By Author / Illustrator
Pushkin Children's Books
Paperback / softback
On a cold beach in South Carolina, the soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment are marching into battle. Their mission: to capture the impregnable Fort Wagner. The odds are heavily against them, and the stakes could not be higher - they are one of the first all-Black regiments in the Union Army, and all of America is watching them.
Among their ranks is William Harvey Carney. A formerly enslaved man who escaped to the North, he knows what a precious thing freedom is. So when the bugle sounds, and the regimental flag is hoisted high, William charges towards the guns.
'Freedom would never simply be given. It had to be fought for. And taken.'
The life of a Black slave in 1863 was one fraught with segregation, discrimination, exploitation and freedom that could only be dreamt of. William Harvey Carney's beginning to life was no different.
William, a black boy escaping the slavery of Norfolk, journeys onto our pages in the back of a wagon under the protection of one of the many abolitionists who saw slavery as an abomination, making it their goal to eradicate slave ownership. Arriving in New Bedford, William quickly discovers that the state of Massachusetts has abolished slavery and this utopian world dares him to believe in a world of equal opportunity. His father had previously escaped Norfolk to start a new life in New Bedford but ever the impatient individual, William had decided to make the trip himself to be reunited with his father, before he and his mother are called upon.
The reunion of father and son leads him into a strong friendship with a local boy, Chester, and as we fast forward through their youthful years and the rumblings of a civil war, they find themselves at the age of enlistment. It is clear that William's burning desire for Black freedom drives this period of this life as he looks deep inside himself and to his faith, despite finding contentment for the first time in his life in New Bedford. The metaphorical shackles of New Bedford soon take their hold, however, and before long we see William feel a sense of suffocation in the idyllic setting, mirroring that of his days as a slave. The civil war brings a much needed escape to William's doorstep with the formation of the 54th Massachusetts Division, allowing Black men to enlist.
After enlistment, life in basic training comes easy to Chester and the other recruits but William constantly battles with his father's fleeting last words, accusing him of being too soft to fight. His care for the value of human life sits, hunched over in his mind, occasionally rearing its head to remind him of God's word.
It isn't long before we find William disembarking as a soldier of the Union Army onto a South Carolina beach and we follow one of the first all-Black regiments through their early troubles trying to establish themselves as a reputable fighting force among the white officers before they are indeed called into action.
Feelings of mistrust towards his white superiors and that of the part he must play in the fight for freedom plagues William right up to the moment he finds himself side by side on the front line with Colonel Shaw, a man of true word and impeccable leadership towards men of colour who serve under him. The realisation of war hits William hard as the assault commences and before long he finds himself holding the regiment flagpole with the Union colours flapping in the gunpowder soaked air. It is here that William truly finds himself amidst the falling bodies and constant barrage of enemy fire before committing a final heroic act on the battlefield.
The book continues the story of the true 54th Massachusetts Division outside the narration in an extremely informative way in the final few pages. This is also followed by a timeline and a historical context of the many poignant topics raised throughout.
This would be an excellent book to use when studying the American Civil War, Black history and/or abolitionism. I feel that those aged 12+ would be able to approach the historical aspects of this story and delve into their origins in greater depth than those of a younger age. Exploring the journey of a young Black man in the 1800s is also an aspect of the story which fascinated me, in particular his internal battle with the morality of war and his father's expectations.
I found that this story truly reflects the sense of entrapment that Black slaves felt during the American Civil War, the struggles of a young man finding his way in the world and how many found an avenue to fight for their own freedom. The Flag Never Touched the Ground is a book of majestic patience and poise and humbles the reader from start to finish.
144 pages / Ages 12+ / Reviewed by Matthew Lappin, teacher
Suggested Reading Age 11+