Wednesday, September 28, 2016

It Never Touched the Ground!

Sgt William H. Carney, 54th Massachusetts, MOH (Source)
The place, South Carolina, specifically Morris Island, an island guarding the southern approach to Charleston. The year is 1863. Battery Wagner has been constructed by the Confederacy, the Union Army has determined to seize this place. (Note that the North referred to this place as Fort Wagner.) The scene is set, the players are ready, what happened next is history.


On the 10th of July, 1863, Federal forces had landed and seized a foothold on Morris Island but had failed to carry Battery Wagner by storm. The 7th Connecticut, 76th Pennsylvania, and 9th Maine infantry regiments had suffered heavy losses in the attempt. The Union command determined on a set piece attack in order to clear Morris Island of the rebels.

On the morning of 18 July 1863, a furious artillery bombardment by both land based guns and 11 ships of the Union Navy, thundered over the dunes as the Union Army pounded Battery Wagner. Shot and shell seemed to have little effect on the Battery. But as the sun began to set, Brigadier General Quincy Gillmore (West Point class of 1849), turned to Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and ordered the assault on Battery Wagner to begin.

As Colonel Shaw led his green regiment forward (the men had only seen action for the first time a few days before) in the ranks of that regiment, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, was a young sergeant by the name of William H. Carney. Born a slave in Norfolk, Virginia, he had escaped and joined his father in New Bedford, MA. As a point of historical fact, the 54th was an African American regiment, a Negro regiment in the parlance of the times.

Freed black men, led by white officers, enlisted to fight for the cause of freedom. Freedom for their fellows held as chattel in the South. Though the war had many causes, to these men, freeing the slaves was the only cause that mattered. Who can blame them for thinking that way?

The regiment marched forward, assailed by shot and shell, men dropping as they were hit, the ranks closing as this regiment in Union blue marched to assault the fort. Never wavering, they advanced, they didn't look green as they marched into the teeth of rebel cannon and rifle fire.

In front of Sergeant Carney, the color bearer carrying the national colors went down, dead. The young sergeant seized the colors and advanced onto the ramparts of Battery Wagner. Hit once, and then again, Sergeant Carney realized he was alone. The enemy's fire was too much for mortal man to bear. Fortunately, other Union regiments were also attacking and had attracted the attention of the Confederate defenders. But not for long.

Seriously wounded, Sgt. Carney wrapped the flag around its staff and withdrew, back to where so many of his regiment lay dead or wounded. Including the regiment's commander, Col. Shaw.

Another Union soldier offered to take the colors to the rear when he came across Sgt Carney and noticed how badly wounded he was. Sgt. Carney refused to relinquish the flag to anyone other than another member of the 54th.


For his actions that day, Sergeant William H. Carney was awarded the Medal of Honor, some 37 years after the fact. The 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.
One of the regiments which distracted the rebel defenders briefly, the 7th New Hampshire, had a soldier from Hillsborough, NH, in its ranks, Pliny Gammel. Private Gammel was my great-great uncle. He survived the war and had a family. As did Sgt. Carney.

One thing which has always fascinated me is that these black men, so badly treated by the country in many ways, came forward to fight for her. Treated as second class citizens, enslaved in some regions of the country, yet they still stepped up and fought for the United States.

In every war this nation has ever fought, minorities have volunteered to fight for this nation. Japanese-Americans in WWII are another fine example. Though you might scoff, the Irish in the United States were treated like dogs, they too did their duty in the Civil War.

Treated like dirt, still they fought, and died, for our freedoms. As I often say, "Where do we get such men?" (And these days, " and women?)
When the Union troops were forced to retreat under fire, Carney struggled back across the battlefield. He eventually made his way back to his own lines and turned over the colors to another survivor of the 54th, modestly saying, "Boys, I only did my duty; the old flag never touched the ground!" Carney received an honorable discharge due to disability (as a result of his wounds) in June 1864. (Source)
Read more about Sgt Carney here. Two good accounts of the assault on Battery Wagner are here and here.
When we heard the words, duty, honor and country, no more needed to be said. But that is a bygone era. Today we rarely hear of our personal responsibility in discussions of broad notions such as freedom or liberty. It is as if freedom and liberty exist wholly independent of anything we do, as if they are predestined. - Clarence Thomas (Source)
Amen brother. Amen.

William H. Carney, American Warrior and Hero (Source)


  1. At CGSC at Ft Leavenworth, the whole class, en masse, watched Glory which I thought was a pretty good movie at the time. However....On checking the cast this morning, I noticed no one played Sgt Carney. I wonder why not. Other than "Hollywood!"

    Good post, Sarge, as always.

    1. 'Tis my understanding that in the film Glory the only real life person portrayed is Col. Shaw, played by Matthew Broderick, all of the other characters are fictional or composites of real people. Two of Frederick Douglass' sons actually were serving in the 54th at the time, something the film didn't mention. As to why Hollywood did not single out Sgt Carney for portrayal in the film is a mystery to me. He was, after all, the first black soldier to be awarded the Medal of Honor. But, like you said, "Hollywood."

      Though the film has a few historical inaccuracies it is still, in my opinion, one of the best films I've ever seen. I cannot watch it without tears forming. It got very dusty researching this post, I can tell you.

      Thanks Juvat.

    2. I have Glory in my library. I remember the scene where they were storming the Battery, and the standard bearer and COL Show were shot and fell. Denzel Washington's character then picked up the standard and shouted "COME ON!" to the rest of the 54th; I suspect that was the movie's representation of SGT Carney. Since his character was killed, and because of the other scenes with Denzel's character, I expect that was the only connection to the sergeant. My guess is that the writer used archetypes of all the personality traits the people of that time would have had for most of the characters, to support the story and condense the information to something that could be intelligible in a two-hour movie.

      Bruce Jones

    3. It's one of my favorite movies, Denzel Washington is perhaps my favorite actor, top five for sure.

      Hollywood sometimes has to make compromises to make a story fit into two hours. Sometimes they don't do a good job. With Glory I thought they did a superb job.

  2. My Grandma Olson's Grandfather wound up in Andersonville. He believed it was a fight worth fighting.

  3. Superb post Sarge.

    "Conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." As Clarence Thomas (a big Nebraska fan btw) notes, most Americans used to do the hard work of thinking that through and testing whether it stands up as a principle to live -- and die -- for.

    Today? Yeah, well, not so much.

    1. That's what struck me about Justice Thomas' remark. I don't remember where I stumbled across that quote but it inspired this post.

      Many folks are content to let others do their thinking for them. Which is why we're at this current (low) moment in time.

  4. Thank you for making this great American known to me.

    Paul L. Quandt


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