BY WALTER OPINDE
Sergeant William Carney Harvey was, on 29th February, 1840, born a slave in Norfolk, Virginia. He was awarded the Medal of Honor, in 1900, for his gallantry and bravery in saving the regiment colors during the 1863 Battle of Fort Wagner. Owing to the fact that Carney’s actions and achievements preceded those of the other Medal honorees, historians consider him as the first African-American to be bestowed the Medal of Honor.
The youthful Carney was a vibrant, bright, ambitious boy whom his parents became extremely proud of. His father and mother, now freed from slavery, realized the importance and urgency of providing education to their son. Despite the fact that the provision of formal education (teaching) any Black was against the law at the time, Harvey’s parents sent him to a secret, private school in Norfolk, Virginia, to learn how to read and write. At the private school, William Harvey proved to be an apt scholar who readily absorbed the well-rounded education contents.
Eventually, William’s father managed to escape slavery through an Underground Railroad, thereafter, working much harder to earn money that would ultimately buy his family freedom. After the family’s freedom, when his father moved them to New Bedford, Massachusetts, William initially intended to pursue his ecclesiastical training in order to become a minister. However, in 1863, when the Emancipation Proclamation, for the first time, officially authorized the recruitment of black troops during the Civil War, Carney opted to go for the Union Army’s enlistment. From New Bedford, William was recruited and joined the famous “All-Black 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment,” which was, by then, under the command of a 26-year old Colonel Goud Robert Shaw, the son to an affluent Boston abolitionist. Due to his education, brilliance, and potential strength in leading others, Carney soon rose to a Sergeant Rank.
William Harvey played an integral role during the 18th July, 1863 assault in Charleston, on Fort Wagner, South Carolina. It was during this assault that Harvey’s brave and brilliant actions ultimately earned him a name and the Medal of Honor. Whenever a colored guard or soldier was wounded, Carney would retrieve the American Flag and match forward to save his life, an action that left him with serious multiple wounds. As well, whenever the Union Troops were overwhelmed and forced to retreat under fire, he would struggle back and forth across the hostile battlefield. In the presence of Carney, the old American flag, tattered in the battle, would never touch down.
After his unceasing efforts and role in the battlefield, William Harvey was discharged from the infantry as a result of several wounds on his body. However, due to his heroic acts at the Fort Wagner, he was bestowed the Highest Military Honor- the Congressional Medal of Honor. Carney’s legacy still stands as the first African-American to receive such award. When William Carney died on 9th December, 1908, the Massachusetts State House flag was flown halfway in his honor, an honor often given only to the deceased Senators, Congressmen, Governors, or the President of the U.S.
Read more of the story from:
Marshall Jr., Tyrone C. (19 February, 2013). “First African-American Medal of Honor Recipient Safeguarded Flag”. State News Service.
Oliver j. Horton & Lois Horton (2005). Slavery and the Making of America. (New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2005.