Remembering Sgt. Major William Harvey Carney

Remembering Sgt. Major William Harvey Carney

In late afternoon on July 18, 1863, Sergeant Major William Harvey Carney stood on a beach in South Carolina. Shoulder to shoulder with more than 600 men of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment, this formation of troops on Morris Island near the port city of Charleston, would later be described as “like giant statues of marble”. With sand sifting through their feet Carney and his men marched forward at the command of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. Under a barrage of heavy rifle and cannon fire they quickened their pace to a full charge toward their objective. Taking refuge behind the cover of nearby dunes they waited until nightfall to continue their assault on the Confederate Army stronghold called Fort Wagner.

If this scene appears familiar you may recognize the anti-climactic conclusion of the 1989 film “Glory”. The role of Shaw was played by Matthew Broderick, while Carney was portrayed by Morgan Freeman, as the fictitious Sergeant Major John Rawlins. But the role of a soldier named Private Trip, played by  Denzel Washington , for which he was awarded the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, was given credit in the film for an act of valor that was actually performed by Sgt. Carney. The two great actors, however,  lent their talents to the portrayal of a courageous man whose actions on this horrible day helped to define the character of a generation whose heroism would not only be forgotten, but subtly stripped from the annals of history.

Carney was an escaped slave who made his way north as a passenger on the Underground Railroad. Conducted through the Confederate States of the South by abolitionists like Harriet Tubman, he secured his liberty through sheer grit and determination to fulfill the promise of the American ideal. He only wanted what was declared in our founding documents, to live in a nation where “all men are created equal”. But the Fugitive Slave Act 1850 required that Carney be returned to bondage. Also the Supreme Court Case of Dred Scott  V.S. Sanford of 1857 had determined by federal law that Black people in the United States were not recognized as citizens. So the rights defined by the U.S. Constitution did not apply to them. Even in the Northern States where slavery had been abolished Black men and women who had fled from the south were still the property of those who claimed to own them.

By the year 1861, however, the American Civil War was fully engaged. When three escaped slaves presented themselves to the Union Army at the outpost of Fort Monroe, Virginia, they were confiscated as contraband by a clever commander named General Benjamin Butler. The three slaves, Frank Baker, James Townsend, and Sheppard Mallory were leased to the Confederate Army by their owner as common labors. Under the justification of denying the enemy of goods and materials to further their war efforts, the slaves, considered to be property, were given their freedom and allowed to remain in the North in direct defiance of the law that demanded their return.

The Contraband Decision of 1861 prompted President Abraham Lincoln to proclaim the abolition of slavery throughout the United States, including in the Confederacy. Lured by the prospects of freedom under the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, Black men and women by the tens of thousands made their way north across the Mason-Dixon Line to turn themselves over to the Union Army at Fort Monroe. Ironically, this site, formerly known as Point Comfort, was where in 1619, 20-30 Black men and women, originally from the Kingdom of Ndongo in modern Angola, were first sold to Virginia colonists by Dutch pirates. The institution of slavery in North America began and ended in the exact same place.

But I digress.

As a military tactic freeing the slaves not only deprived the South of its labor force, but it provided the Union Army with a potential supply of motivated men who could be trained to fight for the cause of freedom. When the abolitionist Fredrick Douglass began recruiting volunteers for military service in fiery speeches to newly emancipated Black men in the North, among them was William Harvey Carney.

Though he could have safely remained in the North, Carney wanted to return to the South as a soldier. He wanted to fight . As a member of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment, however, he and his comrades not only endured the challenges of intense military training and combat, but the contempt and derision of an Army that refused to believe that Black men could perform and fight with the same skill and discipline of their white counterparts. Though they were promised $14 per month in wages as professional soldiers, they were given only $10. To add insult to injury a clothing allowance of $3 was deducted from each payment to cover the cost of their uniforms. In an act of defiant protest the men of the 54th, including Colonel Shaw and his white officers, refused to receive any payment at all.

Despite their abysmal treatment by the Army, the men of the 54th learned the craft of soldiering with pride and distinction. In recognition for his leadership during training, Carney was promoted to the rank of Sergeant Major and placed in command of the regiment as a non-commissioned officer. On July 18, 1863 as he and his men waited for nightfall to cover their attack on Fort Wagner, Carney calmed their fears of the impending battle with words of encouragement.

At     7:45 PM Colonel Shaw led the charge over the ramparts of Fort Wagner. This heavily fortified position held a garrison of more than 1,200 men. The 54th was outnumbered 2 to 1 in an uphill battle, fighting against impossible odds. But the men pressed their attack. Within minutes of gaining the high ground of the fortress, Shaw was shot through the heart and killed. As depicted in the classic lithograph by Kurz and Allison (circa 1890) that illustrates this critical moment, in the film, the character played by Denzel Washington grabs the regimental colors, an American flag and yells to his fellow soldiers “Come on!” Seconds later though, he too is shot and dies where he stood.

“The Storming of Fort Wagner” lithograph by Kurz and Allison (circa 1890)

This is where Hollywood gets it wrong and sadly distorts our perception of the events that came next. By the accounts of those who survived the Battle of Fort Wagner it was Sergeant Carney who took up the regimental flag and rallied the men of the 54th forward into the breach. Though in the film, the character played by Morgan Freeman is shown to fight bravely in a dramatic melee of hand to hand combat, he is not carrying the flag. When the scene is cut suddenly short in a blinding flash of cannon fire, the audience is left to believe that Carney, played by Freeman, and his comrades are killed. When the battle is over, in a scene showing its aftermath on the following morning, Shaw, played by Broderick and the Black soldier played by Washington, are contemptuously thrown together into a mass grave.

