Army Sergeant William Carney was the first African American to earn the congressional Medal of Honor in the U.S. Army. He was a member of the famous 54th Massachusetts. As a black soldier, he displayed incredible courage under fire, planting the flag atop the walls of the fort and safeguarding its return to Union lines, despite several wounds.
He was born into slavery in Norfolk, Virginia on February 29, 1840, to William Carney and Ann Dean. His father adopted the last name of his master, Major Carney, owner of a large plantation. At Major Carney’s death, his parents gained their freedom.
Although it was against the law to teach blacks to read and write, the Carneys sent their son to a secret private school in Norfolk, Virginia.
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After the family gained their freedom, his father took his little family first to Pennsylvania, and then to New York City. At the time, bounty hunters or slave catchers were numerous in New York and freeborn Blacks were often kidnapped and sold into slavery. He wanted a quiet, peaceful and freedom-loving place so he moved to the city of New Bedford.
Young Carney spent the greater part of his life in the city of New Bedford. He did odd jobs, worked in various stores of the city, and reportedly won the respect and love of both white and black associates.
He attended the Bethel A.M.E. Church and enjoyed listening to the older men plan the escape of slaves from the south. During the Civil War, Carney who had been nursing ideas for a ministry, said: “I felt I could best serve my God by serving my Country and my oppressed brothers.”
Carney, along with 40 other blacks from New Bedford enrolled in Company C of the Massachusetts 54th to take part in the Civil War on March 4, 1863. The Massachusetts 54th Regiment was the first black army unit to be raised in the Northern States.
They trained for only three months at Readville, Massachusetts and they were shipped to the main theatre of the war in South Carolina. “They are far more earnest than we…They know the deep stake they have in the issue,” Union General Ullman later said of the men in the all-black units.
On July 18, 1863, these brave black soldiers led the charge and attack on Fort Wagner. In the heat of the battle, the colour guard, Sergeant John Wall, was struck by a fatal bullet. He staggered and was about to drop the flag. Carney immediately threw down his gun and grabbed the flag, holding it high throughout the fierce and bloody battle. Wounded in his leg and right arm, bleeding, and struggling to crawl, Carney held the flag until he reached the parapets of Fort Wagner.
He managed to plant the flag in the sand. He was alone as everyone else was either killed or wounded. According to reports, Carney saw a group of soldiers advancing towards him and, thinking they were friendly troops, hoisted his flag high. Carney realized all too late that they were Confederate soldiers when gunfire split the air. Rather than dropping the flag and fleeing for his life, he wrapped the flag around the staff to protect it and ran down an embankment.
“Stumbling through a ditch, chest-deep in water, he held his flag high. Another bullet struck him in the chest, another in the right arm, then another in his right leg. Carney struggled on alone, determined not to let his flag fall to the enemy”.
He loyally held on to the flag until he was rescued almost lifeless from loss of blood. Carney still refused to give up the flag to his rescuers but grasped it even tighter. Assisted by his comrades, he crawled on one knee until he reached the Union make-shift barracks.
Spotting men of his own regiment before collapsing among them from his many wounds his words were, “Boys, I only did my duty. The flag never touched the ground.” But as is with many African American heroes, Carney had to wait nearly 37 years to claim the honour.
On May 23, 1900, Sergeant Carney was awarded the Nation’s highest award, the Medal of Honor. His action at Fort Wagner on July 18, 1863, was the first to merit the award.
After recovery, he was discharged from the army due to disabilities. Carney never realized his dream of becoming a minister instead he spent most of his life as a maintenance worker in New Bedford, Massachusetts.
He passed away in 1908 at the age of 68. His final resting place bears a distinctive stone, claimed by less than 3500 Americans. A gold image of the Medal of Honor, a tribute to a courageous soldier and the flag he loved so dearly is engraved on the white marble.