WASHINGTON — Sgt. William Carney was born Feb. 29, 1840 in Norfolk, Virginia. As a boy, he learned to read and write, had a strong calling for ministry, and loved the bible. He was also a slave.
After being separated by enslavers, Carney’s family ultimately made their way to Massachusetts to live where Carney could pursue a life in ministry. However, after President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation allowed for the raising of Black regiments and Governor John Andrew created the Massachusetts 54th Volunteer Infantry, Carney decided he would best serve God by serving his country to help free other Black Americans.
In March 1863 Carney volunteered and found himself amongst the ranks of Company C of the 54th Infantry Regiment. The 54th represented one of the first Black regiments of the Civil War. More than 1,000 other Black Americans from 24 states and several countries enlisted in the regiment. About a quarter of them were former slaves.
Juneteenth allows us the opportunity to commemorate the service of those like Sgt. Carney, who was once a slave, became free and wanted nothing more than to serve the nation. The Juneteenth observance, which eventually became a national holiday, was established from the date of the Union Army’s June 19, 1865 announcement of General Order No. 3 in Galveston, Texas that proclaimed freedom for the enslaved people of Texas.
During every major conflict the Nation has seen Black Soldiers serve with honor. But, perhaps most historically important, is the bravery shown by the entire 54th Massachusetts during the U.S. Civil War.
A story worthy of a monument
Recently, Lt. Gen. Gary Brito, Deputy Chief of Staff, G-1, United States Army, joined the National Park Service and the city of Boston in a ceremony rededicating the Robert Gould Shaw and Massachusetts 54th Regiment Memorial. Originally unveiled in 1897, this memorial stands in the heart of Boston and pays tribute to the service of the Black Soldiers of the 54th, and the officers who led them during that time of racial unrest throughout the country.
Following an extensive two-year restoration, Boston officials, activists, historians and park officials gathered June 1 to unveil the refurbished memorial. This rededication was a symbol of commitment, honoring the indelible imprint the regiment has left on the community.
“This memorial, first dedicated 125 years ago, commemorates and reminds us of the legacy that is in front of us,” said Michelle Wu, Mayor of Boston. “It’s a powerful reminder of the profound impact of solidarity and what it looks like to lead in the face of injustice.”
The 54th was commanded by Col. Robert G. Shaw, a white officer. Shaw, the son of wealthy abolitionists, stood above his peers at the time by leading Soldiers regardless of their race.
A few months after the regiment was constituted, the troops of the 54th were heading for combat.
“On May 28, 1863 the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment gathered here in Boston Common to deploy to war enjoying the cheers and support of many,” said Brito. “The Soldiers, of varying ages and backgrounds did not know what awaited them. “
On July 18, 1863 the 54th charged the Confederate-held Fort Wagner, S.C. Their formation as they left for battle is etched in the memorial.
David Blight, a Yale University History professor, described the day the 54th stormed Fort Wagner.
“They had not slept for two days, they were exhausted, they were wet, hungry and their first test had now come. Could Black men stand up to musket fire and cannon? Could they fight as trained Soldiers? Would they shoot,” said Blight. “Could they assault a Confederate fortress however hopeless their chance of success? Could they march? Would they club their way to their own deaths to prove simply they were men worthy of all the honor and dignity of other men?”
As history reveals, the bloody battle resulted in 285 casualties for the 54th and Col. Shaw was killed during the battle. However, the men fought valiantly in the battle and proved their fortitude, not just as Black Americans, but as Soldiers.
A Latin inscription rests above Shaw’s head on the monument that embodies the service and sacrifice of the regiment.
“It reads Omnia Relinquit Servare Republicam, which translates to ‘he gave up everything to serve the republic.’ This monument tells a story like no other monument about that war,” said Blight. “It says that African Americans had to die to be counted as people, and from that, maybe, just maybe the American Republic could be reinvented, reimagined, remade and maybe still preserved.”
Recognition of Bravery
During the battle at Fort Wagner, Carney witnessed the shooting of the regiment’s flag bearer and retrieved the Union flag before it fell to the ground.
Brito reflected on Carney’s lasting legacy, not only as a Black Soldier, but also as an American.
“After being wounded five times, he handed the colors to the first surviving 54th officer he could find and claimed, that the old flag never touched the ground,” said Brito. “Courage and selfless service in action, and I would offer, an example of what love of country should be.”
Sgt. Carney was the first African American recipient of the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military award.
Legacy of 54th
Though the attack failed, the valor of the 54th Massachusetts paved the way for more than 180,000 African Americans to enlist in the Union Army and future generations of Black Service Members.
Today approximately 20% of the Total Army is African American and serve in the Army at a rate that is higher than their representation in the U.S. population.
Beyond just service to the Nation, over the last century the memorial has been an inspiration for many artists, activists. No other monument has inspired as much literary or musical works of art as the Robert Gould Shaw and Massachusetts 54th Regiment Memorial, said Blight.
Juneteenth is a chance to reflect on the incredible mark that Black Soldiers, and units like the 54th Infantry regiment have left on our Army’s history. The memorial stands tall to reminds Americans of the valor and bravery of our generations past, one which Brito will not soon forget.
“The history of the 54th applied to today shows us that bravery, commitment to team members, love for country and freedom holds true for Soldiers, and the color of ones’ skin should not be a barrier to service,” said Brito. “The trails that the Soldiers of the 54th trudged, the social and racial challenges that they faced did not deter their spirit to fight and support for their fellow comrade in arms and with pride stand tall for what was right for Black Soldiers.”
Read More: Black Americans in the U.S. Army