William Harvey Carney

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William Harvey Carney
Sgt. William H. Carney,
Civil War Medal of Honor recipient
Born (1840-02-29)February 29, 1840
Norfolk, Virginia
Died December 9, 1908(1908-12-09) (aged 68)
Boston, Massachusetts
Place of burial Oak Grove Cemetery New Bedford, Massachusetts
Allegiance United States of America
Service/branch United States Army
Union Army
Years of service 1863 - 1864
Rank Sergeant
Unit 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry
Battles/wars American Civil War
Second Battle of Fort Wagner
Awards Medal of Honor

William Harvey Carney (February 29, 1840 – December 9, 1908) was an African American soldier during the American Civil War. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions during the Battle of Fort Wagner.

His actions at Fort Wagner preceded those of any other black recipient. He was awarded the Medal of Honor nearly 37 years after his gallantry which was the earliest action in which an African American received the Medal of Honor.[1][2]

After the war he worked at a post office and was a guest speaker at public events until his death in 1908.


Carney was born as a slave in Norfolk, Virginia on February 29, 1840. He ended up escaping through the Underground Railroad, and found his father living in Massachusetts. The two later bought the rest of their family out of slavery.

Carney joined the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry as a Sergeant in February 1863. He took part in the July 18, 1863, assault on Fort Wagner in Charleston, South Carolina.[3] He received the Medal of Honor for saving the American flag and planting it on the parapet despite being wounded several times.[4] Recognizing the troops had to retreat under fire, Carney struggled back across the battlefield, being wounded twice more. He eventually made his way back to the Union lines, and turned over the colors to another survivor of the 54th, modestly saying "Boys, I only did my duty; the old flag never touched the ground!"[5] As the result of his wounds, he was discharged due to disability in June 1864.[6]

Later life[edit]

William H. Carney

Carney was awarded the Medal of Honor May 23, 1900, nearly 37 years later. More than half such awards from the Civil War were presented 20 or more years after the fact. In later life, Carney was a postal employee and popular speaker at patriotic events. He died in Boston, Massachusetts, and is buried in the family plot at Oak Grove Cemetery in New Bedford, Massachusetts.[7] Engraved on his stone monument is a gold image of the Medal of Honor.[7]

Honors and awards[edit]

Medal of Honor citation[edit]

Medal of honor old.jpg

Rank and Organization:

Sergeant, Company C, 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry. Place and date: At Fort Wagner, S.C., July 18, 1863. Entered service at: New Bedford, Mass. Birth: Norfolk, Va. Date of issue: May 23, 1900.


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.[8]

Other honors[edit]

The attack on Fort Wagner is depicted in the film Glory.

Carney's face is shown on the monument to Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th on the Boston Common designed by Augustus Saint Gaudens.

A New Bedford, Massachusetts elementary school was named in his honor, and his New Bedford home is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In 2015 Carney was posthumously honored as one of the Library of Virginia's "Strong Men & Women in Virginia History", because of his actions during the Civil War.[9]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Henig, Gerald S. (June 2009). "Glory at Battery Wagner: William H. Carney became the First Black Soldier to earn the Medal of Honor". Civil War Times. Retrieved 1 March 2015. 
  2. ^ "William H. Carney". Contemporary Black Biography (Detroit: Gale) 104. 2013. Retrieved 1 March 2015. 
  3. ^ "William H. Carney". Notable Black American Men, Book II (Gale). 12 October 1998. Retrieved 1 March 2015. 
  4. ^ Marshall Jr., Tyrone C. (19 February 2013). "First African-American Medal of Honor Recipient Safeguarded Flag". State News Service. Retrieved 1 March 2015. 
  5. ^ Carney, William Harvey (1863-07-18). "William Harvey Carney (1840 - 1908)". The Center for African American Genealogical Research, Inc. Retrieved 1 March 2015. Medal of Honor Citation: "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." 
  6. ^ Massachusetts soldiers, sailors, and marines in the civil war. Norwood, MA: Norwood Press. 1931. p. 670. Retrieved 1 March 2015. 
  7. ^ a b "William Harvey Carney". Claim to Fame: Medal of Honor recipients. Find a Grave. Retrieved 1 March 2015. 
  8. ^ "Medal of Honor recipients". American Civil War (A-L). United States Army Center of Military History. July 16, 2007. Retrieved 1 March 2015. 
  9. ^ "Strong Men & Women in Virginia History: William Harvey Carney (February 29, 1840–December 9, 1908)". Library of Virginia. Retrieved 2 March 2015. 

External links[edit]