William H. Carney

In 1863 William H. Carney entered the army and was assigned to Company C of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the first regiment composed of black men in the state. They were most renowned for their participation in the battle at Battery Wagner where, through their bravery and sacrifice, they forever silenced the predication that the Negro would not fight. It was at this siege on July 18, 1863 that Color-Sergeant William H. Carney performed a brave deed which earned him the Congressional Medal of Honor for most distinguished gallantry in action.

 This act, acknowledged to be one of the most heroic deeds of the Civil War, is recorded in State documents and in the detailed account written by Sergeant Carney. 

Here, in part, is his account of the siege:

We were all ready for the charge, and the regiment started to its feet, the charge being fairly commenced. We had got but a short distance when we were opened upon with musketry, shell, grape shot and canister, which mowed down our men right and left. As the color-bearer became disabled I threw away my gun and seized the colors, making my way to the head of the column. . . In less than 20 minutes I found myself alone, struggling upon the ramparts, while the dead and wounded were all around me, lying one upon another. Here I said, ‘I cannot go into the battery alone,' and so I halted and knelt down, holding the flag in my hand. While there, the muskets, balls and grape-shots were flying all around me, and as they struck, the sand would fly in my face.

 I knew my position was a critical one, and I began to watch to see if I would be left alone. Discovering that the forces had renewed their attack farther to the right, and the enemy's attention being drawn thither, I turned and discovered a battalion of men coming towards me on the ramparts of Wagner. They proceeded until they were in front of me, and I raised my flag and started to join them, when from the light of the cannon discharged on the battery, I saw that they were my enemies. I wound the colors round the staff and made my way down the parapet in to the ditch, which was without water when I crossed it before, but now was filled with water that came up to my waist. 

 Out of the number that came up with me there was now no man moving erect, save myself, although they were not all dead but wounded. In rising to see if I could determine my course to the rear, the bullet I now carry in my body came whizzing like a mosquito, and I was shot. Not being prostrated by the shot, I continued my course, yet had not gone far before I was struck by a second shot. 

Soon after I saw a man coming towards me, and then within halting distance I asked him who he was. He replied, ‘I belong to the One Hundredth New York,' and then inquired if I were wounded. Upon replying in the affirmative, he came to my assistance and helped me to the rear. ‘Now then,' said he, ‘let me take the colors and carry them for you.' My reply was that I would not give them to anyone else unless he belonged to the Fifty-Fourth Regiment. So we passed on, but we did not go far before I was wounded in the head. 

We came at length within hailing distance of the rear guard, who caused us to halt, and upon asking who we were, and finding I was wounded, took us to the rear and through the guard. An officer came, and taking my name and regiment, put us in charge of the hospital corps, telling them to find my regiment. When we finally reached the latter the men cheered me and the flag. My reply was, “Boys, I only did my duty; the old flag never touched the ground!”

It is then said that he fell to the ground in a dead faint, weak from the wounds that he had received.    
Several months later Sergeant William Carney, supported by a cane due to the injuries of his right leg, posed for a picture holding the flag he had risked so much for that day at Fort Wagner. In 1864 he was discharged from the army due to the disabilities of his wounds and returned to New Bedford, Massachusetts where, prior to the enlisting in the army, he had began preparing for a life of serving God in the ministry. In 1870, he returned to his home in New Bedford (after living in California for several years) and became one of four men employed as letter carriers. After 31 years in the postal service, he retired in 1901. He spent his last years working as a messenger in the Massachusetts State House. He never realized his dream of becoming a minister and later stated that by joining the Union Army, "I felt I could best serve my God by serving my Country and my oppressed bothers.”

In May, 1900, Carney became the first Negro to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor. It was not unusual for acts of valor, during the Civil War, to go unrecognized for many years.  More than half of the 1520 Medals of Honor awarded for heroism during that period were not awarded until 20 or more years after the war.  On May 23, 1900 Sergeant William Harvey Carney was awarded his Nation's highest award, the Medal of Honor.  Though by that time, several other black Americans had already received the award for various acts of heroism during the Civil War and the Indian Campaigns. However, Sergeant Carney's action at Fort Wagner on July 18, 1863 was the very first to merit the award.

 Carney's brave deed is depicted on the Saint-Gaudens Monument in Boston Common. The rescued flag is enshrined in Memorial Hall, Boston.       William Harvey Carney died at his home in New Bedford, Massachusetts on December 9, 1908, and is buried in the Oak Grove Cemetery there.  His final resting place bears a distinctive stone, one claimed by less than 3500 Americans.  Engraved on the white marble is a gold image of the Medal of Honor, a tribute to a courageous soldier and the flag he loved so dearly.