Congressional Medal of Honor, awarded to Sergeant William H. Carney

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Congressional Medal of Honor, awarded to Sergeant William H. Carney, Co. C, 54th Mass. Inf. for Gallantry at Fort Wagner, S.C., July 18, 1863, issued 1900, bronze and silk, 3 3/4 × 2 1/8 in. (9.3 × 5.3 cm). Carl J. Cruz Collection

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The design of the Congressional Medal of Honor has changed only slightly over time. When awarded to Sergeant Carney, it featured a five-pointed star suspended from an eagle astride twin cannons with eight cannonballs. Each point of the star features laurel leaves (signifying victory) along with oak leaves (strength). Thirty-four small stars ring the center medallion and represent the number of states (including Confederate) existing at the time of the Civil War. These stars frame an allegorical image that has come to be called “Minerva Repulsing Discord.” Following Roman tradition, the goddess of war and wisdom is identifiable by her helmet, over which hovers her attribute for intelligence—the owl. Her right hand clasps a shield, symbolizing the country’s strength. Her left hand holds the fasces, or bound rods, the classical emblem of unity (from the Latin fascis, meaning “bundle”). The rods are topped with an axe blade that stands for the authority of government. To Minerva’s right, recoiling from her, a man clutches snakes in both hands. He represents discord. At a time when soldiers were fighting to resolve discord and preserve national unity, the medal’s imagery must have held potent meaning for its Civil War recipients.

The back of Carney’s medal is inscribed: “The Congress / to Sergt. William H. Carney / Co. C. 54th Mass. Inf. / for/ gallantry at Fort Wagner, S. C. / July 18, / 1863.”