This Day In History: May 23

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Recognized for heroically protecting the American flag during the Civil War, Army Sgt. William Harvey Carney receives the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military decoration, on May 23, 1900. 

The first Black American service member to earn the award, Carney was born into slavery in Virginia in 1840. Although a handful of other Black service members had already received the medal, Carney’s award celebrated an earlier action. He was one of many Civil War-era honorees to be granted the medal decades later.

Although he was born into slavery, Carney's family relocated to Massachusetts (reports vary on whether they were freed or escaped), and, in 1863, Carney joined the Union Army as part of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment, the first Black regiment from the North to serve in the war.

"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 by serving my country and my oppressed brothers,” Carney wrote in 1863. “The sequel is short—I enlisted for the war."

It was during his unit’s first major battle that Carney saw the flag bearer get hit by bullets, and rushed to catch the flag from him before it hit the ground. “Despite suffering several serious gunshot wounds himself, Carney kept the symbol of the Union held high as he crawled up the hill to the walls of Fort Wagner, urging his fellow troops to follow him,” according to the U.S. Army. “He planted the flag in the sand at the base of the fort and held it upright until his near-lifeless body was rescued.”

Carney’s injuries resulted in an honorable discharge, and he returned to Massachusetts, where he worked for the postal service and as a messenger at the Massachusetts State House.