By Graham Warder, Ph.D., Keene State College
Born into slavery in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1840, William Harvey Carney made his way to Massachusetts to join his father and enlisted in the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry on February 17, 1863. He attained the rank of Sergeant. The action for the which he received the Congressional Medal of Honor was the earliest of any African American recipient, though he did not receive the actual award until 1900.
In a letter dated October of 1863, Carney wrote, “I had a strong inclination to prepare, myself for the ministry; but when the country called for all persons, I could best serve my God by serving my country and my oppressed brothers. The sequel is short – I enlisted for the war.”
At the Battle of Fort Wagner on July 18, 1863, he was shot in the leg and arm after he took up their colors when the previous flagbearer fell. He was discharged as disabled in June 1864 due to his injuries from the battle.
After the war, Carney was active in the Grand Army of the Republic and Black veterans’ groups like many U.S. veterans, especially those with war wounds, he worked for the government, in his case, for the U.S. Postal Service, working as a letter carrier for 32 years. He then served as a messenger in the Massachusetts State House. An elevator accident there killed him in November 1908.
“William H. Carney,” National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/articles/william-h-carney.htm .
“Sergeant Carney’s Flag,” 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment Company B., https://www.54th.org/regiment-history/sergeant-carneys-flag/