William Harvey Carney
The first Black American to earn the Medal of Honor, William Harvey Carney nearly died at Fort Wagner in the Civil War - but he never once let the Union flag touch the ground.
Learn more about Carney here:
Ken Harbaugh: Welcome to the Medal of Honor podcast, brought to you in partnership with the National Medal of Honor Museum. I’m Ken Harbaugh. In each episode, we’ll learn about a different service member who has distinguished him or herself through an act of valor.
William Harvey Carney was born enslaved in Norfolk, Virginia in 1840.
His father had escaped slavery through the underground railroad and when William was still young, his father managed to buy freedom for his family.
The Carneys, freed and reunited, settled in Massachusetts.
Despite laws banning Black people from learning to read and write, William secretly learned by the age of 15, intending to become a minister.
Though he wanted a career in the church, when the Civil War broke out in 1861, William decided to join the Army.
He wrote this in the Abolitionist newspaper The Liberator: “when the country called for all persons, I could best serve my God serving my country and my oppressed brothers.”
So at the age of 23, William joined a local militia group that would later become Company C of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment.
The 54th was an all-Black unit led by white senior officers with the express intent of proving that Black men could be good soldiers. They did far more than that.
In July of 1863, Carney’s regiment led the charge on Fort Wagner.
During the battle, the color guard, the man responsible for the American flag, was shot.
Carney saw him go down and he dove, managing to catch the falling flag.
He kept it in the air as he led his fellow soldiers up to the walls of Fort Wagner.
Carney was shot multiple times and lost a lot of blood, but he planted the Union flag at the base of the fort and held it upright, until men arrived to rescue him.
Carney almost died at Fort Wagner, but he never once let the flag touch the ground.
In recognition of his bravery that day, Carney was promoted to the rank of sergeant and recommended for the Medal of Honor.
He was not the first Black American to receive the Medal, as he did not actually receive his until nearly 4 decades later in 1900.
But Sgt. Carney’s bravery at Fort Wagner was the first action by a Black American for which the Medal of Honor was awarded.
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