By Mr. Peter Chadwick (IMCOM)February 26, 2010
Imagine loving the very thing that has oppressed you most of your life.
Maybe that thing is not directly responsible for your circumstances, but a case can certainly be made that it stood idly by as you were held to the lowly estate you were born into.
Such was the case with William H. Carney and his love of country, a country that didn't treat him or his Family very well: the United States of America. Carney was born into slavery in Norfolk, Va., in 1840.
The institution of bondage had flourished in the agricultural South for more than 200 years while the industrial North did little more than grumble about it.
As a teenager, Carney was able to taste the freedom of the North when he and his father, also named William, escaped to Massachusetts by way of the Underground Railroad.
As for Carney's mother, Ann, and the rest of the Family, there are at least three different accounts regarding their liberation.
Suffice to say, they eventually joined Carney and his father in New Bedford, Mass. While living in the "whaling capital of the world," Carney easily found work; first on on the waterfront and then as a sailor with the whaling ships.
Working on ships was merely a means to an end. "I had a strong inclination to prepare myself for the ministry," he wrote.
Carney had actually begun his religious training in a covertly-held school growing up in the South. However, the war that would finally bring slavery to an end would change the direction of Carney's "inclination."
In 1862, the Civil War was raging and not going well for the Union or its Army. President Abraham Lincoln chose that year to sign an extremely unpopular bill into law; one authorizing the recruitment of black troops. Less than a year later, in Jan. 1863, Massachusetts Governor John Andrew was authorized to raise a regiment of black Soldiers.
Not all blacks were in a hurry to join the U.S. Army, especially under white officers, but with prominent individuals, such as Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips, acting as recruiting agents, by the end of April the ranks of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment (54th) were filled.
In February of that year, Carney, 23, had joined the Morgan Guards, which later became Company C of the newly formed 54th.
"I could best serve my God by serving my country and my oppressed brothers," wrote Carney later. Carney evidently showed some leadership ability because he started out as a sergeant in his unit.
However, his true leadership and love of country would be exhibited a few months later during the assault on Battery Wagoner on Morris Island, S.C. During the battle, made famous by the movie "Glory," Carney saw the regimental standard-bearer starting to fall.
"I threw away my gun and seized the colors making my way to the head of the column," wrote Carney.
Carney took the flag to the top of a berm, marking the point of attack. However, after establishing his position, Carney later explained all was not well.
"I found myself alone - while the dead and wounded were all around me - lying one upon another," he said. "I halted and knelt down, holding the flag in my hand."
While there, the muskets, bullets and grapeshot were flying all around me."
In 20 minutes, the Confederate defenders charged his position.
Carney wrapped the banner around the staff and made his way down the sloping dirt wall. Carney was wounded in both of his legs, his chest and his right arm, but through it all, brought the regimental colors back to a safe position with the remainder of his unit.
Before collapsing, Carney handed the flag to another member of his unit and said, "The old flag never touched the ground."
Carney's actions at Battery Wagoner earned him the Medal of Honor. Due to clerical errors, he didn't receive his actual medal until 1900.
There were other black Soldiers who received their Medal of Honor before Carney, but he is still considered the first recipient because his actions pre-dated theirs.
Carney's life after the war was less dramatic. He slipped easily into working for the postal system, enjoying being a husband, a father and a citizen in the country he loved and had served - even when it wasn't so lovely.
Historical information in this article regarding the life of William H. Carney came from "American National Biography" and "Civil War Times."