c.1900. Full plate tintype photograph (7 1/4” X 10”) of William and (his wife) Susannah Carney, the Sergeant wearing his Grand Army of the Republic medal. Scratched on the back: “Sgt. Wm. Carney, 54th Mass. Vols. 1900” (the date might be 1901). Left side corners clipped, flaking of the emulsion around, and to, his right leg and shoes, surface craquelure, the tin wavy, else very good condition, the image fantastic. Custom frame. Rare. Item #20
The Emancipation Proclamation (Jan. 1, 1863) officially authorized recruiting black soldiers for the first time in the Civil War, so in 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 became both sides of his African–American hyphen. He 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 he, and the rest of the 54th Massachusetts, remained 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 some African–Americans received theirs before Carney, but his was for the earliest battle and he is unanimously acclaimed (Google away) 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…” And History net states it just as clearly: “William H. Carney, transcended good to become great, and was the first black U. S. soldier to earn the Medal of Honor.”.