By Col Brent Ramsey, USAF (ret)
“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.”
Sounds so simple, doesn’t it? He grabbed a flag so it wouldn’t hit the ground. He advanced with the flag even though under withering fire. He held that flag aloft so his unit could see it and rally to it. And, he clung to that flag even though wounded multiple times. Why would a man, this man, do such an extraordinary thing?
William Carney was born a slave in Norfolk, Virginia in 1840. Records are unsure but it is believed he gained his freedom as a teenager via the Underground Railroad and made his way to Massachusetts where he joined family members who had preceded him. He learned to read and write in secret although that was illegal even in Massachusetts. He was preparing to study for the ministry when the war broke out.
Instead, he joined the Union Army in 1863, the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry Regiment, Company C. The 54th Regiment was the first of its kind formed by the Union. He joined to fight for freedom for those still in slavery, ready to sacrifice anything and everything for his fellow man and for an idea, freedom for those in bondage. After months of training, his Regiment was sent to South Carolina to fight.
The 54th was assigned to assault Fort Wagner, a fort protecting the southern entrance to Charleston harbor on Morris Island. If the fort could be taken, it could be used to attack Fort Sumter and open an avenue to enter Charleston. This famous battle was depicted in the movie Glory with actor Denzel Washington playing then Corporal Carney.
As they approached the fort on foot and the fire intensified, the Sergeant carrying the American Flag was hit and wounded by gunfire and faltered. Corporal Carney quickly grabbed the flag and kept it from hitting the ground. Although wounded multiple times by gunshots, he never faltered, never let the flag hit the ground. When it became clear their assault was not going to succeed, the unit retreated.
Though bleeding profusely and in danger of dying from his many wounds, Corporal Carney held the flag high and refused to let it touch the ground. He did not relinquish the flag until he was back to safety and then he passed the flag to another so that he could receive medical treatment.
For his heroic actions he was promoted to Sergeant. Although his wounds eventually healed, they led to his discharge in 1864.
In 1900, he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for bravely risking life and limb to protect the flag during the battle of Fort Wagner. The flag he held high was a rallying point and inspiration to the men of the 54th who fought to preserve the precious ideals of the United States of America and the Union’s goal of abolishing slavery throughout our land.
Sergeant Carney was a man of honor, courage and perseverance; his memory should always remain with us. He was the first of 88 African Americans to have earned the award.