American National Biography Online
Carney, William Harvey (1840-after 1901), Union army sergeant
and first African American awarded the Congressional Medal of
Honor, was born in Norfolk, Virginia, the son of William Carney
and Ann, a former slave. Little is known of his early years.
As a young boy he expressed an interest in the ministry, and
at the age of fourteen, in 1854, he attended a covertly run school
under the tutelage of a local minister. Later he moved to New
Bedford, Massachusetts, where he took odd jobs in the hope of
saving sufficient funds to acquire his religious training.
In 1862, despite strong opposition, Abraham Lincoln signed a
bill authorizing the recruitment of African-American troops.
Parties attempting to suppress the bill argued that African Americans
were incapable of being trained, that in battle they would cower
from the enemy, and that arming them was tantamount to giving
them the means for insurrection. In January 1863 Governor John
Andrew of Massachusetts was authorized to raise a regiment of
African Americans. Since the African-American community was relatively
small in that state, recruiters also turned to enlisting men
from other states. It took some time to convince enough African
Americans to enlist, given the availability of employment in
the North for African Americans, the threat of being put to death
by the Confederate army if they were captured as Union soldiers,
and the fact that they would have to serve under white commissioned
officers. With such prominent individuals as Frederick Douglass,
William Lloyd Garrison, and Wendell Phillips acting as recruiting
agents, by the end of April the ranks of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts
Regiment were filled, and Governor Andrew began securing men
to fill the Fifty-fifth Massachusetts Regiment. In February 1863
Lieutenant James W. Grace, a businessman turned recruiting agent,
opened a recruiting office in New Bedford, a town considered
ideal for enlisting suitable men because of the large community
of educated African Americans residing there. That year, at the
age of twenty-three, Carney joined the Morgan Guards, which eventually
became Company C of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Regiment rather
than a separate regiment. Evidently Carney was viewed as having
strong potential, for when the New Bedford enlistees left for
camp he was listed on the roster with the rank of sergeant.
Within two months of active duty, Carney participated in one
of the bloodiest battles witnessed by African-American soldiers
during the Civil War, the assault of 18 July 1863 on Fort Wagner
on Morris Island near Charleston, South Carolina. Two days prior
to the assault, the men of the Fifty-fourth were first put to
the test, seeing action on James Island, South Carolina. Under
heavy fire they came to the aid of the Tenth Connecticut Regiment,
possibly saving three companies from total annihilation by the
Confederate forces. The unwavering front of African Americans
coupled with the shower of mortar from the Union navy forced
the enemy to retreat. The performance of the African-American
regiment impressed General Alfred H. Terry, commander of the
4,000-man division, and as the Union troops withdrew, the Fifty-fourth
received its orders to proceed to Morris Island, which controlled
the harbor entrance to Charleston.
From its inception, the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Colored Infantry,
under the command of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the scion of
a wealthy Boston merchant family, had to prove itself worthy
of entering the battlefield in Union blues. Thus, even though
they had been deprived of sleep, food, and water for several
days, Shaw volunteered his men to lead the charge on the bastion,
a mission that exacted a terrible toll because of the lack of
normal assault preparation. Although open at the rear, Fort Wagner,
or Battery Wagner, was only approachable from the south and presented
a formidable structure. Equipped with sixteen to twenty guns
mounted on the ramparts, its bombproof interior could house an
entire regiment of men. Moreover it had artillery support from
other Confederate strongholds nearby, including Fort Sumter,
James Island, Sullivan's Island, and Fort Gregg. To compound
the difficulties of an assault, any frontal invasion would encounter
unfavorable terrain, with marshland on the left, sea and then
sand stretching in front, and a ditch that forced men advancing
from the right flank to wade through knee-high water.
The Union orders were to take the fort by storm with the Fifty-fourth
leading the way, followed closely by other units and aided by
artillery support from the navy. Thus the men of the Fifty-fourth
entered the battlefield, muskets loaded but not capped, bayonets
fixed, only to find later that the 9th Maine, 10th Connecticut,
63d Ohio, and 48th and 100th New York were not in position to
lead the second wave of the assault. At 7:45 p.m. on 18 July
the assault unfolded as the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Regiment,
following the lead of Colonel Shaw, marched toward the fort.
When the advancing line was within approximately two or three
hundred yards of the perimeter, the Confederate troops opened
up a barrage of fire, quickly bringing down the formation. Despite
heavy casualties from shell and musket fire, the men of the Fifty-fourth
Prior to the assault Brigadier General George C. Strong, the
field commander for whom the battery was later renamed, had addressed
the Fifty-fourth, telling the recruits to do honor to the nation.
When he asked who would carry the national flag in case the color
bearer fell in action, Shaw replied that he would. Shaw was one
of the first to reach the summit, but as he raised his sword
to rally his men on, shouting "Forward, Fifty-fourth," he was
fatally struck in the chest. At the same time the color sergeant,
John Wall, who was carrying the flag, also began to fall. Carney
was close enough to see both men start to topple, and he heroically
commandeered the colors and prevented the flag from falling to
the ground. Despite wounds in both legs, his chest, and his right
arm, he determinedly forged ahead, clutching the flag, which
he planted on the crest next to the regimental colors. He managed
to keep it aloft even as he lay on the outer slope surrounded
by a hail of bullets. The lines of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts
were decimated by the time a second charge of reinforcements
reached them. Only then was Carney able to creep back to friendly
lines, albeit on one knee, still determined to protect the colors.
When he eventually staggered into a hospital tent, he collapsed,
uttering the words, "Boys, the old flag never touched the ground."
For his act of courage, Sergeant Carney was one of four soldiers
from the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts who received the Gilmore
Medal, and he was the first African American awarded the Congressional
Medal of Honor. The citation of the latter read, "For conspicuous
gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life, above and beyond
the call of duty, in action involving actual conflict with an
opposing armed force."
When Carney was discharged from the army in 1864, he returned
to New Bedford, Massachusetts. After spending some time at home
he moved, for no known reason, to California. He returned to
New Bedford in 1870. For the remainder of his years he resided
in Massachusetts, where he worked as one of four African-American
letter carriers, retiring in 1901 after thirty-one years of service.
Following his retirement from the postal service he worked as
a state employee in Boston. He died probably in Boston.
Carney's home in Norfolk, Virginia, is a historic site, officially
known as the "Sergeant Carney Memorial House." The American flag
saved by Carney resides in Memorial Hall, Boston, Massachusetts,
and his features are enshrined on Boston Common in the monument
sculpted by Augustus Saint-Gaudens that pays tribute to Colonel
Shaw and his warriors.
Two informative biographical sketches of Sergeant Carney are
in Robert Ewell Greene, Black Defenders of America 1775-1973:
A Reference and Pictorial History (1974), and Wilhelmena S. Robinson,
Historical Negro Biographies (1970). Descriptions of the assault
on Fort Wagner are in Luis F. Emilio, A Brave Black Regiment:
History of the Fifty-fourth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer
Infantry, 1863-1865 (1894); Corporal James Henry Gooding, On
the Altar of Freedom: A Black Soldier's Civil War Letters from
the Front (1991); Hondon B. Hargrove, Black Union Soldiers in
the Civil War (1988); and Charles H. Wesley and Patricia W. Romero,
Negro Americans in the Civil War: From Slavery to Citizenship
(1967). The best depiction of the history and struggles of the
Fifty-fourth Regiment is in the feature film Glory (1989), based
partially on Peter Burchard, One Gallant Rush: Robert Gould Shaw
and His Brave Black Regiment (1965).
Dalyce Newby. "Carney, William Harvey";
American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.
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