Boys, The Old Flag Never Touched the Ground

 

When I’ve thought about the kind of person who could legitimately be described as a hero, my mind creates the image of a larger-than-life man, someone who stands above others as an inspiration and role model. And yet my imagination doesn’t do justice to the ordinary people who are suddenly called to take action at the risk of their very lives and don’t hesitate to step up to the moment.

William Harvey Carney was one of those men:

William Harvey Carney was born as a slave in Norfolk, Virginia, on February 29, 1840. How he made his way to freedom is not certain. According to most accounts, he escaped through the Underground Railroad, and joined his father in Massachusetts.

As a young man, Carney demonstrated valuing his freedom. In March 1863, he joined the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, and due to his admirable actions, was promoted to sergeant. He is known for his heroism on the battlefield, and later earned the Medal of Honor:

When the color guard was killed, Carney retrieved the U.S. flag and marched forward with it, despite 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.

Following his discharge, he returned to New Bedford, MA where he first maintained the town’s streetlights and then delivered mail for 32 years. He founded the National Association of Letter Carriers in 1890 as their vice-president.

*     *     *

My reasons for celebrating Mr. Carney’s story are many, although they may not be obvious. First, when he decided to escape slavery (and if caught, the punishment would likely have been severe, if not life-threatening), he was aided by the Underground Railroad.  Today, when people decry slavery, they ignore the many abolitionists who risked their own lives to establish routes and safe houses to assist those escaped slaves. Second, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry actively recruited black men after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation; the Regiment was widely acclaimed for its valor at Fort Wagner, and were the soldiers lauded in the movie, Glory. Third, Carney risked his life to rescue the flag, which clearly was an important and treasured symbol to him (in spite of his life as a slave), as well as to the soldiers who served with him. He refused to relinquish the flag to anyone other than to another member of his regiment. Fourth, he was not only recognized with the Medal of Honor, but had a statue erected to honor him in Wilmington, DE, and had an elementary school in New Bedford named in his honor. Even a song was written for him—“Boys, the Old Flag Never Touched the Ground.”

*     *     *

No one can argue that slavery was anything other than a blemish on United States history. At the same time, we have honored black Americans and expressed our gratitude for their service to our country and for the contributions that they have made.

To those who would accuse our country of systemic racism when we have come so far; to those who choose to ignore the great black men and women who willingly served their country, have shown their love of this country who have been recognized and appreciated for it–no one, no radical Leftist or Marxist, can take those merits away from any of our citizens who have repeatedly shown their devotion to the United States.

Carney was a mail carrier, not an elite Leftist black college professor, who earned the honors given to him for his patriotism and service; he was your “everyman,” a man who married, raised a family, held a regular job, and demonstrated his commitment to this country. He felt the country was worth honoring, regardless of the difficulties he had lived through.

Thank you, William Harvey Carney, and to the other brave black Americans, for your service.

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  1. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Well, God bless him.

    • #1
  2. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Again, just from the title, I knew who the post was going to reference. It might not seem like carrying a flag forward would be so important, but during the Civil War, the flag moving up was key to giving other soldiers in the unit a visual reference for maintaining the advance.

    • #2
  3. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Percival (View Comment):

    Again, just from the title, I knew who the post was going to reference. It might not seem like carrying a flag forward would be so important, but during the Civil War, the flag moving up was key to giving other soldiers in the unit a visual reference for maintaining the advance.

    Exactly! In such a dire situation, that symbolism had to be enormously important, and Carney knew it. Nowadays, people would poo-pooh the effort; those folks are too busy celebrating the burning of the flag, not waving it honorably. Thanks, @percival.

    • #3
  4. 9thDistrictNeighbor Member
    9thDistrictNeighbor
    @9thDistrictNeighbor

    I also appreciate that despite being born a slave, William Carney (and so many others) went on to live productive and even inspiring lives.  Their children, also, went on to do the same.  Many have lost the ‘rise above your circumstances’ view of life.

    • #4
  5. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    9thDistrictNeighbor (View Comment):

    I also appreciate that despite being born a slave, William Carney (and so many others) went on to live productive and even inspiring lives. Their children, also, went on to do the same. Many have lost the ‘rise above your circumstances’ view of life.

    Indeed, @9thdistrictneighbor. At the time that LBJ passed his Great Society disaster, black citizens had made great inroads into the middle class. They had two-parent households, not unwed mothers on welfare. But those are inconvenient truths.

    • #5
  6. JennaStocker Member
    JennaStocker
    @JennaStocker

    Thank you for sharing this incredible story – one that I’m sure is representative of many we don’t hear. It’s incredible that a nation so young – despite its faults -was and is able to harbor such virtuous, courageous, and determined men. We are a better nation because of them.

    • #6
  7. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    JennaStocker (View Comment):

    Thank you for sharing this incredible story – one that I’m sure is representative of many we don’t hear. It’s incredible that a nation so young – despite its faults -was and is able to harbor such virtuous, courageous, and determined men. We are a better nation because of them.

