William Harvey Carney

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)
New Bedford, 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. In 1900, he was awarded the Medal of Honor for his gallantry during the Battle of Fort Wagner in 1863. Because his actions preceded those of other medal honorees, he is considered to be the first African American to be granted the Medal of Honor.


William H.Carney was born as a slave in Norfolk, Virginia, on February 29, 1840.[1] How he made his way to freedom is not certain. According to most accounts, he escaped through the Underground Railroad, and joined his father in Massachusetts. Other members of their family were freed by purchase or by the death of their master.[1][2]

Carney joined the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry in March 1863[1] as a Sergeant. He took part in the July 18, 1863, assault on Fort Wagner in Charleston, South Carolina.[3] (The attack on Fort Wagner is depicted in the film Glory.) It was in this attack that Carney's actions ultimately earned him the Medal of Honor. When the color guard was fatally wounded, Carney retrieved the American flag from his comrade and marched forward with it, despite suffering multiple serious wounds.[1][4] When the Union troops were forced to retreat under fire, Carney struggled back across the battlefield. He eventually made his way back to his own 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!"[2] Carney received an honorable discharge due to disability (as a result of his wounds) in June 1864.[1][5]

Later life

William H. Carney

After his discharge,William H.Carney returned to New Bedford, Massachusetts, and took a job maintaining the city's streetlights.[3] He married Susannah Williams, and the couple had a daughter, Clara Heronia.[3] Carney spent a few years in California, then returned again in 1869 and began working for the post office as one of the city's four mail carriers.[1][3] As a public speaker, he addressed veterans' groups and other civic organizations.[1]

Carney did not receive his honor until May 23, 1900, nearly 37 years after the events at Fort Wagner. (More than half such awards from the Civil War were presented 20 or more years after the fact.)[2] At least 25 African Americans have received the Medal of Honor. However, because Carney's battle actions took place earlier in the war than others, he is generally considered to be the first African American to receive this medal.[1][2][6] His citation reads,

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.[7]

Carney died in New Bedford on December 9, 1908, due to complications from an elevator accident.[1] He is buried in the family plot at Oak Grove Cemetery in New Bedford, Massachusetts.[8] Engraved on his stone monument is an image of the Medal of Honor.[8]

Other honors and awards

Carney's face is shown on the monument to Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th on the Boston Common designed by Augustus Saint Gaudens.[2] A New Bedford, Massachusetts, elementary school was named in his honor,[1] and his New Bedford home at 128 Mill Street is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.[9]

In 2015, Carney was honored as one of the Library of Virginia's "Strong Men & Women in Virginia History," because of his actions during the Civil War.[10]

See also


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 "William H. Carney". Contemporary Black Biography. Detroit: Gale. 104. 8 March 2013. Retrieved 1 March 2015.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 Carney, William Harvey. "William Harvey Carney (1840 - 1908)". The Center for African American Genealogical Research, Inc. Retrieved 1 March 2015.
  3. 1 2 3 4 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. Massachusetts soldiers, sailors, and marines in the civil war. Norwood, MA: Norwood Press. 1931. p. 670. Retrieved 1 March 2015.
  6. 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.
  7. "Medal of Honor recipients". American Civil War (A-L). United States Army Center of Military History. July 16, 2007. Retrieved 1 March 2015.
  8. 1 2 "William Harvey Carney". Claim to Fame: Medal of Honor recipients. Find a Grave. Retrieved 1 March 2015.
  9. "Carney, Sgt. William H. House". Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information System. Massachusetts Historical Commission. Retrieved 16 March 2015.
  10. "Strong Men & Women in Virginia History: William Harvey Carney (February 29, 1840–December 9, 1908)". Library of Virginia. Retrieved 2 March 2015.
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