William H. Carney: 54th Massachusetts Soldier and First
Black U.S. Medal of Honor Recipient
William H. Carney’s grit at Fort Wagner earned him the
distinction of being the first black soldier to receive the
Medal of Honor.
By Thomas M. Hammond
Of all the men who wore blue uniforms in the Civil War, none
felt more keenly the purpose of his mission than the
African-American soldier. Every marching step, every swing of a
pick and every round fired at Confederate enemies gave him a
chance to strike a blow against slavery and prove himself equal
to his white comrades. U.S. Colored Troops were consistently
good fighters, performing well in every engagement in which they
fought. Even their enemies had to grudgingly admit that fact.
One USCT member, William H. Carney, transcended good to become
great, and was the first black U.S. soldier to earn the Medal of
On February 17, 1863, at age 23, Carney heeded the call for
African Americans to join a local militia unit, the Morgan
Guards, with 45 other volunteers from his hometown of New
Bedford, Mass. That unit would later become Company C of the
54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment.
There was something unique about the new regiment, commanded
by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw; it was an all-black unit with the
exception of senior officers and a few senior noncommissioned
sergeants. The 54th Massachusetts was created to prove that
black men could be good soldiers.
Carney was born a slave on February 29, 1840, at Norfolk, Va.
His father, also named William, escaped slavery, reaching
freedom through the underground railroad. William Sr. then
worked hard to buy the freedom of the rest of his family. The
free and reunited family settled in New Bedford in the second
half of the 1850s. Young William learned to read and write, and
by age 15 he was interested in becoming a minister.
He gave up his pursuit of the ministry, however, to join the
Army. In an 1863 edition of the Abolitionist newspaper The
Liberator, Carney stated: “Previous to the formation of
colored troops, I had a strong inclination to prepare myself for
the ministry; but when the country called for all persons, I
could best serve my God serving my country and my oppressed
brothers. The sequel in short—I enlisted for the war.”
That career change had momentous impact on Carney’s life, as
the 54th Massachusetts had a chance to prove its mettle in the
July 18, 1863, Battle of Fort Wagner outside of Charleston, S.C.
During the fight, the 54th made heroic attacks on the garrison,
and Carney’s bravery earned him a promotion to sergeant and the
U.S. military’s most prestigious award.
Fort Wagner on Morris Island guarded the entrance to the
harbor of Charleston. Shaw and the 600 men of the 54th
Massachusetts would spearhead the Federal assault from a slim
strip of sand on the east side of the fort, which faced the
The 54th burrowed into a sand dune about 1,000 yards from
Fort Wagner. Behind it was the 6th Connecticut. Federal land and
sea artillery bombarded the fort all day long. By nightfall,
orders were passed down and the 54th stood up, dressed ranks and
attacked in two wings of five companies each.
As the men advanced they were immediately hit by a barrage of
canister, musketry and shelling from the fort. A bullet struck
the 54th’s color sergeant, and as the wounded man faltered,
Carney threw down his gun, seized the flag and moved to the
front of the 54th’s assaulting ranks. He soon found himself
alone, on the fort’s wall, with bodies of dead and wounded
comrades all around him. He knelt down to gather himself for
action, still firmly holding the flag while bullets and shell
fragments peppered the sand around him.
Carney surveyed the battlefield and noticed that other Union
regiments had attacked to his right, drawing away the focal
point of the Rebel resistance. To his left he saw a large force
of soldiers advancing down the ramparts of the fort. At first he
thought they might be were Union forces. Flashes of musketry
soon doomed his hopes. The oncoming troops were Confederates.
He wound the colors around the flagpole, made his way to a
low protective wall and moved along it to a ditch. When Carney
had passed over the ditch on his way to the fort, it was dry.
But now it was waist deep with water.
He seemed to be alone, surrounded by the wreckage of his
regiment. Carney wanted to help the wounded, but enemy fire
pinned him down. Crouching in the water, he figured his best
chance was to plot a course back to Federal lines and make a
break for it.
Carney rose to get a better look. It was a
fateful move. As he later wrote: “The bullet I
now carry in my body came whizzing like a
mosquito, and I was shot. Not being prostrated
by the shot, I continued my course, yet had not
gone far before I was struck by a second shot.”
Despite carrying two slugs in his body, Carney
kept moving. Shortly after being hit the second
time he saw another Union soldier coming in his
direction. When they were within earshot, Carney
hailed him, asking who he was. The Yank replied
he was with the 100th New York, and asked if
Carney was wounded. Carney said he had indeed
been shot, and then flinched as a third shot
grazed his arm. The 100th soldier came to his
aid and helped him move farther to the rear.
“Now then,” said the New York soldier, “let me
take the colors and carry them for you.” Carney,
though, would not consent to that, no matter how
battered he was. He explained that he would not
be willing to give the colors to anyone who was
not a member of the 54th Massachusetts.
The pair struggled on. They did not get far
before yet another bullet hit Carney, grazing
him in the head. The two men finally managed to
stumble to their own lines. Carney was taken to
the rear and turned over to medical personnel.
Throughout his ordeal, he held on to the colors.
Cheers greeted him when Carney finally
staggered into the ranks of the 54th. Before
collapsing, he said, “Boys, the old flag never
touched the ground!”
During the battle, Company C of the 54th
Massachusetts was able to, for a short time,
capture a small section of Fort Wagner. The 54th
suffered 272 killed, wounded or missing out of
the 600 in the battle. Colonel Shaw was among
the dead. Total Union casualties were 1,515 out
of about 5,000 in the assault force, while the
Confederates had 174 casualties out of about
Although the Union forces were repulsed and
had to lay siege to Fort Wagner, which the
Confederates abandoned two months later, the
54th was widely hailed for its bravery. Like a
pebble dropped into a puddle, the regiment’s
heroism had a ripple effect, spurring thousands
of other black men to join the Union Army. Even
Abraham Lincoln noted that the 54th’s bravery at
Wagner was a key development that helped secure
final victory for the North.
William Carney recovered from the four wounds
he received at Fort Wagner, and word soon spread
of his unselfish actions. When Carney’s
commanders heard about his conduct, he was
promoted to sergeant. Later in the war, the 54th
fought a rear-guard action covering a retreat at
the Battle of Olustee, but Sergeant Carney could
not participate in that engagement due to the
lingering effects of his wounds. Because of his
injuries he was discharged from the Army a
little more than a year after the battle, on
June 30, 1864.
Carney subsequently married Susannah
Williams, also of New Bedford, on October 11,
1865. They had one child who later became an
accomplished music teacher of the New Bedford
In 1866 William Carney was appointed
superintendent of streetlights for the city of
New Bedford. He then went to California to seek
his fortune but returned to New Bedford in 1869
and took a job as a letter carrier for the
Postal Service. He worked at that job for 32
years before retiring. After retirement he was
employed as a messenger at the Massachusetts
State House, where in 1908 he would be fatally
injured in an accident that trapped his leg in
William H. Carney’s valor at Fort Wagner was
honored on May 23, 1900, when he was awarded the
Medal of Honor. That was almost 40 years after
he so proudly served with the 54th Massachusetts
Regiment. He was the first black soldier to
receive the award. When asked about his heroic
actions, he simply said, “I only did my duty.”