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First Name: William

Last Name: Carney

Birthplace: Norfolk, VA, USA

Gender: Male

Branch: Army (1784 - present)

Middle Name: Harvey

Date of Birth: 29 February 1840

Date of Death: 08 December 1908

Rank: Sergeant

Years Served: 1863-1865
William Harvey Carney

•  American Civil War (1861 - 1865)


William Harvey Carney
Sergeant, Union Army / U.S. Army
Medal of Honor Recipient
American Civil War

William Harvey Carney was born on 29 February 1840 in Norfolk, VA. He was an African American soldier during the American Civil War who received the U.S. military's highest award for valor, the Medal of Honor, for his actions during the Battle of Fort Wagner.

Although his actions at Fort Wagner preceded those of any other black recipient, he was not presented with the honor until nearly 37 years later. He was the 21st African-American to be awarded the Medal, the first recipient having been Robert Blake, in 1864.

Carney was born simply as "William," a slave in Norfolk, VA, but, like his father, escaped to Massachusetts through the Underground Railroad. They later purchased the rest of the family out of slavery. Once William escaped from slavery and joined the Massachusetts Regiment, he met a white man named William Carney. The white William Carney was from New Jersey and served for the Cumberland Greys in the Civil War. Both the white and black Williams met, and the white William gave the black William his last name so he could serve in the 54th.

Carney served with the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry as a Sergeant and took part in the 18 July 1863 assault on Fort Wagner in Charleston, SC. He received the Medal for saving the American flag, planting it on the parapet, and then, although wounded, holding it while the troops charged. But recognizing the Federal troops had to retreat under fire, Carney struggled back across the battlefield, and although wounded twice more, returned the flag to the Union lines. Before turning over the colors to another survivor of the 54th, Carney modestly said, "Boys, I only did my duty; the old flag never touched the ground!"

Many Civil War medals were awarded for protecting and displaying the flag under fire, or for capturing enemy flags. Carney was awarded the Medal of Honor on 23 May 1900. More than half such awards from the Civil War were presented 20 or more years after the fact. In later life, Carney was a postal employee and popular speaker at patriotic events.

Medal of Honor Citation:

Sergeant, Company C, 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry. Place and date: At Fort Wagner, S.C., July 18, 1863. Entered service at: New Bedford, MA. Birth: Norfolk, VA. Date of issue: May 23, 1900.

"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."


The attack on Fort Wagner is depicted in the film Glory. Carney's face is shown on the monument to Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th on the Boston Common designed by Augustus Saint Gaudens.

The Sgt. Carney Salute - folding of a flag on a staff in a manner to allow immediate unfurling -was developed by California Scoutmaster J.S. Fox at the 1997 Boy Scout National Scout Jamboree after studying the creases and folds of Civil War Regimental Flags.

A New Bedford, MA, elementary school was named in his honor.

Death and Burial

Sergeant William Harvey Carney died on 8 December 1908 in Boston, MA. He is buried in the family plot at Oak Grove Cemetery in New Bedford, Bristol County, MA.

Honoree ID: 18   Created by: MHOH




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