The First Black Medal of Honor Winner: William Carney

William Carney

There have been 88 Black Medal of Honor winners, and William Carney was the first to merit the award. Although he was actually the twenty-first African American to physically receive the medal, his actions on the Civil War battlefield occurred before those of the twenty other men, so he is generally considered the first Black person to merit the country’s highest award.
Carney was born into slavery in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1840. His father escaped servitude on the Underground Railroad and made his way to Massachusetts. Once he had enough money, he bought his family’s freedom, and they were reunited. Even though there were laws against Black literacy, young William was eager to get an education. He dreamed of going to seminary school and becoming a minister.

The Civil War broke out in 1861, but Blacks were initially barred from joining the fight. In 1863, however, President Lincoln delivered the Emancipation Proclamation - for the first time, Black soldiers could enlist in the Union Army. Carney abandoned his education plans and joined the now-famous 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, the country’s first all-Black regiment.

Carney was made a sergeant thanks to his education and leadership abilities. Those abilities were soon tested when his company was sent to James Island, South Carolina, for the attack on Fort Wagner. After they waited on the beach for two days, poorly supplied and hungry, Colonel Robert Shaw volunteered the 54th to lead the charge on the heavily defended fort. As night fell, the men sprang up and charged across the sand into a hail of gunfire and cannon fire.

Leading the charge was the standard bearer, Sergeant John Wall. He was soon wounded and began to fall, but Sergeant Carney scrambled forward to grab the flag before the colors fell. He charged forward and soon found himself alone at the base of the fort’s wall, surrounded by dead and wounded soldiers.

He attempted to tend to the wounded but was shot twice, so he was forced to take cover and wait for reinforcements. He later wrote that “the bullet I now carry in my body came whizzing like a mosquito, and I was shot. Not being prostrated by the shot, I continued my course, yet had not gone far before I was stuck by a second shot.”

A soldier from the 100th Regiment of New York eventually came to Carney’s aid. As the pair struggled to get back to Union lines, Carney was shot again in the arm and grazed by a fourth bullet, but he never dropped the flag. He survived his wounds and died peacefully in his home forty-five years later, eight years after receiving the Medal of Honor for his service. His grave marker bears the image of the Medal of Honor, an award earned by less than 3,500 people throughout its 157-year history.