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Sgt. William Carney: The First African-American to Receive the Medal of Honor

Readmikenow has written about various medical conditions. He has previously written a series of articles on Polyarteritis nodosa.

Sergeant William Carney

Sergeant William Carney

William Carney

During the Battle of Fort Wagner in 1863, Sergeant William Carney was recognized for his gallantry in saving the American Flag. He was an African-American soldier who had been born a slave and later made history as the first African-American to be awarded the Medal of Honor. Sergeant William Carney was 23 years old during the Battle of Fort Wagner, where his bravery earned him the Medal of Honor.

Early Years

William Harvey Carney was born on into slavery on February 29, 1840, in Norfolk, Virginia. At an early age, he and his family made their way to freedom using the Underground Railroad. He reached Massachusetts and was reunited with his father. Eventually, all members of his family were either freed by purchase, or by the death of their master.

He spent his initial taste of freedom trying to learn and secretly being involved in a variety of academics. Carney did this despite restrictions and laws that banned African-Americans from learning to read and write.

Sergeant William Carney in uniform

Sergeant William Carney in uniform

Joining the Union Army

When he got older, Carney had a strong desire to have a career in the church. Unfortunately, the Civil War broke out. Carney felt the best way he could serve God was by spending time in the military and working to free those who were oppressed. In March 1863, Carney joined the Union Army.

The 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment

Carney joined a local militia unit known as the Morgan Guards. There were 45 others from his hometown of New Bedford, Massachusetts, who joined with him. Two of them were the sons of the well-known abolitionist, Frederick Douglas. The unit later became Company C of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment. The unit was commanded by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. Everyone in the unit was black except for the senior officers and some senior non-commissioned sergeants. The 54th Massachusetts was created as a way to prove to politicians and the senior officers in the Union Army that black men could be good soldiers.

Painting of Battle of Fort Wagner

Painting of Battle of Fort Wagner

Battle at Fort Wagner

Carney took part in the assault on Fort Wagner in Charleston, South Carolina. The battle took place on July 18, 1863. During the battle, the Union Army's color guard was killed. Carney had been seriously wounded, but quickly retrieved the U.S. Flag and moved forward holding it. At this time, he was suffering serious gunshot wounds. Carney kept the U.S. flag held high while he crawled up the hill to the walls of Fort Wagner.

As he was doing this, he was urging his fellow troops to follow him. When he made it to the base of the fort, Carney planted the flag there and held it upright. He never let go of the flag until he was rescued. He was close to death from his wounds at the time but survived. Because of his bravery during the Battle of Fort Wagner, Carney was promoted to the rank of sergeant.

Sergeant William Carney after the Civil War

Sergeant William Carney after the Civil War


Carney was given an honorable discharge from the Union Army in June 1864 because of the disability caused by his wounds. After receiving his discharge, Carney returned to Bedford, Massachusetts. There he took a job maintaining the streetlights in the city. His next job was delivering mail. He did this for the next thirty-two years.

In 1890, he was a founding vice president of the National Association of Letter Carriers, the New Bedford Branch #18.

William Carney delivering mail

William Carney delivering mail


Carney married a woman named Susannah Williams. They had a daughter named Clara Heronia. He and his family spent a few years in California. He eventually returned to Massachusetts in 1869.

Medal of Honor

Carney was awarded the Medal of Honor on May 23, 1900. This was approximately 37 years after his actions at Fort Wagner. Over half of the awards for medals during the Civil War were presented 20 or more years after the actions of soldiers who had earned them. After his medal was awarded, a song was published about what Carney had done during the Civil War. It was called Boys the Old Flag Never Touched the Ground.

William Carney's grave marker

William Carney's grave marker


On December 9, 1908, Carney died at the Boston City Hospital. He was 68 years old. His cause of death was from complications associated with an elevator accident. Carney worked for the Department of State, and the accident occurred at the Massachusetts State House. He was buried in New Bedford, Massachusetts at the Oak Grove Cemetery in a family plot. His tombstone has an image of the Medal of Honor engraved on it.


In New Bedford, Massachusetts, an elementary school was named in honor of William Carney. His New Bedford home is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. His statue is on the Memorial for African-American Medal of Honor Recipients in Wilmington, Delaware.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Readmikenow


Readmikenow (author) on February 07, 2021:

Miebakagh, thanks. Well, different time and different people. They were proven wrong.

Readmikenow (author) on February 07, 2021:

DW, thanks. I have seen the movie and I thought it was excellent. It has some great actors in it like Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington, Matthew Broderick, etc.

Readmikenow (author) on February 07, 2021:

Fran, thanks. I agree.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on February 07, 2021:

Whoso ever says the African-American person is an 'idiot' because he or she is born as a 'slave' should examine the head and have a rethink always. Has there not ever been a white man born in slavery?

DW Davis from Eastern NC on February 07, 2021:

Thank you for an excellent post. If you have not seen it, the movie Glory does an excellent job of depicting the feats of the 54th Massachusetts and Seargeant Carney.

fran rooks from Toledo, Ohio on February 07, 2021:

Readmikenow, thank you for such an impressive article. He was not simply a brave, patriotic soldier but a humble man who went on contributing to society and mankind. We owe a lot to this patriot. Thanks for your article.