Military

From the American Revolution to the Spanish-American War

Why was Sergeant William H. Carney important?

William Harvey Carney (1840–1908), sergeant of Company C, 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry, was the first black in the Civil War to earn the Medal of Honor, on July 18, 1863. Born in Norfolk, Virginia, he was educated privately and later settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he became a seaman. Carney enlisted on February 17, 1863, and earned his Medal of Honor five months later at Fort Wagner, South Carolina. When the color bearer was wounded in the battle, Carney, also hurt, sprang forward and seized the flag before it slipped from the bearer’s grasp. By doing so, he prevented the flag from touching the ground. Carney was discharged from the infantry with disabilities caused by the wounds he had received. His Medal of Honor was not issued until May 23, 1900. Upon Carney’s death, the flag on the Massachusetts state house was flown at half mast— an honor formerly restricted to presidents, senators, and governors.



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