Empire Ford of New Bedford Blog Posts

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During the month of January 2020, the 5th Lights for Peace flag to fly at the Fort Taber-Fort Rodman Military Museum honors the memory of William Harvey Carney, an African American who served in the Union Army during the Civil War, and was the first African American to earn the Medal of Honor.
 
Carney became an iconic figure in the city of New Bedford and his name is well-known throughout the city of New Bedford and beyond. Carney Academy, an elementary school here in the city, is named after Sgt. Carney as well as The William H. Carney Elks Lodge, also located in the city. His New Bedford home at 128 Mill St. is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Carney is also represented on a sculpture of the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial in Boston Common, depicting Col. Shaw leading members of the Massachusetts 54th Infantry Regiment as it marched.
 
Carney was born a slave on Feb. 29, 1840 in Norfolk, Virginia and according to most accounts, escaped to Massachusetts through the Underground Railroad. Carney joined the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry in March 1863. This was the first official all-black unit in U.S. history. A recruiting station to enlist black men for service was set up in the heart of downtown New Bedford.
 
According to the Military Times, he is most well-known for his heroic acts during the Civil War, in which he earned the Medal of Honor. Carney took part in the July 18, 1863 assault on Fort Wagner in Charleston, South Carolina, where he earned the “Medal of Honor.” When a color guard was killed during the battle, Carney retrieved the U.S. flag and marched forward with it, despite multiple serious wounds. When the Union troops were forced to retreat under fire, he struggled back across the battlefield, eventually returning to his own lines and turning over the colors to another survivor of the 54th, saying, “Boys, I only did my duty; the old flag never touched the ground!” He received an honorable discharge due to disability from his wounds in June 1864.
 
The Medal of Honor is the United States of America’s highest and most prestigious personal military decoration that is awarded to recognize U.S. military service members who have distinguished themselves by acts of valor.
 
After his discharge from the military, Carney worked repairing streetlights in New Bedford and went on to deliver mail for the next 32 years. He became the founding vice president of the New Bedford Branch 18 of the National Assoc. of Letter Carriers in 1890. He married Susannah Williams and had a daughter, named Clara Heronia.
 
Carney was finally honored with the coveted Medal of Honor on May 23, 1900, nearly 37 years after the battle at Fort Wagner. It was common for awards from the Civil War to be presented 20 years later or more. “Throughout the Civil War, 25 African-American soldiers earned the Medal of Honor. However, his actions took place on July 18, 1863, which was the earliest date. Thus, he was the first recipient,” according to historycollection.com.
 
Shortly after that, a patriotic song entitled “Boys the Old Flag Never touched the Ground,” was published about his daring feats. According to Wikipedia, the account of Sgt. Carney’s action as it appeared in ‘The United States Service Magazine, 1864’:
 
“As our forces retire, Sergeant Carney, who has kept the colors of his regiment flying upon the parapet of Wagner during the entire conflict, is seen creeping along on one knee, still holding up the flag, and only yielding its sacred trust upon finding an officer of his regiment. As he entered the field-hospital, where his wounded comrades are being brought in, they cheer him and the colors. Though nearly exhausted with the loss of blood, he says, ‘Boys, the old flag never touched the ground.’”
 
 
According to the New Bedford Historical Society website:
 
Carney’s father, also named William, had most likely adopted the last name of his master, Major Carney, owner of a large plantation. His mother’s name before her marriage was Ann Dean. She too, was the property of Major Carney. The elder Carneys understood the importance of an education and although blacks were forbidden from learning to read and write, young William was sent to a secret, private school in Norfolk, VA.
 
After Major Carney’s death, the slaves on the Carney plantation received their freedom. They first moved to Pennsylvania, but did not want to settle there. They then moved their family to New York City, but that also was not a place where they wanted to settle. The elder Carney wanted a “quiet, peaceful, freedom-loving place where he could bring up his son in security and dignity. Hence, like Frederick Douglass, he journeyed to the city of New Bedford,” the website said.
 
Young William spent the majority of his life in New Bedford. He did odd jobs, working in various stores throughout the city and won the respect of both white and black associates. Carney strongly considered making the ministry his career but once the Civil War started, he felt he could best serve his God by helping his oppressed and enslaved black brothers. On March 1863, Carney, along with the forty other black men from New Bedford enrolled in Company C of the Massachusetts, 54th to take part in the Civil War.
 
The Massachusetts 54th Regiment was the first black Army unit to be raised in the Northern States. After only three months of training, they were shipped to the main theater of the war, South Carolina. They saw action at Hilton Head, St. Simon’s Island, Darien, James Island and Fort Wagner.
 
The American Civil War broke out in the spring of 1861. According to the National Parks Service website, black men were excluded from military service until January 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This document ensured African-Americans’ right to serve in the US Army and Navy.
 
During the battle at Fort Wagner, 272 men were killed, wounded or missing out of the 600 men who fought in the battle, according to the Military Times. Col. Shaw was among the dead. Total Union casualties were 1,515 out of about 5,000 in the assault force, while the Confederates had 173 casualties out of 1,800 defenders.
 
 
Post-war, Carney held several positions, including the first black postman in the city of New Bedford. In the final years of his life, he took a job as a messenger for Secretary of State, William Olin, in the Massachusetts State House, becoming the second black man to hold this position.
 
Carney died on Dec. 9, 1908 as the result of an elevator accident at the Massachusetts Statehouse. In a final gesture of respect, all flags in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts were lowered to half-staff and that marked the first time in Massachusetts’ history that an African-American and “ordinary” citizen had been honored in this way.
 
The details in this story were compiled from the New Bedford Historical Society, the Military Times, Wikipedia, the National Parks Service website and historycollection.com.
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