William H. Carney

Born a slave in Norfolk, VA, on February 29, 1840, William Harvey Carney escaped through the Underground Railroad and found his father in Massachusetts. The two men were eventually able to buy the rest of their family out of slavery. Carney enlisted in 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry in February 1863.

He received the Medal of Honor for saving the American flag despite being wounded several times. Carney was wounded twice more as the troops struggled to retreat under fire. When he made it back to the Union lines, he handed the colors over to another soldier, saying “Boys, I only did my duty; the old flag never touched the ground!”

Nearly four decades after the war ended, he became the first African American to receive the Medal of Honor. After the war he worked in a post office and was a popular speaker. He died December 9, 1908 in Boston and is buried at Oak Grove Cemetery in New Bedford.

Citation: 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.