William H. Carney


James E. Reed, William H. Carney, c. 1901–1908, gelatin silver print, 5 1/2 × 3 3/4 in. (13.8 × 9.3 cm). Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University

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William Harvey Carney (1840–1908) was born a slave in Norfolk, Virginia. As a youth he escaped to freedom in Massachusetts, where his father was living. On February 17, 1863, at age twenty-three, Carney responded to the call for black soldiers and joined a local militia along with forty-five others from New Bedford, Massachusetts. This unit would soon become Company C of the now-famous 54th Massachusetts Regiment.

Private Carney emerged from the assault on Fort Wagner as a symbol of the determination, discipline, and courage of the newly formed black troops. When the regimental flag bearer was killed, Carney seized the flag and carried it to the front lines up a steep embankment, where he planted it for all to see. Union troops, however, were soon forced to retreat under heavy attack. Carney reclaimed the flag and brought it safely back to camp, suffering multiple wounds in the process. He is reported to have told his fellow soldiers: “Boys, I did but my duty; the dear old flag never touched the ground.” Carney’s actions contributed to the regiment’s reputation for bravery against all odds, and helped dispel racist accusations that blacks would prove unwilling or unable to fight. He was soon promoted to the rank of sergeant and later, in 1900, was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor—the nation’s highest military decoration. There was no ceremonial presentation of the medal when it was finally given to Carney nearly thirty-seven years after his heroic actions. Carney commemorated the occasion by commissioning his photographic portrait.

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