You may have first heard about him in a much earlier blog on this site, on another day of remembrance ... Christmas Day. You can re-read that blog by clicking here...
Life for William began being born into slavery, at Norfolk West Virginia in February 1840. His father was also a slave of the same owner, who some sources claim had the surname Carney. In the mid 1850's William escaped through the underground railroad and found his father who travelled the same route and made it through to New Bedford Mass. much earlier. His father had found work and managed to save up some money to buy his own freedom and then William Junior's. There was even enough to help Jnr get a secret education. It being secret because it was illegal in those days for the black man to get any education.
In the earlier 1860's President Lincoln put out the call to help with the insurrection he faced by the Southern States. By that time some claim that William had already served with the navy. And to do so, William, according to other sources, had to get a surname. He apparently met up with a white man also named William. This fellow liked Jr and understanding his plight, lent the future hero his surname... that being Carney. With the new surname William H Carney apparently signed up at some point with the US Navy. But on 17 Feb., 1863 William enlisted with a local unit called the Morgans Guard.
Just 15 days later William and 45 other former African -American born slaves all from the Morgans Guard signed up to join the 54th Massachusetts. He was then 23 years of age. But according to the calendar he was really less than 5 years old. Talk about child labour. And youth in the military! A year later he would make it to 6 if you use the calendar and all his BIRTH days that showed up. You see he was born on February 29th!
I won't go into all the details of Carney's heroism back in 1863. Please click on the above link to get that story.
The very regiment depicted in the movie a decade ago called ... GLORY. A movie that made no notice of the fact that between 2 dozen and 39 of the coloured soldiers in the unit came from Canada.
Because of the nature of his injuries and the ongoing medical problems, Carney had to be released from the military as evidenced from an entry in the Descriptive Book, shown on the left.
As the much earlier blog noted, Carney's heroism, like so many other coloured men's heroism was very long in being acknowledged. The above entry shows that it was not until 1900... some 37 years later that his Medal of Honor was finally awarded.
Here are three photos of William H Carney. In the first he is wearing an unusual badge. I have yet to discover what it is. He left the service in 1864 so the photo may well be dated before then. He is still wearing it in the 2nd photo, obviously taken some time later and pre 1900. If after, he would probably have been wearing his Medal of Honor as seen in the third image.
As noted in the earlier blog, Carney is credited with earning the first ever Medal of Honor. This is of course by date of his action back in 1863. However the first medal ever AWARDED to a coloured man went to Robert Blake, a navy Seaman for actions of Christmas Day in 1863. He was awarded his medal just 4 months later, and thus was the first so AWARDED, but not the first so EARNED.
Tonight at the Banquet hall at Springfield Mass there will be opening ceremonies for the 159th anniversary of the Civil War. Part of the events will include a historical exhibit of William H Carney. A few days later, on 30 August the Stone Soul Festival with start for a few days and will be in honour of other local distinguished residents of the past and present.
If in the area, try to come out and support these folks.