Here’s a name you might not recognize—William Harvey Carney. Well, he has a great story.
Born a slave in Norfolk, Virginia, Carney escaped to Massachusetts with his father prior to the Civil War. He spent the first part of his life as a sailor.
However, during the Civil War, Carney served as a sergeant in the famed 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry (featured in the movie Glory).
On July 18, 1863, Carney and the 54th Massachusetts led an assault against the heavily fortified Fort Wagner in Charleston, South Carolina. It took several hours for the regiment to reach the fort’s parapet. Despite being wounded four times, Sergeant Carney planted the flag on the parapet, while the regiment charged. The 54th lost 281 of its 600 men that day, including Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, and eventually had to retreat from their position. When asked how he was able to keep the flag planted during the assault, despite being wounded four times, Carney replied, “Boys, I only did my duty; the old flag never touched the ground!”
One hundred and seven years ago today, Carney became the first African American to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor, which is the nation’s highest military honor.
Carney recovered from his injuries, was discharged with disability in 1864, and lived until 1908.