b. 29/02/1840 Norfolk, Virginia. d. 09/12/1908 New Bedford, Massachusetts.
DATE OF MOH ACTION: 18/07/1863 Fort Wagner, Charleston, South Carolina.
Carney was born as a slave in Norfolk, Virginia, on February 29, 1840. How he made his way to freedom is not certain. According to most accounts, he escaped through the Underground Railroad, and joined his father in Massachusetts. Other members of their family were freed by purchase or by the death of their master.
Carney joined the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry in March 1863 as a Sergeant. He took part in the July 18, 1863, assault on Fort Wagner in Charleston, South Carolina. (The attack on Fort Wagner is depicted in the film Glory.) It was in this attack that Carney’s actions ultimately earned him the Medal of Honor. When the color guard was fatally wounded, Carney retrieved the American flag from his comrade and marched forward with it, despite suffering multiple serious wounds. When the Union troops were forced to retreat under fire, Carney struggled back across the battlefield. He eventually made his way back to his own lines and turned over the colors to another survivor of the 54th, modestly saying, “Boys, I only did my duty; the old flag never touched the ground!” Carney received an honorable discharge due to disability (as a result of his wounds) in June 1864.
After his discharge, Carney returned to New Bedford, Massachusetts, and took a job maintaining the city’s streetlights. He married Susannah Williams, and the couple had a daughter, Clara Heronia. Carney spent a few years in California, then returned again in 1869 and began working for the post office as one of the city’s four mail carriers. As a public speaker, he addressed veterans’ groups and other civic organizations.
Carney did not receive his honor until May 23, 1900, nearly 37 years after the events at Fort Wagner. (More than half such awards from the Civil War were presented 20 or more years after the fact.) At least 25 African Americans have received the Medal of Honor. However, because Carney’s battle actions took place earlier in the war than others, he is generally considered to be the first African American to receive this medal.
When the color sergeant was shot down, this soldier grasped the flag, led the way to the parapet, and planted the colors thereon. When the troops fell back he brought off the flag, under a fierce fire in which he was twice severely wounded.
BURIAL LOCATION: OAK GROVE CEMETERY, NEW BEDFORD, MASSACHUSETTS.
SECTION LL, LOT 78, GRAVE 7
LOCATION OF MEDAL: FAMILY.