Sergeant Henry F. Steward

3596-018

Unknown photographer, Sergeant Henry F. Steward, 1863, ambrotype, 4 1/8 × 3 1/8 in. (10.5 × 8 cm). Courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society

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Sergeant Henry F. Steward (c. 1840–1863) was a twenty-three-year-old farmer when he enlisted in the 54th Massachusetts Regiment on April 4, 1863. From Lenawee County, Michigan, a stop on the Underground Railroad near the Ohio border, Steward traveled to Boston when he learned that Massachusetts was organizing a volunteer infantry of black soldiers. He became a non-commissioned officer (as were all black officers) and advanced through the enlisted ranks, rather than by an official commission as was typical of senior officers (who were exclusively white). These junior officers are typically the backbone of the military, carrying out most of the day-to-day operations. Sergeant Steward had actively recruited volunteers for the 54th Massachusetts, which may have contributed to his promotion to sergeant soon after his enlistment.

Steward was wounded in action during the attack on Fort Wagner on July 18, 1863. The severity of his injury was not recorded, but two months later he died of dysentery at the camp hospital on Morris Island, South Carolina. The following day, his fellow soldiers buried him with full honors.

Many members of the 54th had their likenesses recorded for posterity at photographic studios in Massachusetts or South Carolina. Steward’s choice of a full-length portrait allows the viewer to admire all aspects of his military attire. Posing in front of a plain backdrop, he stands at attention with sword drawn; the three chevrons on his sleeves indicate his rank of sergeant. The column (a portable studio prop) echoes his erect military posture. His sword, buttons, eagle breastplate, and other elements of his uniform have been hand-tinted, a common practice in the early days of photography for which Steward would have paid extra.