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The Old Flag Never Touched the Ground: William Carney at the Battle of Fort Wagner


Happy birthday to a remarkable hero of the American Civil War, Sergeant William Harvey Carney, born on February 29, 1840 in Norfolk, Virginia.

Born into slavery, Carney rose up and escaped enslavement as a young man on the Underground Railroad. He made his way to Massachusetts, where he joined the rest of his family and later signed up to fight for the Union in 1863. Carney’s unit was the storied 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, which was the first military unit consisting of black soldiers to be raised in the North during the Civil War.

On Saturday, July 18, 1863, Carney and his regiment spearheaded an attack against Confederate Fort Wagner on Morris Island, South Carolina. During the intense battle, several of the 54th’s flag bearers were shot down. As one soldier carrying the American flag was hit and about to collapse, Carney threw down his weapon and rescued Old Glory, keeping the flag upright. In the face of punishing enemy fire, Carney suffered several serious gunshot wounds, but he continued to guide the Stars and Stripes forward and planted the flag atop the walls of the fort.

Carney and the 54th Massachusetts assaulting Fort Wagner on July 18, 1863. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Despite the valor of the 54th Massachusetts and the other nine Union regiments involved in the attack against Fort Wagner, Confederate resistance ultimately proved too strong to overcome. Although badly wounded and utterly exhausted, Carney made it back to Federal lines with Old Glory safely in hand. With the flag saved, Carney reportedly told his comrades, “Boys, I only did my duty; the Old Flag never touched the ground.”

For his incredible gallantry under fire at Fort Wagner, Carney was awarded the Medal of Honor, the United States military’s highest decoration for valor, on May 23, 1900. Although Carney had to wait nearly 37 years to claim this distinction, his battle date of July 18, 1863 represents the earliest action for which a black soldier was awarded the Medal of Honor.

William Carney with the Medal of Honor pinned to his jacket. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Among the 25 black soldiers and sailors who earned the Medal of Honor for their valor during the Civil War, Sergeant William Carney will always rank first in the hearts of his countrymen.

Sources

American Battlefield Trust: William Carney.

U.S. Army: Meet Sgt. William Carney: The First African-American Medal of Honor Recipient.

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