And the Old Flag Never Touched the Ground

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And the Old Flag Never Touched the Ground
Ramon B. Price
39.56 x 29.37 in.
DuSable Museum of African American History, purchased from Illinois State Historical Library

In the hazy background of this painting, the 1863 Second Battle of Fort Wagner rages on. At the center, the Union Army flag bearer has been hit by a bullet and Sergeant William H. Carney steps in and catches the American flag. Civil War soldiers viewed dropping the flag as a dreadful thing to be avoided at all costs, something a soldier never allowed to happen unless he had been killed.

Imagine what it would be like to be Carney. He grew up enslaved in Virginia, but through the Underground Railroad he escaped slavery and moved to Massachusetts. He joined the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, one of Union’s first all-black units. As Ramon Price painted the scene, you see Carney save the flag.  But what you don’t see is the rest of the story.  Carney stayed with the flag throughout the battle, even when he was wounded. And, though the 54th did not win at Fort Wagner, their valor and bravery led to recognition and encouraged many other northern African Americans to enlist in the service. In 1900, Carney finally received the Medal of Honor from the United States Government for his bravery.

Ramon Price painted this image 100 years after the battle, just as the Civil Rights movement was reaching its peak. Heroes like Carney—men who did their duty to the United States in the face of death—were meaningful figures to African Americans still fighting for the freedoms they were promised by the Union in the Civil War.

1. Look at the painting. It is hard to tell from the scene where the fighting is occurring. What about the color scheme? What feeling or atmosphere does Price achieve by using yellow tones? What is the effect of perspective here?

2. Compare this to Martyl's Col. Robert G. Shaw Dying at the Battle of Fort Wagner, or to Jennie Scott Washington’s 54th Massachusetts Volunteers. How are the paintings different? How are they similar?

3. Why do you think it took so long for the United States to recognize Carney for his bravery?

Further reading:
Fahs, Alice. “Picturing the Civil War 1.” Picturing U.S. History.

Helm, Matt. “Carney, William H. (1840-1908).”

Pohanka, Brian C. “Fort Wagner and the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, July 18, 1863.” America's Civil War Magazine.

United States Army Center of Military History. “Medal of Honor Recipients, Civil War (A-L).” United States Army Center of Military History.

©DuSable Museum of African American History