Remembering Sergeant Carney

One hundred and eighteen years ago today—May 23, 1900—William H. Carney received the Medal of Honor for actions in July 1863 during the Civil War.  President William McKinley, who issued the Medal in the name of Congress (hence the oft-used misnomer “Congressional Medal of Honor”) was himself a Civil War veteran, having enlisted in the 23rd Ohio as a private in the war’s early days and rising to the rank of major by war’s end.  Hundreds of Medals of Honor were awarded to Civil War soldiers in the decades after the war.  In fact, some of the Civil War’s most famous recipients of the Medal did not receive it until many years later.  For example, Daniel E. Sickles and Joshua L. Chamberlain both received the award for actions at the July 1-3, 1863 battle of Gettysburg.  But Chamberlain did not receive the award until 1893, and Sickles waited until 1897 for his.

So Carney receiving his award decades after his action was not at all unusual.  What was somewhat out of the ordinary, though, was that Carney was African American.  In fact, because his action preceded those of other Medal of Honor recipients, Carney is considered the first African American to receive the nation’s highest award for military valor.


William H. Carney later in life and wearing his Medal of Honor.  (Howard University)

William Carney was born into slavery in Norfolk, Virginia in February 1840.  It is not entirely clear how he escaped slavery, but most think he used the Underground Railroad to make his way to Massachusetts.  His father was already there, and other family members who purchased their own freedom or became free upon the death of their owner soon joined them in the North.

President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, and among other things the proclamation allowed African Americans to be recruited to fight for the Union as soldiers and sailors.  Probably the most famous all-black unit was the 54th Massachusetts, whose exploits were the subject of the popular 1989 Hollywood film Glory.  Carney enlisted in the 54th in March 1863.

On July 18, 1863, the 54th Massachusetts led the assault on Fort Wagner in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina (the attack depicted in Glory’s climactic scene).  As the regiment advanced, the color sergeant went down and Carney scooped up the colors.  He continued to advance despite being wounded several times, eventually planting the flag on Fort Wagner’s parapet.  Ultimately, though, the attack did not succeed, and the 54th Massachusetts was forced to withdraw.  Sergeant Carney carried the colors back to the safety of Union lines.  Weak from his wounds and blood loss, Carney turned the flag over to another soldier of the 54th, supposedly telling him, “Boys, I did my duty; the old flag never touched the ground.”


The popular 1989 film Glory dramatized the exploits of Sgt. Carney’s 54th Massachusetts Infantry.  The film, directed by Edward Zwick, starred Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington, Cary Elwes, and Morgan Freeman.  Washington won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Glory.  (

Carney survived but was discharged due to his wounds in June 1864.  He returned to his adopted hometown of New Bedford, Massachusetts and worked for a time maintaining the city’s streetlights and then for thirty-two years as a postal worker.  He married and had a daughter and became well-known in Massachusetts for telling the story of the Fort Wagner assault to schoolchildren.  He always ended his presentations with his now-famous phrase “The old flag never touched the ground.”

The Medal of Honor citation Carney received on this day 118 years ago reads as follows:  “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.”

William H. Carney died at age 68 on December 9, 1908 following an elevator accident.  He is interred in his family’s plot in New Bedford’s Oak Grove Cemetery.  He received a Medal of Honor tombstone from the federal government.


Tombstone of Sgt. William H. Carney in Oak Grove Cemetery, New Bedford, Massachusetts.  (

Sergeant William H. Carney served his country nobly and deserves recognition not only as the first African American to perform an action deemed worthy of the Medal of Honor, but, simply, as a veteran.  Though he did not die in battle, he is still worthy of remembrance this coming Memorial Day weekend.  That he and nearly 200,000 other African Americans volunteered to fight for the Union demonstrates not only their own courage, but also the truly personal stake each of them had in the outcome of the Civil War.

“The Forlorn Hope”

Forlorn Hope assault Vicksburg

The May 22 assault at Vicksburg

by Andrew Miller

As Memorial Day weekend approaches, I cannot help but reflect about the great sacrifices our men and women have made for our great country. Like many of the followers of Emerging Civil War, the great contest for our nation’s survival is always on my mind. This particular holiday weekend is especially exciting as it is the culmination of my duties on Liberty Island, New York Harbor, where a colossal roman goddess with her tablet in one hand and torch held high in the other stand on a pedestal of Connecticut granite.

