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Sergeant William F. Carney, the first Black Medal of Honor recipient, kept the American flag held high

William Carney of the 54th Regiment during the Civil War was the first Black person to receive a Medal of Honor.Lane Turner/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

This Black History Month, the Globe is saluting people from Massachusetts who have made a difference.

Sergeant William H. Carney had wanted to become a minister.

But when the Civil War broke out, Carney, then living in New Bedford, was persuaded to volunteer for the Union Army. He attached to Company C, 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry Regiment, the first Black unit in the north.

He would go on to become the first Black person to receive a Medal of Honor, awarded in 1900.

“I felt I could best serve God by serving my country and oppressed brothers,” Carney said later, according to newspaper accounts.


Memorabilia from Sergeant William H. Carney includes the Congressional Medal of Honor.Wilson, Mark Globe Staff/The Boston Globe - The Boston Gl

Carney was born in Norfolk, Va., in 1840 to a family of enslaved people. His parents bought their freedom and moved to Massachusetts. He enlisted in March 1863 and his unit, which included two sons of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, headed down to South Carolina.

Their first combat mission was leading the charge on Fort Wagner in Charleston. Carney saw his unit’s flag bearer was shot and killed, and ran to catch the American flag he was holding.

Carney, too, was shot during the battle. But he held the flag high and crawled up the hill toward the fort. He planted the flag in the sand and kept holding onto it, even after he was rescued.

Rescuers later said he would not hand over the flag, holding it tight until they brought him back to the union’s temporary barracks. He did not allow the fabric to touch the ground.

Union troops had initially retreated from Fort Wagner because of heavy battle losses; about 1,515 Union soldiers had died. Confederates declared victory but after about two months of shelling and siege by land and sea, they abandoned the fort.

A monument to Carney stands in his birth city of Norfolk, a life-sized bronze statue standing atop a tall pedestal.


A marker commemorating the service of Sgt. William H. Carney is displayed outside the National Museum of the United States Army in Fort Belvoir, Va. Matthew Barakat/Associated Press

Gal Tziperman Lotan is a former Globe staff member.