History

William Harvey Carney

William Harvey Carney was born on February 29, 1840, in Norfolk, Virginia, as a slave. He learned to read and write secretly from a local minister when he was 14 years old. He escaped from slavery through the Underground Railroad and joined his father in Massachusetts. He wanted to become a minister, but when the Civil War broke out, he felt that he could best serve God by serving his country and his oppressed brothers. He enlisted in the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first Black regiment from the North to fight in the war.

On July 18, 1863, Carney participated in the assault on Fort Wagner in Charleston, South Carolina. The fort was a stronghold of the Confederate army and a strategic target for the Union forces. The 54th regiment led the charge, facing heavy fire from the enemy. The color guard, who carried the American flag, was shot down. Carney saw the flag falling and ran to catch it before it touched the ground. He wrapped the flag around its staff and continued to advance toward the fort, despite being wounded several times.

William Harvey Carney with flag

He reached the fort’s wall and planted the flag in the sand, holding it upright with one arm while he fired his rifle with the other. He urged his fellow soldiers to follow him, but they were forced to retreat under the overwhelming fire. Carney refused to abandon the flag and crawled back across the battlefield, still clutching it. He finally reached his own lines and handed over the flag to another survivor of the 54th regiment, saying, “Boys, I only did my duty; the old flag never touched the ground!”

Carney was severely wounded and spent several months recovering in a hospital. He received an honorable discharge due to disability in June 1864. He returned to Massachusetts and worked as a mail carrier and a messenger at the state house. He married Susannah Williams and had a daughter named Clara Heronia.

Carney received his Medal of Honor on May 23, 1900, nearly 37 years after his heroic deed at Fort Wagner. He was the first Black American to receive the medal, although some others had performed their actions earlier than him. He died on December 9, 1908, at the age of 68. He was buried at Oak Grove Cemetery in New Bedford, Massachusetts.

William Harvey Carney was a brave and patriotic soldier who risked his life to protect the symbol of his country. His story is an inspiring example of courage and devotion to duty.

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