William H Carney – From Slave to Medal of Honor Recipient for Saving the Flag

 In History

William H Carney was born as a slave in 1840, and joined the Union Army in 1863.  He became the first Black Medal of Honor recipient. It would be well to remember his courage, as opposed to the actions of certain NFL players at this time. Sgt Carney refused to let the flag touch the ground even at great peril to his life, and after suffering several wounds that caused the loss of a tremendous amount of blood.

Who was Sgt William H Carney?

The Carney family was eventually freed and moved to Massachusetts. William wanted to pursue a career in the church, but when the Civil War broke out, he decided he could best serve God by joining the Union Army. So in March, 1863 he enlisted.

Carney was a member of Company C in the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry Regiment.

According to Defense.gov,

“On July 18, 1863, the soldiers of Carney’s regiment led the charge on Fort Wagner. During the battle, the unit’s color guard was shot. Carney, who was just a few feet away, saw the dying man stumble, and he scrambled to catch the falling flag.

Despite suffering several serious gunshot wounds himself, Carney kept the symbol of the Union held high as he crawled up the hill to the walls of Fort Wagner, urging his fellow troops to follow him. He planted the flag in the sand at the base of the fort and held it upright until his near-lifeless body was rescued.

Even then, though, he didn’t give it up. Many witnesses said Carney refused to give the flag to his rescuers, holding onto it tighter until, with assistance, he made it to the Union’s temporary barracks.”

For his actions that day, he was promoted to Sergeant. He was awarded the Medal of Honor on May 23, 1900.

The Infantry regiment was disbanded after the Civil war, but in 2008 it was reformed as Massachusetts Army National Guard’s 54th Volunteer Regiment – a ceremonial unit for funerals and state functions.

Willam H Carney was a patriotic American who nearly lost his life defending the flag. And not once did he allow it to touch the ground. He wasn’t bitter against America, he was thankful for the freedom it gave him. Even though there was discrimination at the time, he was a shining example of determined patriotism.

William Harvey Carney, 1840-1908


Showing 6 comments
  • Shirley H Tucker

    What an inspiring story ! A book should be written about his life !

  • Randy Kahn

    Thank you for sharing

  • Camilla Hill

    I’m a veteran USAF, he was a true American patriot,I salute you Sir

  • Annette

    Thank you Faye Higbee.

  • LaTanya

    So why did the Massachusetts Infantry have a Colored regiment? The Yankees knew slavery was bad but thought continued segregation was okay? Baby steps, I guess 🙁

  • Eric Bjerregaard

    Love these history posts. I had not thought of him in years.

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