An American Civil War Legacy

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Jennifer Holmes
  • 4th Fighter Wing Equal Opportunity Office
Take a look at any war and you will find a legacy that supersedes the significance of the fight. Such is the case with the American Civil War, also known as "The War Between the States." The American Civil War began April 12, 1861 and ended April 14, 1865. One of the greatest legacies of the American Civil War is William Harvey Carney, an African American Army soldier of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment.

Mr. Carney was born a slave in Norfolk, Va., Feb. 29, 1840. He escaped slavery through the Underground Railroad like his father, William Carney Sr., who was able to later pay for the rest of his family's freedom. The Carney family reunited in New Bedford, Mass., (a free state) in the 1850s. Young Mr. Carney secretly enrolled in school where he would learn to read and write. As he matured, he was reluctant to pursue his desire to become a minister. Mr. Carney's calling into ministry became overshadowed by the war "between the states" and he decided to join the Union Army. Mr. Carney's passion was captured in an 1863 edition of the Abolitionist Newspaper called The Liberator where he 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."

Mr. Carney enlisted in the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry Regiment, Company C in 1863. The 54th Regiment was the first official black regiment recruited by the Union Army in the North, the 1st South Carolina Volunteer Infantry Regiment was the first Union Army Regiment organized with African American soldiers in the Civil War. When Pres. Abraham Lincoln declared war against the confederacy to prevent the expansion of slavery and furnished the Emancipation Proclamation, Mr. Carney decided to join the Volunteer Infantry. He was one of the soldiers recruited by a network of 29 white senior officers who were abolitionists and given the name "The Black Committee."

The 54th Massachusetts Regiment was noted mostly for their assault on Fort Wagner in Charleston S.C. During the Battle on Fort Wagner, the 54th Regiment lost (dead/missing) 272 men. Despite the loss, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment obtained a greater victory in the furtherance in the enlistment and mobilization of African American military service members, which President Lincoln would later praise.

In addition, Mr. Carney would later declare the Union's victory when he caught the colors from a fallen flag bearer while suffering four bullet wounds. Mr. Carney refused to fall pliable to his wounds and mustered enough strength to carry the Union flag back to the 54th Massachusetts's Regiment lines and made the declaration, "Boys, the old flag never touched the ground." As word spread of Mr. Carney's heroic actions in battle, his commander would promote him to the rank of sergeant.

Mr. Carney was discharged from the Army due to the lingering effects of the wounds he suffered, June 30, 1864. He was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his bravery in saving and transporting the colors back to Union lines despite the possibility of risking his own life May 23, 1900. Carney's Congressional Medal of Honor citation reads, "When the Colored 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 severally wounded."
The battle in Fort Wagner was won when the confederate forces abandoned the Fort two months later. Mr. Carney, along with the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiments bravery was crucial to securing victory for the North.

The American Civil War legacy can be seen through the sacrifices that were made by Mr. Carney, a 54th Massachusetts Infantry Volunteer. The legacy of W.H. Carney and the 54th Volunteer Regiment superseded the fight of the American Civil War. The 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry was reactivated Nov. 21, 2008 and now serves as a National Guard ceremonial unit that renders honorary funerals and state functions. In 2008, the Regiment was invited to march in Pres. Barack Obama's inaugural parade. In honor of the contributions and courage of Mr.Carney and all Americans who have risked their lives in wars past and present, let us continue to build upon our nations freedom and secure tomorrow for persons of all races. It is through Presidential Proclamation that all Americans are encouraged to observe February 2011 as National African American Heritage Month.