The barrier island which lies at the geographic center of the events which transpired there on July 18th, 1863 is today little more than a strip of eroded sand at the entrance to Charleston Harbor, populated by waving sea grass and visited occasionally by curious tourists and history buffs. While the carnage which took place there exactly 150 years ago is well chronicled in the film GLORY, little remains physically to testify of the strategic value of the spit of sand which brought it about.
Today I choose to write not about that battle or the ill-conceived tactical campaign which precipitated it, but about two men whose backgrounds could not have been more different, but whose mutual destiny brought them together in that moment of time and place, and forged a near-mystical bond which is hard to ignore by a devoted story-teller.
Robert Gould Shaw might have been described as a blue-eyed rich boy, born to a wealthy and prominent Boston family, and seemingly gifted by happy circumstances to attend Harvard – which he did for a three-year period – before moving on to a bright and promising future working in the business of a well-to-do uncle in New York City. When war broke out with the bombing of Fort Sumter in 1861, Shaw felt impelled to do his part by joining the 7th New York Regiment in time to participate in the Defense of Washington in a 30-day enlistment. Returning to Boston and finding himself well-suited for military life he enlisted in the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry as a First Lieutenant, distinguishing himself in several campaigns including the battle of Antietam where he was wounded and promoted to Captain.
The young officer’s parents, Francis Gould and Sarah Sturgis Shaw were dedicated abolitionists and traveled in social circles of similarly motivated people, including the likes of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Harriet Beecher Stowe, all of whom shared the belief that African Americans should be permitted to serve. In fact it was Shaw Senior who delivered to his son a commission from Massachusetts Governor John Andrews to organize and command an all-black unit which would be known as the 54th Massachusetts. Although not particularly enthused about this assignment, and like most Northern officers doubtful black soldiers would hold up in combat, Gould would come to love the men he would command and press for their opportunity to meet the enemy. Without knowing it at the time, that dream of leading his men into battle would come at a place known as Battery Wagner on South Carolina’s Morris Island where the 54th Colored Regiment’s 600 soldiers would lead the attack against strongly-entrenched and heavily-armed Confederate defenders.
William Harvey Carney had been born a slave in Norfolk, Virginia with only the name William. With his father, he escaped the South via the “underground railway”, settling in New Bedford, Massachusetts where he managed to learn reading and writing, and to develop an interest in the ministry and a love for his country. Together, with hard work, the father and son had been able to “purchase” the freedom of their other family members. When war broke out he decided “I can best serve my God serving my country and my oppressed brothers.” Borrowing the last name of a friend named Carney, he enlisted in the newly-formed 54th Massachusetts Colored Regiment and went proudly off to war with Colonel Robert Gould Shaw.
In the course of the bloody melee which came to be known as the 2nd Battle of Fort Wagner, Sergeant Carney saw his fellow soldiers cut down by the concentration of grape shot and musket fire which had quickly killed all of the Regiment’s white officers. When the Sergeant carrying the colors was felled, Carney quickly grabbed the standard to secure his country’s flag on the parapet for all to see. As the survivors finally backed away through rising water, Sergeant Carney wrapped the flag around the pole and followed suit, in the course of which he was severely wounded at least twice, refusing to accept help in his determination to hold the standard high. Safe at last, and just before collapsing from his wounds, he exclaimed “Here it is boys, it never touched the ground!”
William Carney survived the war, returned to New Bedford to serve the U.S. Post Office for many years, and 20 years after the battle, became the first African American – in point of time of action - to receive his country’s highest military award, the Medal of Honor.
Colonel Robert Gould Shaw did not return home, but was buried in a mass grave with his men in the shifting sands of Morris Island. His proud parents refused to agree with plans to retrieve his remains, as had been done for his brother white officers, insisting that he would have wished to be buried with the men he had led and come to love. He left behind a young wife of 26 days who never remarried, and a legacy of 200 now-archived personal letters. He died at the age of 25.
Colonel Robert Gould Shaw explained his devotion to the mission of his Black regiment with the words: “We fight for men and women whose poetry has not yet been written.”
Sergeant William Harvey Carney, the first of twenty African American soldiers who would
win the Medal of Honor in the American Civil War. The flag he rescued can be seen today in Boston's Memorial Hall.