William Harvey Carney: “the old flag never touched the ground!”

William Harvey Carney

“Boys, I only did my duty; the old flag never touched the ground!”

William Harvey Carney was born into slavery in 1840. It’s not certain how he became a free man, but based on most accounts, he escaped through the Underground Railroad.

In 1863, he joined the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. And on July 18th, 1863, this regiment led the charge on Fort Wagner.

As the regiment marched in battle, the unit’s color guard was shot. William, only a few feet away from the falling color guard, rushed over to catch the flag. He caught the flag and proceeded to march forward.

Then he too was shot. Twice.

But he continued to march forward, holding the flag up high as “he crawled up the hill to the walls of Fort Wagner, urging his fellow troops to follow him. He planted the flag in the sand at the base of the fort and held it upright until his near-lifeless body was rescued.”

And still he didn’t want to give the flag up. Witnesses said that William held on to the flag until he made it back to the regiment’s temporary barracks.

The flag never touched the ground.

William was promoted to sergeant after this battle. 37 years later he received the Medal of Honor. The first African American to receive the honor.

After the war, William returned home to New Bedford, Massachusetts. He took a job maintaining the city’s streetlights. And then he delivered mail for 32 years.

His citation 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.