A career change and lateral movement to Vicksburg National Military Park now consumes my every thought. And as I begin to pack my uniform items away, clear my locker out of wonderful mementos and folded-up paper schedules from weeks past, and carry numerous bags of items on the subway, I realized it is the 22nd of May.

155 years ago Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Tennessee was unleashing an all-out assault along the entire Confederate entrenchments surrounding Vicksburg, Mississippi. 

A previous assault by elements of William T. Sherman’s Fifteenth Army Corps had failed in bloody repulse three days prior, and Grant was not going to be so short sighted this next time.

As part of the prepared assault, within Frank P. Blair’s Second Division of Sherman’s Corps, regimental commanders had asked for volunteers to come forward and organize into a vanguard force carrying planks and ladders for scaling the rebel works. One hundred and fifty men stepped forward and were told this mission was an important one, but a “forlorn hope.” The term meant it would be a disaster for them, a sacrifice of their lives for the greater good.

On May 22, 1863, as thousands of federal soldiers physically and mentally prepared for the task at hand, the “Forlorn Hope” grabbed their ladders and planks for their part in this attack. In their book Deeds of Valor, W.F. Beyer and O.F. Keydel described the part of these brave soldiers: “The advance party was to carry . . . logs, two men to each log, make a dash for the enemy’s entrenchments and throw the logs across the ditch to form the ground work of a bridge.”

At 10 a.m., these men raced out from behind their entrenchments where they were almost immediately shrouded in enemy smoke and rifle fire. Logs, ladders, and planks dropped by the wayside as men were killed and wounded. Somehow, Private Howell G. Trogden, carrying a flag of the storming party, planted it on Stockade Redan’s parapet, marking the location for the assault. Yet, all subsequent Union regiments were unsuccessful in storming the works.

Grant’s second assault on the entrenchments surrounding Vicksburg failed, and he settled into besieging the city, which ultimately capitulated on July 4, 1863.

One member of the “Forlorn Hope,” Private William Archinal, carried a log with another federal soldier, and when his comrade was killed, the log dropped, throwing Archinal to the ground and knocking him senseless. When awoken, he was brought into the rebel lines where he was questioned by an officer. The astonished officer asking, “Didn’t you know it was certain death” to attack the works, to which Archinal replied, “Well, I don’t know, I am still living.” The rebel officer responded boldly, “Yes, you are living, but I can assure you that very few of your comrades are!”

Examples like those of the “Forlorn Hope” are why we observe the sacrifices of our American soldiers on Memorial Day. These volunteers who gave “the last full measure of devotion” in charging against the Stockade Redan on that sweltering May 22nd day, with ladders in hand, home in their hearts and with family on their minds, moved up the appropriately named Graveyard Road and into the annals of military history. To their memory, we stand in solemn appreciation, never forgetting their valiant deeds.

J.E.B. Stuart and the Question of Corps Command

JEB Stuart

In the days after his victory in the Chancellorsville Campaign, Gen. Robert E. Lee faced a number of critical decisions, among them the reorganization of his Army of Northern Virginia. The death of Lt. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson on May 10, 1863 had left a void at corps command. There were a number of officers, including Maj. Gens. Richard Ewell, Ambrose Powell Hill and Richard Anderson in the running to replace Jackson. Another name which may have been the most intriguing was the commander of Lee’s cavalry division, Maj. Gen. James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart. Over the course of the last month or so, I’ve been trying to locate primary evidence regarding Stuart’s consideration for corps command. The search is far from over, in fact in may never be over, but I wanted to share what I have found so far and offer my thoughts on the matter. I also invite our readers to share any primary sources on the subject for additional research.

When Jackson fell victim to friendly fire on the night of May 2 at Chancellorsville, command of his Second Corps eventually fell to Stuart. The cavalry chief turned in a splendid performance the following day and his efforts eventually led to a Confederate victory. Stuart returned to command of the mounted division on May 6. Following Jackson’s death on May 10, rumors regarding his replacement began to circulate through the Confederate ranks.

