William Harvey Carney

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William Harvey Carney (February 29, 1840 – December 8, 1908) was an African American soldier during the American Civil War who received 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 but he was not presented with the honor until nearly 37 years later. He was the 21st African-American to be awarded the Medal, the first recipient having been Robert Blake, in 1864.[1]

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



Carney was born a slave in Norfolk, Virginia February 29, 1840, but escaped to Massachusetts like his father through the Underground Railroad. They later bought the rest of the family out of slavery. Once William escaped from slavery and joined the Massachusetts Regiment, he met a white man also named William Carney. The white William Carney was from New Jersey and served for the Cumberland Greys in the Civil War. Both the white and black William's met, and the white William gave the black William his last name so he could serve in the 54th.

Carney served with the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry as a Sergeant and took part in the July 18, 1863, assault on Fort Wagner in Charleston, South Carolina. He received his medal for saving the American flag and planting it on the parapet and although wounded, holding it while the troops charged. But recognizing the Federal troops had to retreat under fire, Carney struggled back across the battlefield, and although wounded twice more, returned the flag to the Union lines. Before turning over the colors to another survivor of the 54th, Carney modestly said, "Boys, I only did my duty; the old flag never touched the ground!"[citation needed]

Many Civil War medals were awarded for protecting and displaying the flag under fire, or for capturing enemy flags. Carney was awarded the Medal of Honor May 23, 1900, nearly 40 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.[2] Engraved on his stone monument is a gold image of the Medal of Honor.[2]

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