On February 29, 1840, William H. Carney, Jr. was born in Norfolk, Virginia. The son of slaves, Carney lived in Norfolk throughout most of his youth. In 1859, he followed his father William, who had escaped slavery through the Underground Railroad, to New Bedford. Carney's father later purchased the freedom of his mother, Nancy.
In the spring of 1861, the American Civil War broke out. Black men were excluded from military service until January 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This document ensured African-Americans' right to serve in the United States army and navy.
Shortly after, Massachusetts Governor John Andrew called for the formation of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, the first official all-black unit in U.S. history. A recruiting station to enlist black men for service was set up in the heart of downtown New Bedford, at the Tobey and Coggeshall building. Carney enlisted in the Union Army on February 17, 1863.
Carney proved to be an able soldier, and quickly rose to the rank of Sergeant in Company C. However, Sergeant Carney's true mark on history was won at the assault on Fort Wagner in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina.
The 54th Massachusetst was one of the first units to lead the assault in the early evening of July 18, 1863. Navigating intense enemy fire as they moved across the beach, the unit's flag bearer was shot down. In a Civil War unit, it was considered an honor to be the flag bearer; only the bravest and most respected individuals held this position. Sergeant Carney immediately threw down his musket, retrieved the flag, and continued the advance.
The unit suffered heavy casualties, and Carney waited for some time at the fort walls for Union reinforcements. Realizing more Confederate troops had arrived, Carney retreated toward Union lines. Carney was struck several times, including a minor wound to the head. A member of the 100th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment came to his aid, and offered to carry the colors (flag) for him. Carney rebutted that only a member of the 54th Massachusetts would hold those colors. When Carney finally reached safety behind Union lines, he reassured other members of his unit: “Boys, I only did my duty. The old flag never touched the ground.”
On May 23, 1900, he received the Medal of Honor for his action at Fort Wagner. He was the first African American to earn this award.
Post-war, Carney held several positions, including the first black postman in the city of New Bedford. In the final years of his life, Sergeant Carney took a job as a messenger for Secretary of State William Olin in the Massachusetts State House, becoming only the second black man to hold this position.
Sergeant Carney passed away on December 9, 1908 as the result of an elevator accident at the Massachusetts State House. In a final gesture of respect, all flags in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts were lowered to half-mast. This was the first time in Massachusetts' history that an African-American and “ordinary” citizen had been honored in this way.
Last updated: July 15, 2021