Carney, William H.

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Carney, William H.

c. 1840
December 9, 1908

First black winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor, William Carney was born to a slave woman and her free husband in Norfolk, Virginia. When his master died, Carney, aged fourteen, and his mother were manumitted. Carney studied for a time at a school run secretly by a minister. He also worked at sea with his father. In 1856 Carney's family moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts. He joined a church there and studied for the ministry. In February 1863 Carney enlisted in the Fifty-Fourth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first African-American regiment recruited by the United States Army.

On July 18, 1863, the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts led the charge against Fort Wagner on Morris Island, South Carolina. Carney caught the Union colors when the flag bearer was wounded by an exploding shell. Carney made his way alone to the outer wall of the fortress, until advancing Confederate troops forced him back. Although he was shot twice and had to crawl on his knees, he kept the flag aloft until he reached his company. While he crept back in retreat under fire, he was shot again before reaching safety. Upon reaching Union lines, Carney is reported to have said, "Boys, the old flag never did touch the ground."

The Battle of Fort Wagner signaled a turning point in the federal government's use of black troops. The Fifty-fourth Massachusetts dispelled doubts about the reliability of black soldiers; by the end of 1863 there were sixty African-American regiments in combat or being organized. After the war, the battle flag Carney had carried was enshrined in the Massachusetts statehouse.

Carney was discharged with the rank of sergeant in 1864. He lived for two years in California but eventually returned to New Bedford, where he worked as a mail carrier until 1901. He was a popular speaker at patriotic celebrations, including a convention of black veterans in 1887. For his valor Carney was the first African American cited for the Congressional Medal of Honor, on June 18, 1863, although he was not issued the medal until May 20, 1900. He retired in 1901 and moved to Boston, where he served as a messenger in the statehouse. He died in 1908.

See also Civil War, U.S.; Military Experience, African-American


Quarles, Benjamin. The Negro in the Civil War. Boston: Little, Brown, 1953. Reprint, New York: Russell & Russell, 1968.

Westwood, Howard C. Black Troops, White Commanders, and Freedmen During the Civil War. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1992.

siraj ahmed (1996)

allison x. miller (1996)