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This Is Why We Stand: Sergeant William Carney.


“Boys, I only did my duty. The flag never touched the ground.” Those were the unforgettable words of Sergeant William Carney. Carney was a member of the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry’s C Company during the American Civil War. After President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, African Americans had the opportunity to volunteer to serve in the Union Army. Carney was among these men. The first test of the war for Carney and the 54th came as they led an assault on Fort Wagner. Wagner was a well defended beachhead fortification on Morris Island, South Carolina. During the assault, Sergeant John Wall carried the American flag. He was shot and the flag began to fall to the ground. Sergeant Carney then threw his rifle aside and grabbed the flag before it could touch the ground. Carney was shot in the leg soon after picking up the flag, but he was resolved to continue to lead the advance. As the Confederate defense stiffened, the Union assault began to falter. A group of Confederate soldiers started to charge Carney’s position. Carney then wrapped the flag around the staff to protect it and fell back down an embankment. He held the flag high as he navigated through a ditch, chest-deep in water. Another bullet struck Carney in the chest, he then sustained two more gunshots to his right arm and right leg. Through it all, Carney never quit and continued to return to safety with the flag. A Union Soldier from the 100th New York noticed how badly Carney was wounded and offered to carry the flag for him. Carney sharply responded, “No one but a member of the 54th should carry the colors.” Before he reached safety, Carney’s head was grazed by a bullet, but nothing could stop him from completing his mission that day. As Carney was in the safe presence of his comrades, he uttered one phrase before collapsing, “Boys, I only did my duty. The flag never touched the ground.” Carney would go on to survive the war and on May 23, 1900 he was awarded the Medal of Honor. Other African Americans were also issued the Medal of Honor during the Civil War, but Sergeant Carney’s action at Fort Wagner on July 18, 1863 was the first to merit the award.

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