Union and United States Army Sergeant William Harvey Carvey (pictured) owns the honorable distinction as the first African-American solider to be awarded the Medal Of Honor for his services to the country during the great Civil War. Although it would be nearly four decades before he would receive his award, Sgt. Carney is widely recognized as the first Black recipient of the award. NewsOne looks back at Sgt. Carney’s amazing accomplishment.
Carney was born a slave with just the first name William on February 29, 1840, in Norfolk, Va. Escaping via the help of the Underground Railroad, Sgt. Carney traveled north and found his father in Massachusetts.
Later, the pair paid for the freedom of the rest of his enslaved family members.
As a free young man in the North, Sgt. Carney enlisted with the Massachusetts Regiment – gaining his last name from a White man so that he could join the service.
Serving on the front lines of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, Sgt. Carney was part of an assault on Fort Wagner in Charleston, S.C. That day, Sgt. Carney saved the American Flag and placed it atop a trench, despite enduring heavy wounds from Southern forces.
As a “color sergeant,” it was Carney’s duty to keep the flag upright and displayed. After Union forces were led to retreat, Sgt. Carney carried the flag across the battlefield and was wounded again but never let the flag touch the ground.
According to historic documents, Sgt. Carney was humble regarding his actions, reportedly saying, “Boys, I only did my duty; the old flag never touched the ground.”
On this day in 1900, nearly 37 years after his heroic act, Sgt. Carney would receive the Medal of Honor with not much in the way of recorded fanfare. Nevertheless, his valorous act has been recognized by both the United States Army and historic texts.
Below is the citation for Sgt. Carney’s Medal Of Honor:
The President of the United States of America, in the name of Congress, takes pleasure in presenting the Medal of Honor to Sergeant William Harvey Carney, United States Army, for extraordinary heroism on 18 July 1863, while serving with Company C, 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry, in action at Fort Wagner, South Carolina. When the color sergeant was shot down, Sergeant Carney 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 the twilight of his years, Sgt. Carney was employed as a postal worker and public speaker. He lived in Boston until his passing in 1908. The Academy Award-winning film “Glory,” starring Oscar recipient Denzel Washington, depicts part of the Fort Wagner battle.
Although Sgt. Carney’s remarkable story is not full of pomp and the like, his achievement is beyond noteworthy considering the incredible arc of his life. We salute you, Sgt. Carney, for inspiring future soldiers to follow their duty.