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Sgt. Carney: First African-American Medal of Honor Recipient. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Born as a slave on February 29, 1840, at Norfolk, Virginia, William Harvey Carney was an African American soldier during the American Civil War. Born as a slave, he was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1900 for his gallantry in saving the regimental colors (American Flag) during the Battle of Fort Wagner in 1863. He is considered to be the first African American to be granted the Medal of Honor.

His father, also named William, escaped slavery, reaching freedom through the Underground Railroad. William Sr. then worked to buy the freedom of the rest of his family. Free and reunited, the family settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts in the second half of the 1850s. Young William learned to read and write, and by age 15 he was interested in becoming a minister.

He gave up his pursuit of the ministry, however, to join the Army. In an 1863 edition of the Abolitionist newspaper The Liberator, Carney explained: “Previous to the formation of 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 serving my country and my oppressed brothers. The sequel in short—I enlisted for the war.”

Gravesite: New Bedford, MA
Photo Credit: J. Bosworth

Carney joined the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry in March 1863 as a sergeant. He took part in the July 18, 1863, assault on Fort Wagner in Charleston, South Carolina. His actions there ultimately earned him the Medal of Honor. When the color guard was killed, Carney retrieved the U.S. flag and marched forward with it, despite multiple serious wounds. When the Union troops were forced to retreat under fire, he struggled back across the battlefield, eventually returning to his own lines and turning over the colors to another survivor of the 54th, saying, “Boys, I only did my duty; the old flag never touched the ground!”

Due to the extent of his injuries he was honorably discharged from the Army a little more than a year after the battle, on June 30, 1864.

After his discharge, Carney returned to New Bedford, and took a job maintaining the city’s streetlights. He then delivered mail for thirty-two years. He was a founding vice president of the New Bedford Branch 18 of the National Association of Letter Carriers in 1890. He married Susannah Williams, and they had a daughter, Clara Heronia.

Carney received his Medal of Honor on May 23, 1900, nearly 37 years after the events at Fort Wagner. (More than half such awards from the Civil War were presented 20 or more years after the fact.) Twenty African Americans had received the medal before him, but because his battle actions happened earlier than the others, he is generally considered the first. 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.”

When asked about his heroic actions, he simply said, “I only did my duty.”

Carney died at the Boston City Hospital on December 9, 1908, of complications from an elevator accident at the Massachusetts State House where he worked for the Department of State. The flag at the Massachusetts state house was flown half mast in his remembrance, an honor usually given only to honor a deceased governor, senator, congressman or US President. He was buried in the family plot at Oak Grove Cemetery in New Bedford. Engraved on his tombstone is an image of the Medal of Honor.

Source: historynet.com; Wikipedia.com; www.blackpast.org; www.findagrave.com.

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