The U.S. flag has been a symbol of American courage and patriotism for more than 200 years, and those who serve in the military hold it in high reverence.
So it’s no surprise that Army Sgt. William H. Carney risked his life in 1863 to safeguard the symbol of American pride and inspiration, earning the distinction of being the first African-American to be awarded the Medal of Honor.
Carney, the son of slaves, was born in Norfolk, Va., on Feb. 29, 1840. As a young man, he was ambitious and eager to learn, and excelled in academics despite laws and restrictions banning African-Americans from learning to read and write.
After his parents’ slave owner died, the Carneys were granted their freedom. Carney’s father moved further north, searching for a suitable area to settle down. After stops in Pennsylvania and New York, the elder Carney took his family to New Bedford, Mass.
Carney spent the remainder of his adolescence in New Bedford, working odd jobs and pursuing his interests in the church. He attended services at the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church and Union Baptist Church, and was on the precipice of making ministry his life’s work when the Civil War began. Carney decided he could better serve God by serving in the military to help free the oppressed.
On March 4, 1863, Carney, along with 40 other African-Americans from New Bedford, joined Company C, 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry Regiment, to fight in the Civil War.
According to state records, the regiment was the first African-American Army unit to be raised in the northern states, and its fighting force included two of famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass’ sons.
After only three months of training in Readville, Mass., they were shipped to the main area of fighting in South Carolina, where they saw action at Hilton Head, St. Simon’s Island, Darien, James Island and Fort Wagner.
It was at Fort Wagner that Carney’s heroic actions earned him the nation’s highest military honor.
On July 18, 1863, 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry Regiment soldiers led the charge on Fort Wagner. During the battle, the color guard, John Wall, was struck by a fatal bullet. He staggered and was about to drop the flag when Carney saw him.
Carney seized the flag, and held it high despite fierce fighting, inspiring the other soldiers. He was wounded twice — in his leg and right arm — and bled heavily. Although the Army sergeant could hardly crawl, he clutched the flag until he finally reached the walls of Fort Wagner. He planted “Old Glory” in the sand and held it tightly until he was rescued, nearly lifeless from blood loss.
According to accounts, Carney still refused to give up the flag to his rescuers, but grasped it even tighter. He crawled on one knee, assisted by his fellow soldiers, until he reached the Union temporary barracks, ensuring the flag never once touched the ground.
For his bravery, on May 23, 1900, Carney was awarded the Medal of Honor, becoming the first African-American to receive the medal.
His citation reads: “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.”