Carney served with the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry as a Sergeant and took part in the July 18, 1863, assault on Fort Wagner in Charleston, South Carolina. He received his medal for saving the American flag and planting it on the parapet and although wounded, holding it while the troops charged. But recognizing the Federal troops had to retreat under fire, and with covering fire by only one white soldier of the 101st New York, Carney struggled back across the battlefield, and although wounded twice more, returned the flag to the Union lines. Before turning over the colors to another survivor of the 54th, Carney modestly said, "Boys, I only did my duty; the old flag never touched the ground!"
Many Civil War medals were awarded for protecting and displaying the flag under fire, or for capturing enemy flags. Carney was awarded the Medal of Honor May 23, 1900, nearly 40 years later. More than half such awards from the Civil War were presented 20 or more years after the fact.
In later life, Carney was a postal employee and popular speaker at patriotic events. He died in Boston, Massachusetts, and is buried in the family plot at Oak Grove Cemetery in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Engraved on his stone monument is a gold image of the Medal of Honor.
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William Harvey Carney was featured in an episode of the popular TV program Sabrina, the Teenage Witch.
The Sgt. Carney Salute—folding of a flag on a staff in a manner to allow immediate unfurling—was developed by California Scoutmaster J.S. Fox at the 1997 Boy Scout National Scout Jamboree after studying the creases and folds of Civil War Regimental Flags.