"…Receiving the regimental colors, the Sergeant pressed forward to the front rank near the Colonel, who was leading the assault. He received a severe wound in the thigh but fell only upon his knees. He planted the Flag on the parapet and for shelter lay down upon the outer slope, where he lay until the second Brigade came up - Keeping the colors flying until the second conflict was ended. When our forces retired he followed upon his knees. Upon reaching the Hospital where lay his wounded companions., he said in reply to their cheers ‘Boys, the old Flag never touched the ground.’”
From the service file of Sergeant William H. Carney with Company C of the 54th Regiment of Massachusetts Infantry.
If you have watched the movie Glory, you saw a recreation of the assault on Fort Wagner, South Carolina, by the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry. But a real-life hero from that battle was Sgt. William Harvey Carney, who was awarded the Medal of Honor on May 23, 1900—37 years after the assault on Fort Wagner.
Carney’s actions were detailed in the above letter by Governor John Andrew of Massachusetts to Secretary of War Stanton, calling Carney a “brave man,” detailing his determination to keep the flag upright during the attack, and recommending a 30-day furlough so that he could visit his family in New Bedford, MA.
On July 18, 1863, Sergeant Carney led the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry to the rampart amid a barrage of gunfire and planted the nation’s colors there. As the contingent fell back, the young sergeant once again protected the flag despite a rain of bullets that left him severely wounded.
This the act of heroism took place in 1863, but Sergeant Carney was not awarded the country’s highest military honor until May 23, 1900. Although his actions were the earliest by an African American to earn the Medal of Honor, 21 African Americans had received the Medal of Honor by 1900.