Sergeant William Carney was the first Afro-American soldier who received the prestigious Congressional Medal of Honor. Recognition of Carney’s courage by awarding him the Congressional Medal became a significant event in the history of the Civil War and the struggle for the equal rights of African Americans.
The prestigious recognition of Carney’s courage was a turning point in the history of African Americans in the armed forces because previously African Americans not only had never been awarded medals but even were denied the right to take part in the Civil War because of the racial prejudices. “Many whites believed that they [African Americans] lacked the courage and intelligence to be effective soldiers” (Reef, 2010, p. 61).
However, in 1863 the Union Army had to abandon this policy and start accepting African American recruits for the purpose of reinforcing their groups. The Massachusetts 54th Colored Infantry which William Carney joined in February, 1963 was one of the first Afro-American regiments. Displaying their courage in the face of death during the assault on Fort Wagner, Carney and his brother-soldiers managed to prove that they did have enough courage and experience for becoming effective soldiers.
William Carney was one of the soldiers of the historical fifty-fourth that displayed not only their courage but also devotion to the ideals of the Civil War during the dangerous assault on Fort Wagner.
According to the data of the Congressional Record, “Despite being shot twice, Carney planted the colors announcing, “Boys the old flag never touched the ground” (Congress, 2003, p. 5106). After the enemies shot Colonel Shaw who led the 54th and the soldier next to him who carried the Union flag, Carney did not let the flag fall disregarding his own intense pain from his wounds.
It not only demonstrated his heroism and moral strength in the face of death but also encouraged other soldiers for continuing the struggle while some of them began to panic. “The sight of the national flag bolstered the soldiers’ courage and reminded them of the values for which they fought” (Reef, 2010, p. 62). When a soldier from a New York regiment offered his help in carrying the flag on the way to a hospital, Carney declined any assistance, admitting that only a soldier from 54th could do it.
Though Carney got the Congressional medal only in May 23, 1900, he became the first person of his race who received such a prestigious award. The recognition of Carney’s courage and heroism implied the recognition of intelligence and courage of African-American soldiers in general. After the news of Carney’s courage spread throughout the country, thousands of African Americans joined the Union Army and made their contribution to the end of the war (Walbridge, 2000, p. 77).
Demonstrating his courage while capturing Fort Wagner as an important strategic object, William Carney proved that people of his race can be really useful citizens and persuaded his brother-soldiers to stand firm and preserve the ideals for which they struggled at a crucial moment of the battle (Cimbala and Miller, 2002, p. 436).
The events at Fort Wagner and the Congressional Medal of Honor for the first African American were not only a significant vent in the course of the Civil War but also a step forward in the struggle against the racial prejudices and for the equal rights for African Americans.
Demonstrating his courage in the face of death, William Carney did not betray the ideal of his country and his race, becoming a recognized national hero.
Cimbala, P. & Miller, R. (2002). Union soldiers and the northern home front: Wartime experiences, postwar adjustments. Chicago, IL: Fordham University Press.
Congress (2003). Congressional record: Proceedings and debates of the 108th Congress first session. Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office.
Reef, C. (2010). African Americans in the military. New York, NY: Facts on File Inc.
Walbridge, M. (2000). African-American heroes of the Civil War. Portland, ME: Weston Walch Publisher.