Stuart’s own headquarters was not immune to such innuendo. Captain John Esten Cooke, a relative of Stuart’s wife, Flora, and member of his staff recorded in his journal a brief discussion he had with the gray cavalier. According to Cooke, Stuart related a story told to him by Col. Thomas L. Rosser, the commander of the 5th Virginia Cavalry, “that Jackson on his death bed had expressed a desire that he…should succeed him in the command of his corps.” Stuart then told Cooke that he “would rather know that Jackson said that, than have the appointment.”

Interestingly enough, Rosser  did not visit Jackson during the final six days of his life. Additionally, the statement from Jackson has not been corroborated by those who were with him as he passed away his last hours in Thomas Chandler’s plantation office near Guinea Station. That isn’t to say those that were closest to Jackson were not impressed by Stuart’s performance. Jackson’s cartographer, Jedediah Hotckiss, praised Stuart for his actions at Chancellorsville in a letter to his wife written on May 19. Hotchkiss, however, does not mention the potential of Stuart taking over Jackson’s corps. Stuart also mentioned the camp rumors in a letter to Flora. “There has been a great deal of talk of my succeeding General Jackson,” he wrote, “but I think without foundation in fact.”

On May 20, Lee wrote to President Jefferson Davis to propose a reorganization of his army. This restructure revolved around the creation of a third corps. Stuart’s name is not mentioned either as a replacement for Jackson or as a new corps commander. It does appears from a letter written by Lee to Stuart on May 23 that Stuart offered his thoughts on who should succeed Jackson.

That’s not to say Stuart did not covet a third star and a promotion to Lieutenant General, a grade synonymous with corps command in Lee’s army. Stuart stood fourth on the seniority list of Major Generals behind Ewell (January 24, 1862) Hill (May 26, 1862) and Anderson (July 14, 1862). Such a promotion, vaulting Stuart over three other officers, could create discontent and friction within the army. Lee was in the midst of planning his second Northern invasion where cooperation and cohesion among his subordinates would be critical to the operation’s success.

Still, rumors regarding Stuart’s consideration for command persisted. It appears one of the chief purveyors was Brig. Gen. William Dorsey Pender, a brigade commander in Hill’s division. “I hear that Gen’l Jackson is thought to be in very serious condition”, he wrote to his wife, Fanny, on May 9. “He has pneumonia…he will be a great loss to the country  and it is devoutly hoped that he may be spared to the country. Some think in his absence Stuart will be made Lt. General, but I hope not.” In another letter two weeks later, Pender wrote, “it is rumored that Stuart has tendered his resignation because they will not give him this corps, but I cannot think him so foolish.”

Stuart’s elevation to the corps level had the potential to upset Pender’s own rise within the army. Pender’s direct superior, A.P. Hill, was Jackson’s senior division commander and stood to receive the Second Corps. If Stuart were given Jackson’s corps, Hill would remain at the division level. On the other hand, Hill’s elevation would create a vacancy for his division. Pender,  stood second on the seniority list among Hill’s brigadiers behind Henry Heth. It should be noted that Pender shared his appointment with fellow brigade head James Archer. Heth, however, presented problems of his own.

“If A.P. Hill is promoted, a major general will be wanted for his division,” Lee wrote  in the aforementioned letter to Davis. “Heth is the senior brigadier in the division. I think him a good officer. He has lately joined this army, was in the last battle, and did well. His nomination having been once declined by the Senate, I do not know whether it would be proper to promote him.” In the subsequent reorganization, both Heth and Pender were promoted to Major General and received a divisional command.

But at end of the day, the discussion may be a moot point. In August, 1863, Lee recommended that Stuart’s cavalry be restructured as a corps. Davis approved the measure and Stuart finally received his corps command in September. It should be noted that Stuart was not promoted to Lieutenant General upon the reorganization, which might be worth looking into at some point as well.

All things considered, there appears to be little evidence that Stuart was a major contender for an infantry corps after Chancellorsville. Still, the search goes on and the process continues.

