“I had a strong inclination to prepare myself for the ministry; but when the country called for all persons, I could best serve my God by serving my country and my oppressed brothers. The sequel is short–I enlisted for the war.”
- Sergeant William H. Carney, letter in The Liberator from October, 1863.Born into slavery in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1840, William Harvey Carney (1840-1908) made his way to Massachusetts to join his father and enlisted in the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry on February 17, 1863. He gained the rank of Sergeant.
Image: William Carney poses wearing his medal of honor. (1908).
At the Battle of Fort Wagner on July 18, 1863, Carney was shot in the leg and arm. When the 54th’s flagbearer fell, Carney carried the flag. Carney was discharged as disabled in June 1864 due to his injuries from the battle.
Later (in 1900), he received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his action, the earliest of any African American. He got the award much later, in 1900.
After the war, Carney was active in the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) and Black veterans’ groups. The GAR was a powerful advocate for veterans pensions and services. Like many U.S. veterans, especially those with war wounds, he worked for the government, in his case, for the U.S. Postal Service, working as a letter carrier for 32 years. He then served as a messenger in the Massachusetts State House. An elevator accident there killed him in November 1908.
For more information on advocacy by veterans, see the article on the Grand Army of the Republic.
- 54thMass.org “Sergeant Carney’s Flag.” 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment Company B. Accessed June 28, 2022.
- Sergeant William H. Carney. “Interesting Correspondence.” November 6, 1863. The Liberator.
- Carte-de-visite album of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment. c.1864. Ritchie, J. National Museum of African American History and Culture. Retrieved May 24, 2022.
- W.E.B. DuBois. . Official records, United States Army and Navy Medal of Honor men. William H. Carney, Sergt. Co. C, 54th Mass. Library of Congress.
- Massachusetts Historical Society Collections Online: William H. Carney. 1900. Retrieved June 2, 2022.
- New Bedford Free Public Library. (n.d.). GAR Post 1 Members. William Carney standing with fellow members of Grand Army of the Republic Post 1, New Bedford, Massachusetts, outside City Hall. Digital Commonwealth.
- William H. Carney (U.S. National Park Service). (n.d.). Boston African American National Historic Site. Retrieved May 24, 2022.