    Thanks, @jennastocker. I agree. We have never claimed to be a perfect country, and I don’t even think, as human beings, we should aspire to be perfect. But to be our best, to honor those who do their best when called to act–those are the times we can stand up and be proud of them, and of this country.

    • #7
  8. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):
    But those are inconvenient truths.

    Inconvenient truths.  Those are truths that fact checkers deem misleading or “lacking context.”

    • #8
  9. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):
    But those are inconvenient truths.

    Inconvenient truths. Those are truths that fact checkers deem misleading or “lacking context.”

    . . . and we’ve learned lately how reliable the “fact-checkers” are anyway. Facts have nothing to do with their work, clearly. Thanks for reminding us, Reticulator.

    • #9
  10. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    Susan Quinn: Today, when people decry slavery, they ignore the many abolitionists who risked their own lives to establish routes and safe houses to assist those escaped slaves.

    They not only ignore, but belittle the very party that was formed to fight slavery . . .

    • #10
  11. Jim McConnell Member
    Jim McConnell
    @JimMcConnell

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):
    Indeed, @9thdistrictneighbor. At the time that LBJ passed his Great Society disaster, black citizens had made great inroads into the middle class. They had two-parent households, not unwed mothers on welfare. But those are inconvenient truths.

    Indeed. I believe the “Great Society” programs did more harm to black citizens than any legislation since the Jim Crow laws.

    • #11
  12. Caryn Thatcher
    Caryn
    @Caryn

    Funny, Wikipedia and the National Parks Service biographies say that Carney’s path to freedom was unknown, but the contemporaneous account in the collected letters of Col. Robert Gould Shaw, printed in “Blue Eyed Child of Fortune,” says that he was freed by his owner’s will in 1854.  No matter.  Carney was a hero, through and through, and it’s a sin against (by the “leadership” of?) black people that he’s so little remembered.  The 54th Massachusetts Regiment monument in Boston is gorgeous (Augustus Saint Gaudens) and it is claimed that Carney is among the men depicted. 

    The last letter on this page writes of Shaw’s death, but in it is included evidence of the respect the regiment commanded.  (NB, these letters make me very sad that the current generation is, as I understand it, not learning cursive.  I suspect that means they also can’t read such things.  Very sad, indeed.)

     

    • #12
  13. Max Knots Member
    Max Knots
    @MaxKnots

    Nice post Susan! A great example of History that deserves to be remembered and honored. We would do far better for ourselves and our children to remember and be grateful for people like this gentleman, than to dwell like adolescents on the out-of-context blemishes of our country. Despite their hardships, they showed great courage while they lived and fought to change it for the better. This country did not exist in a vacuum. Imperfect? Yes. As are we all. But worthy of admiration for the things we got right. Worthy of gratitude to those who lived and died to bring us to our current state. It is imperfect but we can try to improve it a little without abandoning the memories of all those who went before. Will we be judged any more perfect by our descendants? 

    • #13
  14. Skyler Coolidge
    Skyler
    @Skyler

    Good story.

    Was slavery a blemish?  It’s an important question. We can all agree that anyone who thinks he can own someone else is reprehensible and those who actually own, or claim to own others is a criminal.

    But was slavery a blemish?  In that slavery is immoral, yes.  In that it is destructive to the economy, yes.  In that slavery coarsens morality, yes.

    But on the other hand, all nations had slavery until the 19th century.  The United States was no different than any other.  The British were ahead of us, and were it not for cotton, I think we would have been at their level.  But we caught up and were among the few nations that ended slavery.

    I understand the sentiment when someone says slavery was a blemish on American history.  It was. But I wish we would stop accepting the premises and logic of those who would undo our civilization.

    As a less subtle example, when someone says a little bit of socialism, in the form of public schools or social security, is good but too much is bad, then we have lost.  We no longer hold the high ground for laissez faire economics. If a little socialism is good, then more is better.  How much more?  None, but we’ve already accepted there is a benefit.

    Was slavery a blemish?   Don’t even address it.  Answering that question can never win.  We should only mention how our nation ended slavery before almost every nation on Earth. That suffices.  We can talk about the positive roles and ignore their attempts to stain all of us for something before we were born.

    Was slavery a blemish on American history?  Look, a squirrel!!   That’s the effect. The correct answer is to laud the abolitionists.  Was slavery a blemish?  Frederick Douglass gave lectures in Nantucket’s Atheneum, which now a library where I read books as a child.  That’s what we talk about. That’s how we defang the race hustlers.

    This story is a good one.  It portrays a man who was strong willed and unbent by the powers of the world.  Thank you for sharing it.  But let us not slip into the apologia expected of us.

    • #14
  15. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Skyler (View Comment):

    Good story.

    Was slavery a blemish? It’s an important question. We can all agree that anyone who thinks he can own someone else is reprehensible and those who actually own, or claim to own others is a criminal.

