As we celebrate the Fourth of July this year, it’s a good time for us to consider some of the heroes of our great country. One of those heroes is William Carney. He was born on February 29, 1840, in Norfolk, Virginia, His parents were slaves. His father escaped through the Underground Railroad and later returned to buy freedom for his wife and son. Though there was no program for educating slaves in the South, Carney was fortunate. At the age of fourteen, he attended a secret school where he learned to read and write. Upon being freed, young William Carney moved to Bedford, Massachusetts and began preparing for a future as a minister.
Ministry, though, was not to be for William Carney. The request for volunteers for the Union Army in 1862 and the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 changed Carney’s heart and mind. He temporarily set aside his plans to enter the ministry, stating “I felt I could best serve my God by serving my Country and my oppressed brothers.” He joined the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the first all African-American regiment commanded by 26-year-old Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the son of a wealthy Boston abolitionist.
History buffs and fans of the movie Glory will recall one of the greatest accomplishments of the 54th was taking the lead in the assault on Ft. Wagner in South Carolina in 1863.
On that day, Sergeant John Wall carried the colors, the red, white and blue of the United States of America. That flag meant a lot to the men of the 54th. Suddenly a rifle bullet dropped Sergeant Wall and the flag began to fall to the ground. Sergeant William Carney threw down his rifle and grabbed the colors before they touched the ground.
A slug hit Sergeant Carney in the leg, but he was undeterred. Soldiers fell all around him, but Carney mustered the strength to ignore the pain in his leg, hoist the colors high in the air, and continue to lead the advance. Overcoming great obstacles, he entered the fort and proudly planted his flag, but he was alone. No one else had made it. He noticed a group of soldiers advancing toward him and, mistaking them for friendly troops, hoisted his flag high. Gunfire split the air as Carney realized they were Confederate soldiers.
Carney remembered the flag that represented all he held dear and was fighting to protect that day. Rather than dropping it and fleeing for his life, he wrapped it around the staff to protect it and ran down an embankment. Stumbling through a ditch, chest-deep in water, he held his flag high. Another bullet struck him in the chest, another in the right arm, then another in his right leg, but Carney struggled on alone, determined not to let his flag fall to the enemy.
From the safety of the distance to which they had retreated, what remained of the warriors of the 54th Massachusetts watched him struggle toward safety. A retreating member of the 100th New York passed Carney and saw the severity of his wounds. He implored, “Let me carry that flag for you.” Sergeant Carney replied, “No one but a member of the 54th should carry the colors.” Despite the sounds of rifle and cannon fire that followed him, Carney struggled on. Another enemy bullet found its mark, grazing his head, but Carney wouldn’t quit.
Amid the cheers of his battered comrades, Sergeant Carney finally reached safety. Before collapsing among them from his many wounds his only words were, “Boys, I only did my duty. The flag never touched the ground.”
I can hardly read that historical account without tearing up. On May 23, 1900, Sergeant William Harvey Carney was awarded his nation’s highest award, the Medal of Honor. He is honored today as the First African American Medal of Honor Award recipient.
Sgt. Carney demonstrated loyalty, respect, and honor for a flag and a country who were not at the time perfect but were the best hope for the promise of freedom and life. The contrast between the heroic acts of Carney at Ft. Wagner and the disrespectful actions of Colin Kaepernick, Megan Rapinoe and Nike is clear.
Kaepernick and Rapinoe, when they refuse to honor the flag, disgrace the memory of the men of the 54th Massachusetts, Sgt. Carney and hundreds of other men and women who gave their lives for the hope, promise, and freedom that flag represents.
Nike, perhaps, is even more disreputable. Kaepernick and Rapinoe act out based on wrong, self-centered, uninformed motives. Nike is making a business decision to disrespect the flag under which they’ve amassed quite a fortune. Can anything be more disgusting than to spit on the flag of the country where you’ve made a fortune, especially the week of that country’s Independence Day?
Would that, on this Fourth of July, all of us would honor our great country and the flag that stands for freedom. May we heed the words of Sgt. Carney, “The flag never touched the ground.”