Meet Army Sgt. William H. Carney, the first black recipient of the award U.S. Medal of Honor who earned it for protecting the American flag during a ferocious battle for Fort Wagner.
Wm. Carney was born into slavery in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1840. His family was eventually granted freedom and moved to Massachusetts. Carney had wanted to pursue a career in the church, but when the Civil War broke out, he decided the best way he could serve God was by serving in the military to help free the oppressed. In March 1863, Carney joined the Union Army and was attached to Company C, 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry Regiment, the first official black unit recruited for the Union in the north. Forty other black men served with him, including two of Frederick Douglass’ sons.
On July 18, 1863, the soldiers of Carney’s regiment led the charge on Fort Wagner. During the battle, the unit’s color guard was shot and Carney scrambled to catch the falling flag.
Despite suffering several serious gunshot wounds himself, Carney kept the symbol of the Union held high as he crawled up the hill to the walls of Fort Wagner, urging his fellow troops to follow him. He planted the flag in the sand at the base of the fort and held it upright until his near-lifeless body was rescued.
Carney lost a lot of blood and nearly lost his life, but not once did he allow the flag to touch the ground. His heroics inspired other soldiers that day and were crucial to the North securing victory at Fort Wagner. Carney was promoted to the rank of sergeant for his actions.
For his bravery, Carney was awarded the Medal of Honor on May 23, 1900.