Sergeant William H. Carney was the first Black soldier to earn the Medal of Honor for bravery during war.
He was born into slavery on February 29, 1840 in Norfolk, Virginia. His father escaped slavery through the Underground Railroad. He then worked to save enough money to buy his family’s freedom. Once all were free the family moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts.
William had plans to become a minister, but put those plans aside to answer the call for Blacks men to join the military during the Civil War. William enlisted and became a member of the all-black 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment.
On July 18, 1863, the 54th Regiment went into battle against Confederate troops at Fort Wagner on Morris Island in South Carolina. They were met with heavy fighting from the Confederates. During the battle Sergeant Carney carried the US flag. Although wounded, he continued moving forward and never let the flag touch the ground.
The 54th lost the battle. More than 100 men, including their commander Colonel Robert Gould Shaw were killed.
During the war it was very important that the United States flag stayed up so soldiers could see it and be inspired to move forward and keep fighting. William was praised for his actions and for making sure the flag stayed up and visible.
Many white Civil War soldiers and commanders did not recognize or acknowledge the bravery of Black soldiers. The Medal of of Honor was not awarded to William until May 1900. He died eight years later.