54MASS-09 Standard Bearer with National Colors, 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry
The 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry was an infantry regiment that saw extensive service in the Union Army during the American Civil War. The unit was the first African-American regiment organized in the northern states during the Civil War.
Authorized by the Emancipation proclamation, the regiment consisted of African-American enlisted men commanded by white officers.
Union regiments had two colors. National colors had the name and number of the regiment, and the regimental colors usually had the name of the regiment on a scroll beneath an eagle, or state seal.
The assault on Fort Wagner would be the first real test for this regiment of volunteers. Among those brave soldiers waiting to advance on the fort, was a 23 year old Sergeant William Carney.
As the Regiment advanced on the Confederate defenses, the national colours were carried by Sergeant John Wall. During the advance a Confederate rifle bullet hit Sergeant Wall, and the flag began to fall to the ground. It was Sergeant William Carney who threw his rifle aside and grasped the colors from Sergeant John Wall, before they touched the ground.
Another bullet hit Sergeant Carney in the leg, but he continued to advance holding the colors high in the air. The sergeant was to gain entrance to the fort and planted his flag. After holding his position for almost half an hour, the Confederate defenders rallied and forced the Union regiment to withdraw.
Still carrying the flag, which Sergeant Carney had now wrapped around the staff to protect it, he was struck again, in the chest, another in the right arm, and then another in the right leg.
From the safety of the distance to which the rest of the regiment had retreated, the remains of the valient troops of the 54th Massachusetts Coloured Infantry watched the brave sergeant struggle towards safety.
A retreating member of the 100th New York passed carney and seeing the severity of his wounds said, “Let me carry that flag for you”. Sergeant Carney’s reply was “No one but a member of the 54th should carry the colors”. Before collapsing from his many wounds, amongst his battered comrades, his only words were, “Boys, I only did my duty. The flag never touched the ground.”
It was not unusual for acts of valor accomplished during the Civil War to go unrecognized for many years. More than half of the 1520 Medals of Honor awarded for heroism during that period were not awarded until 20 or more years after the war. On May 23, 1900 Sergeant William Harvey Carney was awarded his Nation’s highest award, the Medal of Honor. Though by that time several other black Americans had already received the award for heroism during the Civil War and the Indian Campaigns, Sergeant Carney’s action at Fort Wagner on July 18, 1863 was the first to merit the award.
William Harvey Carney died at his home in New Bedford on December 9, 1908, and is buried in the Oak Grove Cemetery.