The Heroic Legacy of Army Sgt. William H. Carney

As we celebrate the Fourth of July and celebrate the ideals that founded our nation and the freedoms and blessings we enjoy, we invite you to take a moment to consider the sacrifice of those that have inspired us.

We selected this anecdote because it reflects something deeply needed in our nation today — the willingness to embrace one another in unity; the necessity to sacrifice and view each other with a measure of forgiveness, in the spirit of focusing, not on our collective sins, but rather in celebration of the principles that have made this nation a beacon of hope for individual freedom.

Frederick Douglass in his famous speech, now referred to as, “What to the Slave Is 4 July?”  in which he expressed his immeasurable sadness over the disparity that existed between white Americans and black Americans, the majority of whom remained enslaved at that time, still found the grace to view the founding of our republic and its architects as “great men, … great enough to give frame to a great age. It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men. The point from which I am compelled to view them is not, certainly, the most favorable; and yet I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration. They were statesmen, patriots and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory.

In the annals of American history, few stories are as inspiring as that of Army Sgt. William H. Carney, a former slave who became a symbol of courage and patriotism during the Civil War. Carney’s unwavering dedication to protecting the American flag earned him the highest military decoration – the Medal of Honor.

William H. Carney’s journey began in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1840. Despite being born into slavery, Carney’s family gained their freedom and relocated to Massachusetts. Initially aspiring to a career in the church, Carney’s path took a dramatic turn with the outbreak of the Civil War. He enlisted in the Union Army, viewing it as a divine calling to serve both God and country by fighting for freedom.

In March 1863, Carney joined the Union Army and was assigned to Company C of the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry Regiment. This unit held the distinction of being the first official African American unit recruited for the Union. Carney served alongside 40 other black soldiers, including two sons of Frederick Douglass.

On July 18, 1863, Carney’s regiment led a charge on Fort Wagner in Charleston, South Carolina. During this fierce battle, Carney’s extraordinary bravery came to the forefront. When the unit’s color guard was shot, Carney, despite sustaining multiple gunshot wounds himself, seized the American flag preventing it from falling to the ground.  With unwavering determination, Carney crawled up the hill towards Fort Wagner, holding the flag high and rallying his fellow soldiers. Upon reaching the fort’s walls, he planted the flag in the sand and held it upright until he was rescued, barely clinging to life.

Even as he was carried to safety, Carney refused to relinquish his grip on the flag. Witnesses recounted how he clung to it until he reached the Union’s temporary barracks, ensuring it never touched the ground.

Carney’s heroic actions played a crucial role in the Union’s victory at Fort Wagner and earned him a promotion to the rank of sergeant, but it wasn’t until May 23, 1900, nearly 37 years later, that he was awarded the Medal of Honor for his exceptional bravery.

The legacy of William H. Carney extends far beyond his individual acts of heroism. His story serves as a powerful testament to the patriotism and courage demonstrated by African American soldiers during the Civil War, challenging racial prejudices and contributing significantly to the Union’s cause.

While the original 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry Regiment was disbanded after the war, it was reactivated in 2008. Today, it serves as a National Guard ceremonial unit, performing at honorary funerals and state functions. The unit’s enduring legacy was further celebrated when it was invited to march in President Barack Obama’s inaugural parade.


Sgt. William H. Carney’s story is a shining example of courage, dedication, and commitment to our country’s highest ideals. From the savagery slavery to the honor of being a Medal of Honor recipient, Carney’s life journey embodies the very ideals of American patriotism. His unwavering commitment to protecting the American flag, even at great personal cost, continues to inspire.

This Fourth of July, as we celebrate our nation’s independence from tyranny, we urge our fellow citizens to view one another in the spirit of grace, forgiveness, and unity — we have a chance to build on the legacy of Sgt. Carney and those that came before by continuing to fight injustice and continuing to protect the freedoms that makes our country the envy of so many.

Wishing you and your families a blessed and Happy Fourth of July!