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Mon, 03.28.1842

William Carney, Military Officer born

William Carney

*William Carney was born on this date in 1842. He was a Black military officer.

From Norfolk, Virginia, his mother was held in captivity with her free husband at the time of his birth. During Carney's early childhood, he received some schooling from a minister in secret. After the death of his mother's master in 1856, the entire family moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts. There on the wharf as a teenager, William H. Carney assisted his father, who joined many other freed Blacks who worked at sea.

In 1863, President Lincoln was forced to allow Black soldiers into the Union Army because the North was losing the war.  Carney enlisted in the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, one of the first Black groups recruited by the North. At the time, Black regiments were commanded by white officers. On July 18, 1863, the regiment faced entrenched Confederate forces at Fort Wagner.  With Commander Robert Gould Shaw dead, a wounded William Carney dodged both bullets and bodies and grabbed the Union flag. He rallied the troops by yelling, "Boys, the old flag never touched the ground." Over 1,500 Black soldiers were killed in this battle.

This tragic episode proved to Lincoln's administration that Blacks were reliable and would be willing to fight, without reservation, for the Union Army. The bravery of Sergeant Carney was duly recognized in his being awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the first ever conferred to a Black soldier. Still, this highest award for service to the United States was not presented to Carney until May 20, 1900.

Twenty-two Blacks were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor during the Civil War alone.  After leaving the service in 1865, Carney eventually returned to Massachusetts.  Today, the flag is preserved in Boston's Memorial Hall, and Carney's home is known as "Sergeant Carney Memorial House." Along the Black Heritage Trail, Carney's likeness appears on the Saint-Gaudens monument, which depicts the 54th Massachusetts Regimen with its leader Colonel Shaw.  William H. Carney died on March 20, 1908.


Africana The Encyclopedia of the African and
African American Experience
Editors: Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Copyright 1999
ISBN 0-465-0071-1

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