William J. Carson was one of about twenty Civil War Musicians to receive the Medal of Honor. He is the only musician ever to receive the medal for musical duties.
Born in Westmorland County, Pa., in 1840, he had grown up in Ohio. On September 2, 1861, he enlisted at Greenfield, Ohio in the 15th U. S. Regular Infantry, and was assigned to Company E, with the rank of musician. He served honorably at the battles of Shiloh, Stones River, and in the Tullahoma Campaign. But, it was in September, 1863, at the Battle of Chicamauga, that his great moment came.
Carson, a bugler, helped rally a detachment of the Regular Army Brigade (Regular Brigade) of the Union Army of the Cumberland to hold an advanced position for a critical period of time at the Battle of Stones River on December 31, 1862. The forward regiments held off a large Confederate attack long enough to permit the Union forces which were withdrawing elsewhere on the battlefield to regroup and hold critical defensive lines protecting their supply line and route of retreat over the Nashville turnpike and a railroad line. The forward regiments ultimately had to withdraw in haste in the face of superior force but then held key fallback defensive positions and held the field at the end of the battle. While in the retreat across an open field and under fire, Carson helped a wounded comrade from the battlefield, saving him from probable death on the field or capture.
On both days of the Battle of Chickamauga, on his own initiative, Carson played a key role in rallying Union troops under heavy attack near the end of the Union line by sounding bugle calls to rally the regiment. These actions delayed further Confederate attacks long enough on the first day for the broken Union regiments to regroup and hold their ground. On the second day of the battle, the extra time gained by the troops rallied by Carson’s actions allowed most of the Union Army to retreat to the defenses of Chattanooga, Tennessee without pursuit by the Confederate soldiers. Carson’s actions rallied the troops and gave the impression that a large number of Union reinforcements were arriving. Renewed Confederate assaults were delayed so the Confederates could mass their forces against the supposed reinforced Union line. This delay allowed most of the Union Army on the field, including most of the XIV Corps to which the regulars were assigned, to retreat to a more secure position at Chattanooga. The small remaining rear guard force, including Carson, held the Union line for three additional critical hours until most of the remaining defenders ran out of ammunition and were taken prisoner.
The acting commander of the 15th, Capt. Albert Dodd, reported:
“OFFICE COMMISSARY OF MUSTERS, FOURTH ARMY CORPS,
Chattanooga, Tenn., October 19, 1863.”
At the request of Major-General Rosecrans, I have the honor to make the following report of Private William J. Carson, bugler in the First Battalion, Fifteenth U. S. Infantry;” On Saturday, September 19, when the regular brigade was falling back, he behaved with most conspicuous gallantry; with a sword in one hand and his bugle in the other, he sounded constantly the ‘Halt,’ the ‘Rally,’ and the ‘Forward;’ espying a stand of colors belonging to the Eighteenth U. S. Infantry, he rushed up to them and sounded ‘To the color.’ His conduct attracted the notice and elicited the admiration of the whole brigade. On Sunday, September 20, before our battalion was engaged, the Eighteenth, being pressed by vastly superior numbers, was falling back; Carson by some means became the possessor of a musket and constituted himself a provost guard. One of the officers attempted to pass him, but he positively refused to allow it, stating that it was against his orders. All this time he continued to sound the various calls on his bugle. I regret to state that his fate remains a mystery; he was last seen by me late on Sunday afternoon behind the breastworks. I can only hope that he is a prisoner.”….
“I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant,”
“ALBERT B. DOD,”
“Captain 15th U. S. Infty., Comdg. Batt. at Chickamauga.” [Surv. Assoc.]
Bugler Carson had, indeed, been taken prisoner. He was in rough shape when he reached Pemberton Prison in Richmond, and his health worstened during his three months there. “When he was released in early 1864, Carson weighed only 64 pounds and was said to have been in the worst condition of any soldier that ever came to Annapolis, Maryland for recuperation after release from a Confederate prisoner of war camp.” [Johnson, 2003]
As was so often the case with Civil War heroism, there it stood for another 30 years. Many men knew of William Carson’s deeds during the battle, but there was no formal recognition forthcoming. Then, in 1893, a former officer put forward William’s name as deserving of the coveted Medal of Honor. In his own statement, Carson described his actions, in part:”I threw down my gun, rushed out some 30 yards to the color bearer of the 18th and said to him ‘Let us rally these men or the whole left is gone.’ The brave fellow stopped and waved his flag. I sounded to the colors. The men cheered. They rushed into line. Still sounding the rally, I passed back and forth of the forming line, and what a few minutes before seemed a hopeless disastrous rout, now turned out to be a complete victory. The retreat had been checked and the enemy driven back with awful slaughter. So severe was their repulse, that within a few minutes we were firing toward our rear into the enemy who were pressing Beatty’s troops back.” [Johnson, 2003]
“To all whom it may concern: I have known W. J. Carson, of Muncie, Ind., late bugler of Company E, 1st Battalion, 15th Infantry, since 1862, as a citizen, perfectly upright, honest and worthy of the highest esteem from all. As a soldier his standing was perfect: his name was a synonym of bravery, and his patriotism of the highest order. In battle he was apparently lost to fear, and his every action heroic. His acts of heroism on the 20th of September, 1863, that came under my personal observation, I believe are without a parallel of individual bravery of that memorable battle. He with his bugle made it possible for us to check a most disastrous retreat. We were able through the assistance of Carson to rally over 2500 of our division and retake the position we had lost, which was then held by us until night. W. J. Carson, along with 1900 of us, after being completely surrounded by the enemy, and out of all ammunition, were captured at 6:30 P. M. on the original line of battle, the entire army, at that time, having retired several miles toward Chattanooga. He was as brave a man as ever wore the blue, and I deem it a great privilege and honor to be remembered among his friends and acquaintances. I am sure no more patriotic or gallant breast ever merited the distinguishing mark of bravery from the U. S. Government than that of W. J. Carson.”
-“W. G. Galloway, Lite Captain 15th U. S. Infantry.” [Surv. Assoc]
And so, on January 27, 1894, Musician William J. Carson, entered the exalted ranks of Medal of Honor recipients. His Citation reads:
“The President of the United States of America, in the name of Congress, takes pleasure in presenting the Medal of Honor to Musician William J. Carson, United States Army, for extraordinary heroism on 19 September 1863, while serving with Company E, 15th U.S. Infantry, in action at Chickamauga, Georgia. At a critical stage in the battle when the 14th Corps lines were wavering and in disorder, Musician Carson, on his own initiative bugled “to the colors” amid the 18th U.S. Infantry who formed by him, and held the enemy. Within a few minutes he repeated his action amid the wavering 2d Ohio Infantry. This bugling deceived the enemy who believed reinforcements had arrived. Thus, they delayed their attack.”
William J. Carson died December 13, 1913, in Muncie, Indiana
Sources of quotes:
[Surv.Assoc.]: Association of Survivors Regular Brigade Fourteenth Corps Army of the Cumberland Proceedings of Reunions, 1894-1897 Columbus, Ohio, 1898.
[Johnson, 2003]: Johnson, Mark W. That Body of Brave Men: The U.S. Regular Infantry and the Civil War in the West, 1861-1865. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2003