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Native Son

June 2024
2min read

Honoring blacks who fought for the Union

Although roughly 200,000 black Americans fought for the Union in the Civl War, monuments in their honor are few and far between—especially in the South, where most of these soldiers and sailors hailed from and where more than 30,000 of them died.

But this year, the citizens of Norfolk, Virginia, paid official tribute to the U.S. Colored Troops who fought against the Old Dominion in the Civil War. Tucked away in a black burial ground on the western boundary of the city’s historic Elmwood Cemetery stands a six-foot-tall granite figure—of a one-time slave and Union soldier named William Carney. Raised early in the last century, the statue honors more than 100 black Civil War and Spanish-American War veterans buried nearby. Now, Norfolk has designated the monument with a historic marker and placed it on the state’s official Civil War Trail.

William Carney was born in Norfolk in 1840, but in 1856 his parents bought the family out of bondage and relocated to New Bedford, Massachusetts. When the Civil War broke out shortly thereafter, black patriots like Frederick Douglass pressed the federal government to enroll African-Americans in the Union cause, and in 1863 Abraham Lincoln obliged. One of the earliest all-black regiments to form was the famous 54th Massachusetts , immortalized by the 1989 film Glory . Though Carney wasn’t directly portrayed in Hollywood’s salute to the 54th, he was among the first to join. As he wrote to his commanding officer, “Previous to the formation of the colored troops, I had a strong inclination to prepare myself for the ministry; but when the country called for all persons, I could best serve my God by serving my country and my oppressed brothers.”

In July 1863, only half a year after they enlisted, Carney and his comrades led an assault on Fort Wagner, South Carolina, where they sustained enormous losses but helped convince the Northern public that black troops could equal their white counterparts in valor and skill. That day, when the flag bearer fell, Carney—already wounded in several places—dropped his gun and seized the standard. When the war ended, Carney returned to his adoptive state of Massachusetts, where he worked as a postal service employee. In 1900 he became the first of only 16 black soldiers to earn the Medal of Honor. He died in 1908.

Shortly after the war, black residents of Norfolk, Virginia, began their efforts to raise a statue to black veterans of the Union Army. The project was spearheaded by James E. Fuller, a former slave who had been quartermaster in the 1st U.S. Colored Cavalry. In 1866 Fuller persuaded the city to designate a 10-acre section of Elmwood Cemetery as a burial ground for the city’s black residents. He subsequently founded the Norfolk Memorial Foundation, which collected money for the monument over the course of 40 years.

Fuller didn’t live to see his project to completion. He died in 1909, three years after the monument’s base was dedicated. But finally in 1920, six decades after the Civil War began, Norfolk’s black community consecrated the burial ground with the likeness of William Carney. Because the statue was never mentioned in Norfolk’s official travel literature, most people didn’t know of its existence. That has changed now that it’s part of the state’s Civil War Trail. “We’re proud of it,” says Lynne Lochen, a tourism official, “and we hope it’s not a secret any more.”

—JOSHUA ZEITZ

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