Unbound. Full plate hand-painted tintype photograph of William H. Carney and his wife Susannah Carney, with the Sergeant wearing his Medal of Honor. Measuring 7.25” x 10”. Scratched on the back: “Sgt. Wm. Carney, 54th Mass. Vols. 1900” (the date may be 1901). Left side corners clipped, flaking of the emulsion on and around his left leg and shoes, with some surface craquelure, and waviness to the tin, else very good condition.
The Emancipation Proclamation (January 1, 1863) officially authorized recruiting black soldiers for the first time in the Civil War. That March, William Harvey Carney joined the all black 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, commanded by 26 year-old Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. Because of Carney’s education and leadership skills (he had studied to be a Preacher) he quickly rose to the rank of Sergeant. In July, the 54th Massachusetts was sent to James Island, South Carolina, where on July 18, Shaw offered to lead the charge against Fort Wagner (the attack on Fort Wagner was depicted in the film *Glory*). During the battle Shaw and his flag bearer were pinned down beneath the parapet of the fort. Trying to rally his men forward, Shaw and the flag bearer fell, both mortally wounded. In that moment, Carney seized the colors, prevented the flag from touching the ground, struggled up the parapet and, though wounded in the legs, chest, and arm, planted the colors at the top of the rampart. Despite his wounds and the heavy gunfire around him, Carney was able to keep the flag aloft, though pinned down until reinforcements arrived and the shredded unit was able to withdraw. Struggling back to Union lines while still carrying the colors, Carney collapsed saying: “Boys the old flag never touched the ground.” He spent the next 11 months recuperating, but was never fit again, and because of his wounds, he received an honorable disability discharge in June, 1864.
Carney’s Medal of Honor citation reads: “When the color sergeant was shot down, this soldier grasped the flag, led the way to the parapet, and planted the colors thereon. When the troops fell back he brought off the flag, under a fierce fire in which he was twice severely wounded.”
Most Civil War Congressional Medals of Honor were awarded decades after the action, and while other African-Americans received theirs before Carney, his was for the earliest battle and he is unanimously acclaimed as “the first African-American Medal of Honor winner.” The National Archives puts it plainly: “Sergeant William Carney of New Bedford, MA, became the first African-American awarded the Medal of Honor for Most distinguished gallantry in action…”
A wonderful image. Rare.