William Harvey Carney (March 28, 1842 – March 20, 1908) was an American Civil War hero.
Sgt. William H. Carney was the first African American to be awarded the Medal of Honor. Sgt. Carney served with the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry and took part in the July 18, 1863 assault on Fort Wagner in Charleston, South Carolina. He received his medal for saving the American flag and planting it on the parapet and holding it while the troops charged. He was wounded four times, but returned the flag to the lines, saying, "Boys, the old flag never touched the ground!"
With the primitive communications of that time, the flag was an important visual contact for troops and many Civil War medals were awarded for protecting and displaying the flag under fire.
The attack on Fort Wagner is depicted in the film Glory. Carney's face is shown on the monument to Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th on the Boston Common designed by Augustus Saint Gaudens. In later life, Carney was a postal employee and popular speaker at patriotic events.
Carney was born a slave but escaped to Massachusetts with his father through the Underground Railroad. They were able later to buy the rest of the family out of slavery. Carney spent his early life as a sailor.
Carney was awarded the Medal of Honor May 23, 1900, nearly 40 years later. More than half such awards from the Civil War were presented 20 or more years late. Although other African Americans had been awarded the Medal of Honor prior to Carney, his was the first action by any African American to merit the award.
There is an elementary school named in his honor in New Bedford, Massachusetts today.