If you have watched the movie Glory, you saw a recreation of the assault on Fort Wagner, South Carolina, by the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry. But a real-life hero from that battle was Sgt. William Harvey Carney, who was awarded the Medal of Honor on May 23, 1900—37 years after the assault on Fort Wagner.
The Medal of Honor is the United States Government’s most prestigious decoration. Established through a Joint Resolution of Congress in July of 1862, the award is bestowed upon “a person, who, while a member of the armed services, distinguishes themselves conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of their life above and beyond the call of duty, while engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States.”
Carney’s actions were detailed in the above letter by Governor John Andrew of Massachusetts to Secretary of War Stanton, calling Carney a “brave man,” detailing his determination to keep the flag upright during the attack, and recommending a 30-day furlough so that he could visit his family in New Bedford, MA.
On July 18, 1863, Sergeant Carney led the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry to the rampart amid a barrage of gunfire and planted the nation’s colors there. As the contingent fell back, the young sergeant once again protected the flag despite a rain of bullets that left him severely wounded.
This the act of heroism took place in 1863, but Sergeant Carney was not awarded the country’s highest military honor until May 23, 1900. Although his actions were the earliest by an African American to earn the Medal of Honor, 21 African Americans had received the Medal of Honor by 1900.
Carney was not the only overlooked hero. Several African American Civil War veterans were left unacknowledged for decades. Cpl. Andrew J. Smith’s actions at Honey Hill, South Carolina, were overlooked for more than 136 years until he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in 2001.
Today, the Department of Defense and Congress remain committed to acknowledging all servicemen deserving of the Medal of Honor. This includes veterans of the Civil War, World War I, World War II, and all other American military engagements.