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So it's no surprise that Army Sgt. William H. Carney risked his life in 1863 to safeguard the symbol of American pride and inspiration, earning the distinction of being the first African-American to be awarded the Medal of Honor.
Carney, the son of slaves, was born in Norfolk, Va., on Feb. 29, 1840. As a young man, he was ambitious and eager to learn, and excelled in academics despite laws and restrictions banning African-Americans from learning to read and write.
After his parents' slave owner died, the Carneys were granted their freedom. Carney's father moved further north, searching for a suitable area to settle down. After stops in Pennsylvania and New York, the elder Carney took his family to New Bedford, Mass.
Carney spent the remainder of his adolescence in New Bedford, working odd jobs and pursuing his interests in the church. He attended services at the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church and Union Baptist Church, and was on the precipice of making ministry his life's work when the Civil War began. Carney decided he could better serve God by serving in the military to help free the oppressed.
On March 4, 1863, Carney, along with 40 other African-Americans from New Bedford, joined Company C, 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry Regiment, to fight in the Civil War.
According to state records, the regiment was the first African-American Army unit to be raised in the northern states, and its fighting force included two of famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass' sons.
After only three months of training in Readville, Mass., they were shipped to the main area of fighting in South Carolina, where they saw action at Hilton Head, St. Simon's Island, Darien, James Island and Fort Wagner.
It was at Fort Wagner that Carney's heroic actions earned him the nation's highest military honor.
On July 18, 1863, 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry Regiment soldiers led the charge on Fort Wagner. During the battle, the color guard, John Wall, was struck by a fatal bullet. He staggered and was about to drop the flag when Carney saw him.
Source: Department of Defense | AFPS