The scene fades to black. A placard informs the audience that more than half of the men of 54th were killed or captured and Fort Wagner was never taken. But the film duly acknowledges the significant contributions of the men who fought and died there.

“As word of their bravery spread, Congress at last authorized the raising of black troops throughout the Union,” the next placard reads. “Over 180,000 volunteered. President Lincoln credited these men of color with helping turn the tide of the war.”

“Glory” Final scene at the Battle of Fort Wagner

Unfortunately the film fails to recognize one significant fact. Sergeant William Harvey Carney survived the Battle of Fort Wagner. Having been shot three times and badly wounded, he carried the American Flag throughout the ensuing combat that lasted for several hours. Committed to their objective, even after the death of his commanding officer, he rallied his troops to keep fighting. When the Union Army finally retreated to the beach on Morris Island, an exhausted Sergeant Carney stumbled back into camp to report “Boys, I only did my duty; the old flag never touched the ground!”

Sgt. Major William Harvey Carney

For his courage under fire Sergeant Major William Harvey Carney became the first Black person in U.S. military history to be awarded the Medal of Honor. But almost 40 years would pass before his act of bravery would be formally recognized. After a long career as a U.S. Postal Service employee in New Bedford, Massachusetts, Carney was finally decorated in 1900.

Too often our history fails to recognize the many contributions of our Black military heroes. I was amazed to discover that on the Wikipedia page for the Battle of Fort Wagner among the 54th’s casualties was the son of the famed Frederick Douglass. Sergeant Major Lewis Henry Douglass survived this horrific event. He wrote to his fiance, Helen Amelia Loguen, on July 20th how much he admired the courageous spirit of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment and his own willingness to lay down his life in the fight for freedom.

“Remember if I die, I die in a good cause,” Douglass wrote. “ I wish we had a hundred thousand colored troops. We would put an end to this war.”

Sgt. Major Lewis Henry Douglass

That’s exactly what happened. When General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, 1865 the Civil War was effectively over. It is estimated by some that at that time there were more Black fighting men in uniform than there were soldiers in what remained of the Confederate Army.

“After four years of arduous service, marked by unsurpassed courage and fortitude, the Army of Northern Virginia has been compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources,” Lee wrote in his letter of surrender.

Had it not been for the service of Black men in the 54th at the Battle of Fort Wagner, the South may well have won the Civil War. At the very least the Confederacy would have fought the Union Army to a stalemate and the states would have remained permanently divided. The war did not end because Southerns had an attack of conscience and realized the error of their ways. Though having been beaten into submission, nothing over the passed four years had quelled their desire to continue the practice of slavery. They still believed in white supremacy and the enduring subjugation of black people.

Though the United States of America as a nation was preserved, the institution of slavery was merely replaced with restrictions of liberty under the law. Legislation passed during and immediately following the period known as Reconstruction manifested itself as the doctrine of “Separate But Equal”, the Convict Lease System, Black Codes, Jim Crow Laws, Redlining, voter suppression and the extra-judicial killing of black and brown people by officers of law enforcement without repercussion. Despite the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 after the war and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 almost 100 years later, wherever the law would not allow their abuse, deliberate acts of racially motivated violence and terrorism have been perpetrated against people of color in the United States ever since.

When we fail to recognize the contributions of heroic figures on the margins of our society we begin to weave a false narrative of the past. Sergeant Major Carney fought not only to protect the idea of freedom but literally the American Flag itself. By not preserving the memory of the first Black person to receive the Medal Of Honor, we undermine the value and significance of the very people who fought and died for the freedom to which we are all entitled. Today we are in their debt.

But on June 17, 2015, 152 years later, a man named Dylann Roof killed 9 black parishioners of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Just 7.8 miles, according to Google Maps, from the beach where Sergeant Major Carney stood in defense of his county and its flag, this white supremacist took the lives of innocent people in a prayer group just because they were black. Eleven days later, on June 18th, following Roof’s arrest for his crimes, someone anonymously hung a Confederate Flag at the Memorial of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment in Boston.

“Obviously it’s pretty upsetting to see,” said Jonathan Krieger, 29, of Jamaica Plain as reported by the Boston Globe. “When somebody puts something in a spot like that, obviously they are trying to send a message, and it’s an upsetting message.”

Certainly the Civil War was a long time ago. But racism is not a thing of the past. On this Memorial Day we must honor those we often forget who fought and died for our freedom. Let us remember the next time we see someone like former NFL quarterback  Colin Kaepernicktake a knee” during the National Anthem or the Pledge of Allegiance that they are not disrespecting the American Flag. Rather they are paying homage the Black men and women who gave their lives to protect it, even though the government for which it stands does not always protect them.


Author’s Note:

This post was created from the notes of my lecture on “The Civil War and the Fight For Freedom” in my class Outdoors For All at the University of Wisconsin Madison, Nelson Institute For Environmental Studies. Envirst308 is a course that takes a long look at the disparities of access to public land among marginalized communities in the U.S., particularly people of color. It’s difficult to really understand the nature of our current society without a firm grasp of the circumstances, events and institutions of the past that created it. In my class students learn a few of the untold stories of black and brown folks throughout the American narrative. I believe that it is only when there is a complete accounting of everyone who contributed to our history that we can understand the present and direct a steady path toward a brighter future. 

I will be sharing other stories in the coming weeks and I invite anyone who is interested in participating in an outline discussion to follow along. Please post your questions, comments and criticisms in the comments below.