The Old Flag Never Touched the Ground
The Story of America’s First Black Medal of Honor Recipient
One night on Southern battlefields,
down where Fort Wagner lay,
A regiment of black men fought,
The Blue against the Gray.
-from “The Old Flag Never Touched the Ground” 1901.
July the 18th, 2020 passed not long ago, a date that may hold little significance for many people. It doesn’t coincide with any national holidays or major religious observances, but on that day 157 years during the American Civil War a regiment of black men fought and many would lose their lives in what would become known as the Second Battle of Fort Wagner.
Fort Wagner, also known as Battery Wagner, was a heavily defended fort on the northern side of Morris Island equipped with a battery of artillery cannons overlooking Charleston Harbor in South Carolina. The cannons on the seaward side enabled it to fire at any Union ships attempting to approach the harbor. If the Union wanted to secure Charleston, it would have to be taken.
The fort spanned almost the entire width of Morris Island and was only able to be approached along a narrow strip of sandy beach that was no wider than about 60 yards — barely able to hold one regiment of men. Surrounding this narrow strip of beach, along the eastern side, was the Atlantic Ocean, and to the west was some marshy, grassland near a creek. The Confederate soldiers had also dug a moat around the fort and filled it with sharpened stakes — some above and some below the water — to injure and slow the approach of any advancing soldiers. On their palisades and ramparts of earth and sand, they could fire down on Union soldiers, enveloping them in crossfire from their elevated positions.
In short, it was a meat grinder.
Union soldiers had attempted to storm the fort and dislodge the Confederates from their position one week prior during the First Battle of Fort Wagner, with disastrous results. Led by Brigadier General George Crockett Strong, the 7th Connecticut Infantry advanced through a heavy fog, initially overrunning a line of rifle pits before being beaten back with heavy losses. Their attempt to take the fort had resulted in the loss of only 12 Confederate soldiers — compared to the lives of 339 Union soldiers.
Reinforcements were sent to continue the attack on Charleston Harbor and the assault on Fort Wagner. These would include what was then the second African-American regiment of Union soldiers, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry (the first regiment of African-American soldiers was the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry Regiment), commanded by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the son of a wealthy family from Boston who believed that slavery should be abolished.
Just two days before the Second Battle of Fort Wagner, Colonel Shaw and the 54th Mass. had fought their first engagement against rebel troops in the Battle of Grimball’s Landing in South Carolina. In a quick letter penned to his wife dated July 18, 1863, First Sergeant Robert John Simmons, an experienced veteran of the British military hailing from Bermuda who would join and serve in the 54th Mass. would write about this engagement:
Our company was in the reserve when the outposts were attacked by rebel infantry and cavalry. I was sent out by our Captain in command of a squad of men to support the left flank. The bullets fairly rained around us; when I got there the poor fellows were falling down around me, with pitiful groans. Our pickets only numbered about 250 men, attacked by about 900. One poor Sergeant of ours was shot down alongside of me; several others were wounded near me.
God has protected me through this, my first fiery, leaden trial, and I do give Him the glory, and render my praises unto His holy name. My poor friend [Sergeant Peter] Vogelsang is shot through the lungs; his case is critical, but the doctor says he may probably live. His company suffered very much. Poor good and brave Sergeant (Joseph D.) Wilson of his company [H], after killing four rebels with his bayonet, was shot through the head by the fifth one. Poor fellow! May his noble spirit rest in peace. The General has complimented the Colonel on the gallantry and bravery of his regiment.
Indeed, in a courier dispatched to the Colonel from Brigadier General Alfred Terry, the general remarks that the men of the 54th Mass. demonstrated “steadiness and soldierly conduct.”
The men of the 54th Mass. were not cowards nor green troops incapable of combat effectiveness. When the idea of an African-American regiment was first conceptualized, many people erroneously believed that freed slaves would not have the courage to fight, that at the first opportunity they would retreat, or worse, would abandon their posts and leave their regiments rather than risk injury or death. Others believed that African-American soldiers would be incapable of following orders correctly and adhering to military customs and regulations.
When the Emancipation Proclamation was signed by President Lincoln in September 1862 one of the things it did was authorize African-Americans to enlist and serve in the United States military. Prior to this act, only a “free able-bodied white male citizen” was allowed to enlist and fight in a militia or military unit, per the Militia Act of 1792.
With this new change the Secretary of War Edwin Stanton instructed the governor of Massachusetts to begin efforts at recruiting a regiment of African-American volunteers to join in the war effort at defeating the Confederacy. He would appoint Robert Gould Shaw commander of the regiment, a responsibility that carried with it the promotion of colonel.
Before leaving Boston Colonel Shaw would write to his father about his new regiment and the men under his command.
Everything goes on prosperously. The intelligence of the men is a great surprise to me. They learn all the details of guard duty and camp service infinitely more readily than most of the Irish that I have had under my command. There is not the least doubt that we will leave the State with as good a regiment as any that has marched.”
For those familiar with the 1989 movie “Glory” starring Denzel Washington and Matthew Broderick who played Colonel Shaw, in one especially powerful scene before the assault on Fort Wagner — a scene which takes place at the end of the film — the men are assembled before the Colonel so he can review his troops.
The Colonel casts his eyes over his men with pride. Each man ready, willing, and at attention to go forth and meet the enemy, with courage and valor. He then looks at the man carrying the flag of the United States of America, a position known as the Color Sergeant or guidon bearer, and asks a simple but powerful question:
“If this man should fall, who will lift the flag and carry on?”
The position of guidon bearer (historically they were called a “Color Sergeant” because an enlisted man, typically a sergeant, carries the “colors” or flag) is one that only a few people who have served in the military can appreciate, even then few understand its historical use. Before satellite and telecommunications in the past on the battlefield commanders and troops used flags to keep units organized.
It is very easy for a large group of people to devolve into a disorganized collection of individuals, rather than a cohesive fighting unit. This is why military units would drill and practice maneuvers, learning to march together as a unit, turn together, and fight together. This is also why units employed a bugler, whose loud shrill noise would carry out the orders to “charge” or “retreat” over the sounds of battle and screams of the dying.
The importance of flags to military tradition and history can not be overstated. During the assault on Ft. Wagner the flag of the Confederacy was flown over the fort and would remain so until the Union forces took it. This is why to this day military units — and legions of on-line players in first person shooter video games — play “capture the flag.” To take down the other unit’s flag and fly your own means you’ve won, period.
The guidon bearer or Color Sergeant carries the flag of the unit and is directly at the side of the commanding officer. In the chaos of battle, among the screams and gunshots, amidst the smoke and explosions and groans of the dying, when men are alone fighting for their very lives, if they can lift their eyes up and see that flag they will know where the commander and other friendly troops are.
It is a great honor to be the Color Sergeant, but also a terrible responsibility. One is literally marching into battle carrying a flag for all to see. If that flag should fall the unit will no longer be able to rally to it and individual soldiers may become cut off and lost in the chaos. Needless to say, any man who carries the flag needed to have courage and resolve that were unquestionable. Should his courage falter and he turn and run, the men would break ranks and follow the flag.
On July the 18th, 1863 at about 7:45 p.m. after a heavy bombardment from Union ships on the sea in an attempt to weaken the forces within, the land assault on Fort Wagner began.
“Forward, Fifty-Fourth, forward!” Colonel Shaw was heard to have shouted early among the din of cannon fire, urging his men onward to advance. After crossing the moat and picking their way through the nest of sharpened stakes the defenders had created, the men of the 54th Mass. charged the westward side of the fort while the forces that remained from General Strong’s unsuccessful attack two days prior, along with a brigade of men commanded by Colonel Putnam attacked the southern face.
When the 54th Massachusetts was within about 150 yards from the fort the defenders inside opened fire, tearing into their ranks with a combination of cannon and small arms. Two units were able to fire onto the 54th from their positions, one directly and the other raking fire across them, hitting the men from their front and left sides.
Throwing themselves against the sand and dirt for cover, the men, including Colonel Shaw, inched their way up a steep hill behind which rebel soldiers were shooting. The Union bombardment from the sea had largely been ineffective, leaving many Confederate soldiers unscathed who now manned their firing positions. There, from above, the rebels need only train their rifles downward into the thick of the assaulting force. If they brought cannon to bear it would mean certain doom for the 54th Mass.
Perhaps sensing this Colonel Shaw fought his way forward, amidst a hail of bullets, until reaching the top of the wall as he urged his men forward. Near the top of the wall the Colonel would be shot and killed, as well as the Color Sergeant by his side. Another man nearby would pick up the flag and carry it, later stating by testimony that Colonel Shaw had been shot through the chest three times before falling dead.
Inching their way up a steep hill behind which rebel soldiers were shooting The men of the 54th managed to reach the parapet, the top most wall behind which the Confederates defenders were able to fire from and where Colonel Shaw had fallen, but after fierce fighting which included hand to hand combat they were beaten back.
The naval bombardment from the sea had done little damage to the heavily dug in rebels. The simultaneous assaults along the southern side of the fort had not been able to make much progress. Some men were able to reach the slopes of the fort, while others found themselves stuck in a no man’s land and were mired down in the sand as three howitzer cannons fired upon them from the fort.
General George Crockett Strong, who had previously led the assault on the 16th of July, would be mortally wounded during the Second Assault on Fort Wagner. While rallying his men he would be hit through the thigh with grape shot, a collection of small bullets and ball bearings shot from a cannon that spreads a scatter shot of lead across a wide area. He would later be evacuated for medical treatment to New York City where he would die of tetanus. He is buried in Brooklyn.
The Confederates attempted to counter-attack twice, only to have this beaten back after the officers leading their charge were shot down. Union reinforcements were slow to arrive during the assault and fresh Confederate troops, brought in as reinforcements from nearby, meant the inevitable failure of the assault. They swept over the fort, killing and capturing what few Union troops remained.
In only a few hours the assault was over, with heavy losses on the side of the Union. Union casualties are recorded at a total of 1,515 losses, compared to only 174 Confederate.
In addition to the deaths of Colonel Robert Shaw and other Union officers present, Colonel Putnam would be shot through the head and killed while giving the order to retreat. Lewis Douglas, son of the famous orator and former slave Frederick Douglas, would be wounded but survive.
First Sergeant Robert John Simmons, who had written to his wife about the unit’s first engagement at the Battle of Grimball’s Landing, would die a month later in South Carolina of wounds he sustained during the assault on Fort Wagner.
The man who had picked up the United States flag after the Color Sergeant was shot and killed had been a former slave by the name of William Harvey Carney. After picking up the flag and marching forward, Harvey would be twice injured.
When Union troops would be forced to retreat after suffering high casualties due to the heavy fire, he struggled with the flag across the battlefield, wounded, until he was able to hand the flag off to another member of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry for safe keeping. He would survive his injuries, thankfully.
“Boys, I only did my duty; the old flag never touched the ground!” is what he famously said to his fellow soldiers.
In military culture, a flag on the ground is an anathema. It is almost sacrilegious for a flag to touch dirt. Flags are meant to be flown, rallied to, or placed on coffins. On the battlefield if one’s flag is captured, or falls to the ground, it means you’ve lost.
William Harvey Carney, being a fighting military man and proud Union soldier would not have let that happen.
He would later go on to earn the Medal of Honor for his actions. While not technically the first African-American soldier to receive the Medal of Honor, his actions at this battle predate the battlefield actions of other soldiers. In essence, William Harvey Carney is then the first African-American and former slave to receive the Medal of Honor.
The men of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry who died, along with other regiments, and Colonel Robert Shaw would be buried in a mass grave in front of Fort Wagner. Colonel Shaw’s remains would be picked over, stripped, robbed, and his officer’s sword would be stolen. It would resurface generations later, a dusty relic in a distant relative’s attic.
The Confederate commander of the fort, General Johnson Hagood, would later return the bodies of white officers to the Union lines, but left Colonel’s Shaw’s body in a mass grave along with the black soldiers he had led in battle. Hagood intended it to be a departing insult to a white man who had thought fit to command a regiment of black men — something he found repellent and offensive. Hagood would later tell a captured Union surgeon that had Shaw commanded white soldiers he would have returned his body rather than burying it in a common mass grave.
Colonel Shaw’s father would later remark:
We would not have his body removed from where it lies surrounded by his brave and devoted soldiers. … We can imagine no holier place than that in which he lies, among his brave and devoted followers, nor wish for him better company. — what a body-guard he has!
Fort Wagner would eventually fall after 60 days of artillery bombardment, lack of provisions, and ever closening Union troops and supply lines. It was abandoned by the Confederacy and fell on September 7th, 1863. The war would drag on until April 9th, 1865.
The exploits and courage of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry became well known after the Battle of Fort Wagner, leading to an increase in recruitment among African-Americans and former slaves eager to fight and do their part. Everyone had seen that African-Americans soldiers were just as capable, brave, and valorous as anybody else.
The deeds of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment and William Harvey Carney would later be extolled in a famous song published in 1901, the year he received the Medal of Honor, and was titled appropriately, “Boys the Old Flag Never Touched the Ground.”
A monument to Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the men of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment would later be unveiled in 1897 that sits at the edge of Boston Common. Known simply as the “Robert Gould Shaw Memorial” it depicts Colonel Shaw riding his horse among his men as they departed the city of Boston, marching down Beacon Street in 1863. It is the first civic monument that pays homage to the bravery and sacrifice of African-American soldiers.
Today this monument, and the heroism and legacy of African-American soldiers which it represents, has been covered up by the city of Boston. It has attracted the attention of some who believe that a monument to sacrifice and heroism is made better by splashes of paint and crudely scrawled graffiti messages that say, “ACAB” and “BLM” as well as other expletives and vulgarities thrown in for good measure.
A memorial to a man and the men — many freed African-American ex-slaves — that believed that slavery should be abolished and that all men should be free, had to be boarded up for its own protection and preservation. This simple idea that all men are created equal, that none is better or worse than another, hidden from view behind tape and cheap particle board.
Image 1: By John Ritchie (1836–1919), American Union Army officer, traveler and diarist — https://nmaahc.si.edu/object/nmaahc_2014.115.8, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54136106
Image 2: Fort Wagner-Gregg Attack, public domain This image is available from the United States Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division under the digital ID Vhs00152. No known copyright restrictions. http://www.fortwiki.com/File:Fort_Wagner-Gregg_Vhs00152.jpg
Image 3: By , Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=55480377
Image 4: By Whipple Studio, 1847–1873 — http://www.nga.gov/feature/shaw/s3203a.shtmFrom the Boston Athenaeum, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8099834
Image 5: Photo By: Cpl. Dengrier Baez, 2012 — This photograph is considered public domain and has been cleared for release. https://www.barracks.marines.mil/Photos/igphoto/230409/
Image 6: By James B. Gardner, 44th Mass. — Luis F. Emilio (1891). History of the Fifty-fourth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, 1863–1865. Boston: The Boston Book Company. p. 80., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11368228
Image 7: By Kurz & Allison — This image is available from the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3b52016. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1489968
Image 8: By Brennanconnor1 — Public domain, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48872280
Image 9: By James E Reed — Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54137107
Image 10: By Unknown author — https://web.archive.org/web/20071108030413/http://www.generalsandbrevets.com/sgh/hagood.htm, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48100112
Image 11: By Rhododendrites — Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=84157368
Image 12: By Postdlf, Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth Regiment, 1884–1897. Detail of African-American soldiers. Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848–1907). Plaster original, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C..CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2675742