ECW Weekender: Battles of Mesilla

Sometimes juxtapositions grab our attention and draw us to see connections. On a recent trip to New Mexico to visit family, my thoughts turned to the Confederate invasion of what was then the Arizona Territory. Living close to the Confederate White House and Virginia State Capitol, it occurred to me how the decisions, plans, and policies enacted there reached the far flung and remote areas of the fledging nation, like Mesilla, New Mexico. In one day I left the heart of the Confederate government and visited perhaps its farthest outpost in Mesilla. In one location, amid the opulent Executive Mansion, decisions were made, and on the hot, dusty frontier, reality was on the ground.

Looking south from the Confederate position to the Union lines

At the time of the war, about 800 people lived in the village of Mesilla. The town stood not far from the Rio Grande, along a major north-south trade route that had been used for centuries.

After the Mexican War (1846-48), the territory remained part of Mexico, but was purchased by the U.S. in the 1854 Gadsden Purchase. This acquisition was made to allow for construction of a southern transcontinental railroad.

On November 16, 1854 the United States flag rose above the plaza in the center of town, solidifying the Gadsden Purchase. Located in the center of the village, the plaza was flanked by several important community buildings, including a church and an adobe courthouse.

Today, the town is an inviting place, with local shops, galleries, restaurants, and bars.  An imposing church stands at the north end of the plaza, and the old courthouse remains on the east side.

Fort Fillmore was established nearby in 1851 by Colonel Edwin V. Sumner, primarily for to protect settlers and traders traveling to California.  In the prewar years Captain George Pickett and Ambrose Burnside served here.

A Sons of Confederate Veterans’ marker stands in the plaza, explaining the battle

During the Civil War, Mesilla saw the beginning and end of Confederate rule in the Southwest. At the time, the northern part of modern New Mexico and Arizona was known as the New Mexico Territory, while south of the 34th parallel was known as the Arizona Territory. Thus, instead of two states side by side, at the time the territories were one above the other.

On July 24, 1861, as the first step in conquering what was then known as Arizona Territory, Lt. Col. John R. Baylor led 300 men from Fort Bliss up the east bank of the Rio Grande to Fort Fillmore. His force included two companies of the 2nd Regiment of the Texas Mounted Rifles, a Texas light-artillery company, an El Paso County scout company, and some civilians.

One of his men deserted to Fort Fillmore’s defenders and forced Baylor to cancel his planned attack. Instead, he forded the Rio Grande and entered Mesilla, which was strongly pro-Confederate.

On July 25, with 380 infantry and mounted riflemen, plus howitzers, Maj. Isaac Lynde approached Mesilla from the south. Baylor rejected his demand for surrender, and Lynde ordered his artillery to open fire. After an unsuccessful charge, Lynde retreated to the fort. The Confederates about nine, while Lynde lost around twenty. The site of the battle is now part of the modern town.

Lynde abandoned Fort Fillmore that night and headed northeast toward San Augustin Pass in the Organ Mountains. On July 27, at sunrise, Baylor discovered Lynde’s withdrawal and pursued, overtaking and capturing them at San Augustin Springs. Baylor proclaimed Arizona Territory, Confederate States of America, in Mesilla on August 1 and named himself governor.

The old courthouse still stands next to the square. During the War, it was the Capitol of Confederate Arizona.

The following spring General Henry Sibley led a Confederate force further north to invade and conquer New Mexico Territory. Following defeats to the north at Glorietta Pass in March, 1862, the Confederates were driven south, back the way they had come from Texas.

On July 1, 1862 local pro-Union guerrilla forces, defeated the Confederates in a small skirmish near town.  Three days later the including the California Column approached, and the southerners retreated back to Texas via El Paso, never to return.

Today, there is a historic marker in the town plaza noting the first battle which raged through the modern streets in 1861.  Nearby plaques discuss the American acquisition of the territory in 1854. The Old Courthouse, with its original 18- inch thick mud brick walls, still stands, now a souvenir store. The building was a jail and courthouse until 1882, and it was there that Billy the Kid was tried and sentenced in 1881.

Fort Fillmore is gone, now covered by one of the massive pecan plantations that flourish in the valley. (Yes, Pecans have become a major staple of the economy, grown primarily for export to China). A historic marker along Route 70 to the west notes the site of San Augustin Springs, where the Union garrison was captured.

Within a twenty four hour period, thanks to the miracle of flight, I went from the heart of the Confederacy’s government to its fringe, and discovered one of the first battles of the war in an unlikely place.