“Boys, I only did my duty; the old flag never touched the ground!”
William Harvey Carney was born into enslavement in 1840. It’s not certain how he became a free man, but based on most accounts, he escaped through the Underground Railroad.
In 1863, he joined the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. And on July 18th, 1863, this regiment led the charge on Fort Wagner.
As the regiment marched in battle, the unit’s color guard was shot. William, only a few feet away from the falling color guard, rushed over, caught the flag and proceeded to march forward.
Then he too was shot. Twice.
But he continued to march forward, holding the flag up 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.”
And still he didn’t want to give the flag up. Witnesses said that William held on to the flag until he made it back to the regiment’s temporary barracks. The flag never touched the ground.
William was promoted to sergeant after this battle. After the war, William returned home to New Bedford, Massachusetts. He took a job maintaining the city’s streetlights and he delivered mail for thirty two years.
Thirty seven years after the charge on Fort Wagner, William received the Medal of Honor.
Sources: photograph taken by James E Reed, circa 1905 / Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University / https://www.army.mil/article/181896/meet_sgt_william_carney_the_first_african_american_medal_of_honor_recipient / https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Harvey_Carney / Carney, William Harvey. “William Harvey Carney (1840–1908)”. The Center for African American Genealogical Research, Inc.