    But was slavery a blemish? In that slavery is immoral, yes. In that it is destructive to the economy, yes. In that slavery coarsens morality, yes.

    But on the other hand, all nations had slavery until the 19th century. The United States was no different than any other. The British were ahead of us, and were it not for cotton, I think we would have been at their level. But we caught up and were among the few nations that ended slavery.

    I understand the sentiment when someone says slavery was a blemish on American history. It was. But I wish we would stop accepting the premises and logic of those who would undo our civilization.

    As a less subtle example, when someone says a little bit of socialism, in the form of public schools or social security, is good but too much is bad, then we have lost. We no longer hold the high ground for laissez faire economics. If a little socialism is good, then more is better. How much more? None, but we’ve already accepted there is a benefit.

    Was slavery a blemish? Don’t even address it. Answering that question can never win. We should only mention how our nation ended slavery before almost every nation on Earth. That suffices. We can talk about the positive roles and ignore their attempts to stain all of us for something before we were born.

    Was slavery a blemish on American history? Look, a squirrel!! That’s the effect. The correct answer is to laud the abolitionists. Was slavery a blemish? Frederick Douglass gave lectures in Nantucket’s Atheneum, which now a library where I read books as a child. That’s what we talk about. That’s how we defang the race hustlers.

    This story is a good one. It portrays a man who was strong willed and unbent by the powers of the world. Thank you for sharing it. But let us not slip into the apologia expected of us.

    Well said, @skyler. I especially like what I put in bold. Thanks.

    • #15
  16. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Max Knots (View Comment):
    Nice post Susan! A great example of History that deserves to be remembered and honored. We would do far better for ourselves and our children to remember and be grateful for people like this gentleman, than to dwell like adolescents on the out-of-context blemishes of our country.

    I so agree, @maxknots. Thank you for your kind remarks.

    • #16
  17. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    It isn’t the only book I’ve read on the topic of African-American soldiers in the Civil War, but a good one that I read last year is: Embattled Freedom: Journeys through the Civil War’s Slave Refugee Camps (Civil War America) by Amy Murrell Taylor (2018). Those who had just been slaves often had families, and there wasn’t much choice but for the families to live in the war zone.  The families were not especially welcome elsewhere. Refugee camps were set up for them to provide some semblance of normalcy, but sometimes military necessity required them to be abandoned on short notice. And if the camps were overrun by Confederate forces, the escaped slaves could not expect good treatment.  It was hard for the men to join the fighting and leave their families in such exposed conditions, but many did.

    The book follows attempts of some of the families as they tried to make a living, and follows some of the family and camp histories into the decades following the war.

    The African-American units had white officers, some of whom resented such assignments, while others did all right.  I don’t have the details in my head, but my bicycle trips to places and people connected with the Black Hawk war led me to learning about one of the latter types of officers who lived in the region near Port Huron, Michigan. It was several years ago when I was working on that topic and did some reading on it, but I don’t seem to have any of those references handy. 

    • #17
  18. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    It isn’t the only book I’ve read on the topic of African-American soldiers in the Civil War, but a good one that I read last year is: Embattled Freedom: Journeys through the Civil War’s Slave Refugee Camps (Civil War America) by Amy Murrell Taylor (2018). Those who had just been slaves often had families, and there wasn’t much choice but for the families to live in the war zone. The families were not especially welcome elsewhere. Refugee camps were set up for them to provide some semblance of normalcy, but sometimes military necessity required them to be abandoned on short notice. And if the camps were overrun by Confederate forces, the escaped slaves could not expect good treatment. It was hard for the men to join the fighting and leave their families in such exposed conditions, but many did.

    The book follows attempts of some of the families as they tried to make a living, and follows some of the family and camp histories into the decades following the war.

    The African-American units had white officers, some of whom resented such assignments, while others did all right. I don’t have the details in my head, but my bicycle trips to places and people connected with the Black Hawk war led me to learning about one of the latter types of officers who lived in the region near Port Huron, Michigan. It was several years ago when I was working on that topic and did some reading on it, but I don’t seem to have any of those references handy.

    What a rich addition to this post, @thereticulator! Thanks so much! 

    • #18
  19. EHerring Coolidge
    EHerring
    @EHerring

    The rioting goofballs damaged a statue to that regiment. They were too stupid to know better.

    • #19
  20. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    EHerring (View Comment):
    The rioting goofballs damaged a statue to that regiment. They were too stupid to know better.

    I think a few statues met that fate. 

    • #20
  21. Caryn Thatcher
    Caryn
    @Caryn

    EHerring (View Comment):

    The rioting goofballs damaged a statue to that regiment. They were too stupid to know better.

    Indeed.  And rather a gorgeous statue at that.  I spent a year and a half in Boston in Grad School and frequently visited Boston Common and that monument was one of the crowning glories.  I was appalled to hear that it had been vandalized.

    • #21