Army Sgt. William H. Carney risked his life in 1863 to safeguard the symbol of American pride and inspiration, thereby becoming the first African-American to be awarded the Medal of Honor. Born into slavery in Virginia, along with his parents, Carney came into the world in 1840. Despite penalties for learning to read and write, Carney was eager to learn and excelled in his studies.
Both he and his parents were manumitted upon the death of their slavemaster. Having gained their freedom, the Carneys moved north and finally settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts. It was there that Carney spent the balance of his adolescence, where he was active in his church. When war began, he was planning to dedicate his life to Christian ministry. As the Civil War broke out, Carney decided to enter military service instead.
On March 4, 1863, Carney and 40 other African-Americans from New Bedford joined Company C, 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry Regiment and got into the fight. Historical records indicate that his regiment was the African-American unit to be raised in the northern states for the Army. Among those in the ranks was the son of the fiery abolitionist Frederick Douglass' sons.
After only three months' training in Readville, Massachusetts, Carney and his fellow soldiers were sent to fight in South Carolina, where they saw action at Hilton Head, St. Simon's Island, Darien, James Island and Fort Wagner.
And it was at Fort Wagner that Carney rose to the status of heroism.
On July 18, 1863, soldiers from the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry Regiment led a charge on Fort Wagner. During the battle, color guard John Wall was struck by a fatal bullet. He staggered and was about to drop the flag when Carney saw him. Seizing the flag, and thus becoming the focus of Confederate fire, Carney held the banner high despite the barrage of bullets. Inspiring his fellow soldiers, Carney was wounded twice -- in his leg and right arm -- and lost a great deal of blood. Sgt. Carney could barely crawl because of his wound, but still clutched the flag until finally reaching the walls of Fort Wagner. It was there that he planted "Old Glory" in the sand and held it tightly until he was rescued, nearly lifeless from the loss of blood.
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 temporary barracks, ensuring the flag never once touched the ground.
However, it took years for Congress to recognize Carney's signal heroism and patriotic fervor. It was on May 23, 1900, that Carney was awarded the Medal of Honor, thus becoming the first African-American to receive the medal. The citation on the medal 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."
A popular song, Boys, the Old Flag Never Touched the Ground, was composed to popularize Carney's exploits and which he sang for audiences. The lyrics are below:
'Twas the Blue against the Gray, Boys,
And he said to all around,
"I've only done my duty boys,
The old Flag never touch'd the ground.
"I've only done my duty boys,"
He said to all around,
"I've only done my duty boys,
It never touched the ground.
It was in 1989 that the Hollywood film 'Glory' recounted the exploits of the 54th Massachusetts and its valiant leader, Col. Robert Gould Shaw.
After the Civil War, Carney made appearances at patriotic gatherings until he passed away in 1908.