William Harvey Carney was an American soldier during the American Civil War. Born as a slave, he was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1900 for his gallantry in saving the regimental colors (American flag) during the Battle of Fort Wagner in 1863. The action for which he received the Medal of Honor preceded any other African American Medal of Honor recipient; however, his medal was actually one of the very last to be awarded for Civil War service. African Americans received the Medal of Honor as early as April 1865.
William Harvey Carney was born as a slave in Norfolk, Virginia, on February 29, 1840. 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.
Carney joined the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry in March 1863 as a sergeant. He took part in the July 18, 1863, assault on Fort Wagner in Charleston, South Carolina. His actions there ultimately earned him the Medal of Honor. When the color guard was killed, Carney retrieved the U.S. flag and marched forward with it, despite multiple serious wounds. When the Union troops were forced to retreat under fire, he struggled back across the battlefield, eventually returning to his own lines and turning over the colors to another survivor of the 54th, saying, “Boys, I only did my duty; the old flag never touched the ground!” He received an honorable discharge due to disability from his wounds in June 1864.
After his discharge, Carney returned to New Bedford, Massachusetts, and took a job maintaining the city’s streetlights. He then delivered mail for thirty-two years. He was a founding vice president of the New Bedford Branch 18 of the National Association of Letter Carriers in 1890. He married Susannah Williams, and they had a daughter, Clara Heronia. He spent a few years in California, then returned again in 1869.
Carney received his Medal of Honor on 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). Twenty African American men received the medal before him, but because his battle actions happened earlier than the others, some have incorrectly cited him as the first to have received the medal. 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.
In 1901, shortly after his medal was finally awarded, a song was published about his daring exploits. The song was entitled, “Boys the Old Flag Never Touched the Ground.” It clearly tells the story of his brave and patriotic efforts to keep Old Glory flying in the midst of a fierce battle. The text of the song can be found here.
Carney died at the Boston City Hospital on December 9, 1908, of complications from an elevator accident at the Massachusetts State House where he worked for the Department of State. His body lay in repose for one day at the undertaking rooms of Walden Banks, 142 Lenox Street, at the wish of his wife and daughter. He was buried in the family plot at Oak Grove Cemetery in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Engraved on his tombstone is an image of the Medal of Honor.