William
Harvey Carney was born into enslavement 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, 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. After the war, William returned home to New Bedford,
Massachusetts. He took a job maintaining the city’s streetlights and he
delivered mail for thirty two years.

Thirty seven years after the charge on Fort Wagner, William received the Medal of Honor. 

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