He was born simply as "William," a slave in Norfolk, Virginia, on February 29, 1840.
His father, also named William, was either freed by his master or escaped to the north via the Underground Railroad,
The family settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Young William learned to read and write, and by age 15 he was planning to become a minister.
He was 21 years old when the Civil War began.
|Recruiting Poster for the |
54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry
Carney served with the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first colored regiment in the North, as a sergeant. He told the Liberator newspaper:
Previous to the formation of colored troops, I had a strong inclination to prepare myself for the ministry; but when the country called for all persons, I could best serve my God serving my country and my oppressed brothers.
|Storming Fort Wagner|
|Carney with the flag in 1865|
Although the Union forces were repulsed and had to lay siege to Fort Wagner, which the Confederates abandoned two months later, the 54th was widely hailed for its bravery. The regiment's heroism had a ripple effect, spurring thousands of other black men to join the Union Army. Edward Hallowell, Carney's commanding officer after Shaw's death, specifically mentioned Carney's courage under fire in his report on the assault, .
In 1866 William Carney was appointed superintendent of streetlights for the city of New Bedford. He then went to California to seek his fortune but returned to New Bedford in 1869 and took a job as a letter carrier for the Postal Service. He worked at that job for 32 years before retiring.
|Medal of Honor|
After retirement he was employed as a messenger at the Massachusetts State House, where in 1908 he would be fatally injured in an accident that trapped his leg in an elevator. He died on December 8, 1908 at the age of 68. In December 1908, all the flags in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts were lowered to half-mast in tribute to Sgt. William H. Carney. Never before had this honor been paid to an ordinary citizen and African American.
He was buried in the family plot at Oak Grove Cemetery in New Bedford. Engraved on his stone monument is a gold image of the Medal of Honor.