• Exploring American History

Fierce dedication worthy of honor

Of the various awards presented to the brave men and women of the United States Armed Forces, the Medal of Honor is the highest and most prestigious decoration awarded. The award is presented to members of the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, Coast Guard and now Space Force guardians, who have distinguished themselves by acts of valor.


Originally introduced in 1861 for the Department of the Navy, the Army version was introduced in 1862. Though sometimes referred to as the “Congressional Medal of Honor”, this is wrong. The medal is awarded by Congress and presented to the recipient, or his/her family, by the President of the United States. Each time the recipient is present is a joyous occasion, due to the fact the majority of the awards have been received posthumously by the hero’s family.

Since its inception, more than 3,500 Medals of Honor have been presented. Of this number, 88 recipients are black. The first of these 88 awards were presented to William Harvey Carney who fought in the Union Army during the Civil War.


Carney was born into slavery on February 29, 1840, in Norfolk, Virginia. Through the help of the Underground Railroad, he was able to obtain freedom when he relocated to Massachusetts. In March 1863, Carney joined the Union Army. He was assigned to the 54th Massachusetts Colored Regiment. Here he served with the two sons of Frederick Douglass.


On July 18, 1863, Carney’s unit came under fire during a charge, killing their color guard. Carney was a few feet away from his fallen comrade and ran to grab the flag so it did not fall to the ground. In the process, he sustained serious injuries due to being shot several times. Despite that, while climbing the hill to Fort Wagner, he still maintained control of the flag, never letting it fall.


After he arrived at the fort, William erected the flag in the sand and kept it upright until he was rescued. By then he was barely alive due to an immense blood loss. When help arrived, William refused to release the flag until he was taken for treatment. His patriotic behavior resulted in a promotion to sergeant. Soon after, due to the seriousness of his wounds, he was given an honorable discharge from the military.

Following his discharge, William returned to New Bedford. Here he obtained a job maintaining the town’s street lights. During this time, he met and married Suzanna Williams, with whom he had one daughter. Carney left the street light position when he acquired a job as a letter carrier. His career with the post office continued for the next 32 years.

On May 23, 1900, William received the Medal of Honor for participating in the charge on Ft. Wagner. Prior to receiving his award, several other black veterans had also received the Medal of Honor;. Despite the fact they received their awards prior to Carney, the date their award became official occurred after the date of William’s. Consequently, William Carney is named as the first black American to be awarded the Medal of Honor.


Though he spent a few years in California, Carney lived out his remaining years in Massachusetts. On December 9, 1908, William Carney died in Boston City Hospital. His death was the result of injuries he received in an elevator accident at the Massachusetts State House. He was laid to rest in his family’s plot in the Oak Grove Cemetery, New Bedford, Massachusetts. The Medal of Honor is engraved on his headstone. An elementary school in New Bedford is named for him and his home is listed in the National Registry.


The regiment in which Carney served was disbanded many years ago; however, in 2008, it was reactivated. It is now a National Guard Ceremonial Unit and presides at honorary funerals and state events. In addition, the unit marched in the inaugural parade for President Barack Obama.

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