“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Colin Kaepernick said in an exclusive interview with NFL Media reporter, Steve Wyche. (Wyche, 2016) Over one hundred and fifty years earlier a black man who was never paid the attention or the money comparable to Kaepernick spoke of that same flag and of his “Oppressed Brothers.”
Born into slavery on February 29, 1840, in Norfolk, Virginia, William H. Carney, Jr. knew first-hand the horrors of racial oppression. In 1856 the Carney family made their way to New Bedford, Massachusetts. Some reports say it was by way of the underground railroad, while others credit being freed by the widow of their “owner” upon his death. Over the next 7 years, Carney worked a variety of jobs while leveraging his literacy in pursuit of an education focused on a career as a minister.
In February 1863 William H. Carney, Jr made a life-changing decision to join the Union Army along with fellow black men from Boston, Philadelphia and New Bedford forming the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment. In a letter he wrote to the abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, PVT Carney wrote: “when the country called for all persons, [I decided] I could best serve my God serving my country and my oppressed brothers.”
Three months later the 600 men of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment led by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw joined over 4,000 other Soldiers from NY, CT, PA, OH, NH and ME under the leadership of Major General Quincy Adams Gillmore focused on capturing Fort Wagner and thus opening Charleston harbor for invasion by Union forces. Facing the 5,000 union Soldiers were less than 1,800 confederate defenders. While greatly outnumbered the Confederate garrison held the distinct advantage of being dug in behind a series of sand berms surrounded by flooded moats, bordered by the Atlantic Ocean on two sides and a marsh on the third side. The only land route of approach available to the Union forces would be a narrow 100 yard wide and 1200 yard long sandy beach completely devoid of cover and concealment.
The morning of 18 July 1863 saw the opening salvos of one of the American Civil War’s largest artillery barrages to date. For the next eleven hours land based and ship born union batteries pounded the defenders of Fort Wagner with a wide variety of solid shot and exploding shells. Major General Gillmore was convinced that after this day-long cannonade Fort Wagner would be primed for a final push by Union infantry. As commander of the 54th Massachusetts, Colonel Shaw accepted the challenge to lead the charge across the nearly three-quarters of a mile of sand.
Colonel Shaw with Sergeant John Wall, the regiment’s color guard, at his side led the men of the 54th at a march towards Fort Wagner’s moat surrounded ramparts. Behind the 54th were nearly 4,000 union infantry Soldiers. After covering most of the distance the smoke and dust cleared resulting from the recently stopped union artillery fire. With less than 200 yards remaining the 54th came under withering musket and cannon fire from the Confederate defenders. Due to the use of a well-engineered bomb shelter, the Southern Soldiers had suffered less than a few dozen fatalities in spite of the day-long bombardment.
The brave men of the 54th, in spite of their massive casualties, ran scrambled and crawled through the sand and flooded moat surrounding the Fort Wagner to reach the base of the fort’s 30-foot-thick sand berm walls. It was at this point that Private Carney witnessed Colonel Shaw and Sergeant Wall being mortally wounded in the cacophony of rebel musket fire, canister shot and hand grenades. Realizing that the men of the 54th and all of the other union Soldiers following them were focused on following the colors into battle, Carney seized the bullet-riddled American flag from Sergeant Wall before it could fall to the ground. Carney pressed forward and planted the flag in the sand near the top of the parapet before being wounded himself and falling back down to the base of the berm.
The intensive fighting involved point-blank shots, bayonet thrusts and hand to hand fighting. Being the vanguard of the Union advance the 54th was shattered. The officers and men of the 3rd New Hampshire, 6th Connecticut, 9th Maine and 76th Pennsylvania Zouaves fared little better. With the union advance floundering under the weight of the massive fire poured on them by the dug in Confederate defenders. The order was given to retreat. Private Carney refused to abandon the colors. He scrambled up the rampart to retrieve the flag that meant so much to the men of the 54th before retreating back down the beach.
Not unlike the regiment which it represented the flag was tattered but remained upright thanks to the efforts of Private Carney as he made his way back to the union lines. Carney carried the American flag on a staff in his hands and confederate lead in three different places in his body. As he limped toward the union line Carney was met by men from the New York Regiment who offered to take the flag from his hands. He politely declined and continued towards his regiment’s rally point. Not until he located CPT Luis F. Emilio, the sole surviving 54th Regiment officer, would Carney give up the flag that meant so much to him and the regiment. As he relinquished control of the flag, Carney was heard to say “I did my job boys, the old flag never touched the ground”. At that point he passed out and was transported to a union field hospital where he lay unconscious for more than a day.
As a result of his gallantry, Carney would be promoted to Sergeant before being discharged in June 1864 due to disabilities caused by the near-fatal wounds suffered that day at Fort Wagner. In October of that same year, he was wed to Susanna Williams. He spent the next year as the superintendent of street lights in New Bedford. He moved to California for a brief period before returning to Massachusetts for good. Carney worked as a mail carrier for the city of New Bedford until 1901. The year prior to ending his postal career, William H. Carney, Jr. was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor by President William McKinley.
Carney’s official 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 a fierce fire in which he was twice severely wounded.”
Over the next several years, Carney enjoyed speaking at schools and various civic events. He continued working as a messenger at the Massachusetts State House in Boston until severely injured in an elevator accident that lead to his death on 9 December 1908. In an unprecedented act of honor formerly reserved for presidents, ex-presidents, governors, ex-governors and senators, the governor ordered the flag at the State House flown at half-mast to commemorate the passing of the first African American to earn the Congressional Medal of Honor.