Sgt. William H. Carney risked his life in 1863 to safeguard the U.S. flag, the symbol of American pride, inspiration and patriotism for over 200 years. Thus he became the first Arfican-American to be awarded the Medal of Honor.
Carney was born in Norfolk, Va. on February 29, 1840. He was the son of slaves. When the slave owner died the Carneys were granted their freedom. They moved around and finally settled in New Bedford, Mass.
William Carney spent the remainder of his adolescence in New Bedford, working odd jobs and pursuing his interests in the church. He almost went into the ministry but decided he could better serve God by helping to free the oppressed by joining the military.
On March 4, 1863, Carney, along with 40 other African-Americans from New Bedford, joined Company C, 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry Regiment, to fight in the Civil War.
After only three months of training in Readville, Mass., they were shipped to the main area of fighting in South Carolina, where they saw action at Hilton Head, St. Simon’s Island, Darien, James Island and Fort Wagner.
It was at Fort Wagner that Carney’s heroic actions earned him the nation’s highest military honor.
On July 18, 1863, 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry Regiment soldiers led the charge on Fort Wagner. During the battle, the color guard, John Wall, was struck by a fatal bullet. He staggered and was about to drop the flag when Carney saw him.
Carney seized the flag, and held it high despite fierce fighting, inspiring the other soldiers. He was wounded twice — in his leg and right arm — and bled heavily. Although the Army sergeant could hardly crawl, he clutched the flag until he finally reached the walls of Fort Wagner. He planted “Old Glory” in the sand and held it tightly until he was rescued, nearly lifeless from blood loss.
For his bravery, on May 23, 1900, Carney was awarded the Medal of Honor, becoming the first African-American to receive the medal.
His citation reads: “When the color sergeant was shot down, this soldier grasped the flag, led the way to the parapet, and planted the colors thereon. When the troops fell back, he brought off the flag, under a fierce fire in which he was twice severely wounded.”