Out of the 3,498 recipients of the Medal of Honor, 88 have been African American. The very first black recipient was an Army Sgt. who fought in the Civil War.
William H. Carney
Carney was a slave in Norfolk, Virginia. When his family was freed, they went to Massachusetts. Though laws prohibited black people from going to school, Carney desperately wanted to learn to read and write and began to learn in secret.
He wanted to work in the church, but the Civil War started. In Carney’s mind helping serve in the military would also be serving God by freeing the slaves in the south.
Carney joined the Union Army in 1863 and was a member of the first black unit Company C, 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry Regiment. He was enlisted with 40 black men, including two of Frederick Douglass’ sons.
Carney’s regiment fought at Fort Wagner on July 18, 1863. While they were fighting, the color guard was shot. As he fell, Carney ran to catch the flag that was falling from the dying man’s hands.
Carney himself was shot, but he kept the Union flag held up high, motivating his unit to keep moving forward. He even stuck the flag in the ground at the foot of the fort, holding it there even as he was barely holding on to consciousness.
He was rescued but would not let go of the flag. He did not let go until his rescuers got him back to the Union’s barracks.
Honored For His Work
Even though Carney was barely hanging on, he made it his mission to ensure that the flag never touched the ground. He was an inspiration to his regiment and helped the Union win at Fort Wagner.
For his dedication, he was promoted to sergeant. On May 23, 1900, he was given the Medal of Honor for his bravery in the face of danger.
Carney held onto a deep sense of national pride, no matter what was going on in the nation at the time, and fought for what was right. Though the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry Regiment was disbanded, it was brought back in 2008. They are now a ceremonial unit serving at functions and honorary funerals.
The National Guard ceremonial unit also marched at President Barack Obama’s inaugural parade.