping Virginia via the Underground Railroad. He settled in Massachusetts and eventually had enough money to buy his wife and son out of slavery and bring them north.
With the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 officially authorizing the recruitment of black soldiers, William Carney, Jr. opted to enlist. He joined what was to become the well-known all-black 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment. Its commander was white, the 25-year-old Colonel Robert Gould Shaw whose father was an active abolitionist. Carney’s skills and abilities were noted by Shaw, and Carney was soon promoted to sergeant.
The North Aims to Take Charleston
In 1863, the Union troops were being placed to seize Morris Island (near Fort Sumter) from which they planned to launch an attack on the Confederate-held Sumter. If Sumter were taken, the Union could easily move into Charleston—very gratifying since this was where the war began.
The Union met with some success and took much of Morris Island, but unfortunately could not capture it all. At one end of the island the Confederates still held Fort Wagner, a rough-built stronghold made of sand, earth, and palmetto logs.
Several assaults on Wagner had been turned back by the Confederates. The next plan involved land and sea bombardment followed by a direct assault by the Union troops
The 54th Infantry of Massachusetts had been sent to nearby James Island and was awaiting orders. Shaw was determined to demonstrate the strength and valor of his men, so when the 54th was given the dangerous assignment of leading the charge on Fort Wagner, Shaw agreed. (Black troops were largely untested at this stage in the war so there was skepticism and controversy over it.)
Fort Wagner had received Confederate reinforcements so they now had 1620 Confederate soldiers with a well-filled arsenal.
At 7:45 p.m. on July 18, the 54th used the cover of darkness to make their way up the narrow beach toward Wagner. As they approached, the Confederates responded and many of the 54th were injured or killed. Others were still trying to climb the embankment and waded through the water in the moat surrounding the fort, and then they had to carefully climb over the sharpened wooden sticks that were in place to injure intruders.
As Shaw led the unit forward, he and the flag bearer were fatally wounded. Carney was right behind them and tossed aside his musket in order to save the flag—they symbol of all he was fighting to protect. Despite gunfire, he ascended the parapet and held the flag in place. The 54th was followed by reinforcements from New Hampshire, New York, Connecticut, and Ohio but amidst the smoke surrounding the fort, the pounding of the ground followed by the blast of sand when rounds hit the beach, it was clear that things were going badly for the Union.
The Union soldiers needed to regroup, so when the opportunity presented itself, Carney wrapped the flag around the staff and bolted for the embankment. While fleeing he was shot in the chest, another bullet hit his right arm and his right leg, but Carney held on to the flag. When he located the remaining men from his unit, he announced: “Boys, I only did my duty; the old flag never touched the ground.”
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.”
Federal casualties for that battle reached 1515, with the 54th losing 42 percent of their men. Confederate losses numbered only 174.
Because of the massive losses, the Union troops were unable to mount a new assault, so the Confederates threaded their way through the fallen, taking souvenirs, stripping the soldiers of footwear or parts of their uniforms, and then dumping them into mass graves. For Colonel Shaw, the leader of the 54th, the Southern soldiers wanted a fitting indignity: They dug a mass grave for the fallen black troops and buried Shaw in with those men.
After this bloody defeat, the Union troops settled into Morris Island to await their opportunity; it took until September 7, 1863 before they captured Fort Wagner.
Carney’s Injuries and Medal Citation
Carney’s injuries were severe, and later that year he was discharged from the infantry. He eventually returned to live in Massachusetts where he took a job at the post office and was also in demand as a guest speaker.
on May 23, 1900 Carney was awarded the Medal of Honor. (More than half the Medal of Honor awards from the Civil War were presented twenty or more years after the deed.) The Medal of Honor 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.”
The attack on Fort Wagner is depicted in the film, Glory.