First African-American To Recieve The Medal Of Honor Did So With The 54th Massachusetts At Fort Wagner

Once Hollywood got a hold of war it is often impossible for the average person to separate fact from fiction.  And yet, if we look close enough we will, from Hollywood, receive a glimpse of heroic fact followed by all the pageantry needed to make a blockbuster movie.  The movie Glory is a widely acclaimed Civil War depiction garnering six Oscars.

One of those Oscars went to famed actor Denzel Washington who could last be seen in the movie picking up the flag after it had fallen only to die at the hands of the enemy.  And while that particular character might be pure Hollywood fiction, the truth is there was a young African-American soldier on whom that scene was based. He was, in fact, the first African-American to receive the Medal of Honor.  William H. Carney did indeed grab the flag as it fell, but unlike the movie, history would have a different ending for this famed member of the 54th Massachusetts.

The True Story

After the emancipation proclamation in 1863, the 54th was commissioned by the Governor of Massachusetts and command was given to Colonel Robert Shaw.  As both Hollywood and history would mix, it turns out that Colonel Shaw was one of the few true characters portrayed in the movie.  However, many of the stories and histories of the 54th would make its way into the film while utilizing a little “artistic” liberty to make an Oscar winning movie.

For the real 54th, much as depicted in the movie they set out with great fanfare from Boston and had the full support of abolitionists who helped provide material support to the regiment.  They then headed South for what would be a rendezvous with history, both Hollywood and factual.  Arriving in South Carolina on May 28th of 1863, they were greeted by former local slaves and the local population with equal fanfare.  It appeared that the 54th was to be the model of its kind, but true to the movie they would have to push for their role in combat.

They would initially see combat on James Island, South Carolina on July 16th of that year where they would repel a Confederate assault.  True to fact and fiction, morale was high, and the 54th were eager to keep in the fight.  And but a few days later, on July 18th, the battle for which the movie would gain its notoriety would take place.  The 54th Massachusetts would lead the charge, and one particular soldier would earn a special place in the history of warfare.

The painting The Old Flag Never Touched the Ground, which depicts the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment at the attack on Fort Wagner, South Carolina, on July 18, 1863. Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
The painting “The Old Flag Never Touched the Ground”


Give ‘Em Hell, 54th

As Hollywood goes, the 54th marched off into battle and before the final departure, Colonel Shaw asked if the flag bearer should fall who would pick it up in his stead.  History would have a slightly different account of this scene, but as the 54th charged toward Fort Wagner the gallantry of one man would stick out above all.  Under the command of Colonel Shaw, the 54th charged the ramparts and were met with a furious welcome of cannon and rifle fire.  Re-attempting an assault that just a week earlier had claimed the lives of over 300 Union soldiers and only a dozen or so Confederates, the 54th was in for a fight.

Battle Map of Ft. Wagner via
Battle Map of Ft. Wagner

True to the movie and history, Colonel Shaw led the charge himself.  It is reported that in fact his last words were, “Forward Fifty-fourth” as he was then shot multiple times in the chest and died.  The rest of the 54th charged and the flag bearer was shot, William Carney picked up the standard and continued the charge.  The scene played out by Denzel Washington would have you believe Carney died, but that was not the case.  Carney continued with the charge keeping the US flag flying throughout the battle.  The 54th pushed into portions of Ft. Wagner fighting with exceptional gallantry and skill.  However, the North could not sustain the attack, and the 54th was forced to withdraw.

Having been wounded twice, William Carney returned with the flag exclaiming “The flag never touched the ground.”  As for the rest of the 54th, they would see over 270 men become casualties as either dead, captured, missing, or wounded.  As an insult to his family, the Confederates intentionally buried Colonel Shaw in a mass grave with the rest of the 54th.  However, his father would later thank the Confederates for burying his son with his men.

Monument to Colonel Robert Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts via
Monument to Colonel Robert Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts

Medal of Honor

After the war, William Carney would return to Massachusetts and carry on with his life.  He would have to wait some 37 years to received his honor as was the case for many African-American soldiers of the Civil War.

On May 23rd, 1900, he was awarded the Medal of Honor with a citation that read: “When the color 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 severely wounded.”

While there were 25 African-Americans to receive the Medal of Honor during the Civil War, Carney’s actions took place on the earliest date. As a result, he is considered and referred to as the first African-American to receive the Medal of Honor.  The man who carried the flag up Ft. Wagner and back died in 1908 from injuries sustained in an elevator accident of all things.  However, the legacy of his gallantry and that of entire 54th would continue to live on in history and thanks to a less than historically accurate Oscar-winning movie it would live on in popular culture as well.

Jeff Edwards

Jeff Edwards is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE