New Bedford

Location: Clasky Common Park, 1118 Pleasant Street
Coordinates: 41°38’40.3″N 70°55’46.0″W
Date dedicated: July 4, 1866
Architect/sculptor/manufacturer: Unknown

Centerstage Dance Recital
New Bedford monument (Bristol County)

The primary inscription on the monument is noteworthy for the terminology used to describe the war: “Erected by the Citizens of New Bedford in Tribute of Gratitude to her Sons who fell defending their Country in the Struggle with Slavery and Treason.” While most monuments refer to the “War of the Rebellion” of the “War of 1861,” the phrase “Struggle with Slavery and Treason” leaves little doubt as to what the citizens of New Bedford felt the war was about.

Among the many New Bedford men who served, perphaps the best known group, and a point of pride for the city, are the 60 African-Americans from New Bedford who served in the 54th Massachusetts Infantry—the first African-American unit formed in the North during the Civil War.

The famed abolitionist and New Bedford resident Frederick Douglass was one of the leading forces behind the creation of the 54th Massachusetts. After his escape from slavery he made his home in New Bedford with his wife Anna from 1838-1843. Two of their children were born there. His vigorous recruiting efforts generated excitement across several states and were received with particular enthusiasm by African-Americans in his former hometown. Residents opened a recruiting station for the 54th Massachusetts in Customs House Square, the site of which is today marked by a commemorative walkway and plaque. A huge mural dedicated to the 54th Massachusetts adorns the side of a building nearby.

Douglass, Frederick
Frederick Douglass

In an recruiting article, Douglass wrote, “Liberty won by white men would lose half its luster. ‘Who would be free themselves must strike the blow.’…They tell you this is the ‘white man’s war’…into the army is to ‘sacrifice you on the first opportunity.’ Believe them not; cowards themselves, they do not wish to have their cowardice shamed by your brave example…I urge you to fly to arms and smite to death the power that would bury the Government and your liberty in the same hopeless grave. This is your golden opportunity.”

William H. Carney was one of the New Bedford men who answered this call. Born into slavery in Norfolk, Virginia, he, like Douglass, escaped and settled in the famed Massachusetts whaling port. When the war began, Carney was studying privately in hopes of becoming a minister. Instead, in March 1863 he signed up with the 54th Massachusetts.

Carney, William H
William H. Carney of New Bedford, pictured with the colors he carried, 1863

During the Battle of Fort Wagner on July 18, 1863, the 54th Massachusetts led a famed and desperate charge along a narrow spit of sand directly into the muzzles of Confederate cannon. When Color Sergeant John Wall was shot, William Carney dropped his rifle and took up the colors before they fell. Carney was shot twice but still managed to carry the colors to the parapet of the fort where the regiment’s charge stopped. Pinned down for a time against the embankment of the fort, the remains of the regiment eventually managed to fall back under cover of darkness. Staggering back, Carney was again shot but refused to give up the colors.[1]

In 1900, at age 60, Carney received the Medal of Honor for his bravery during the Battle of Fort Wagner. As his actions preceded those of other African-Americans who received the same honor after the war, Carney is considered the first African-American to receive the Medal of Honor.

During the monument dedication ceremony, Rev. Alonzo Quint of New Bedford asked, “Is it all a dream—these four years? That clash of arms…that tremulous shrinking at the click of the Southern telegraph? That feverish life in which men and women grow a year older in each on of many days?…No. This stone shall declare it was a reality. Many a man and woman will see upon its faces scenes which the artist has not cut there.”[2]

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Back of the New Bedford monument

[1] 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment Company B, “Sergeant Carney’s Flag”
[2] New Bedford Mercury, July 13, 1866

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