Not the Same African Americans We Always See

Civil War Medal of Honor

I was watching a television show a couple of weeks ago, and the subject of Black History Month was mentioned. One of the characters complained that America always trots out the same four African Americans every year to stand in for all the other African Americans about which no one knows anything. I immediately realized that this also applies to the African Americans we celebrate from the 1800s. This year, I think we
should give Mr. Frederick Douglas, the 54th Massachusetts, Ms. Harriet Tubman, and Ms. Sojourner Truth a break, and learn about some other men and women who made significant contributions to the American Civil War. For instance, Andrew Jackson Smith.

On September 3, 1843, in Grand Rivers, Kentucky, a baby boy was born to a slave mother, Susan, and her master, Elijah Smith. Susan named him Andrew Jackson Smith. When young Andy was ten years old, his father put him to work on a ferry that transported people and supplies across the Cumberland River. Andy worked at this job for eight years.[1] When the Civil War broke out, Elijah Smith joined the Confederate military and planned to take Andy, who was now 19, with him as a personal body servant to make the rigors of campaigning less odious–less odious for Mr. Smith, anyway.

Smithland, KY

Andy was having none of it. He convinced another slave to run away with him, through pouring rain, to a Union regiment camped at Smithland, Kentucky, twenty-five miles away. At that time the Union First Confiscation Act of 1861 was in place. This act directed that slaves not be returned to their masters if those masters were in Confederate service. Major John Warner, of the 41st Illinois Regiment, hired Andy as a servant and took him along when the 41st returned to the regiment’s post in nearby Paducah, Kentucky.[2]

Major John Warner

On March 19, 1862, the 41st moved from Paducah to Pittsburgh Landing, in Tennessee. A month later the regiment took part in the Battle of Shiloh. During the fighting at the Peach Orchard, Major Warner had two horses shot out from under him. Although it placed him under fire, young Smith brought one and then another mount to Warner. As he helped Warner into the saddle, Andy was struck in the head by a “spent Minié ball that entered his left temple, rolled just under the skin, and stopped in the middle of his forehead.”[3] The regimental surgeon removed the ball, and after the battle was over, Warner obtained a personal furlough to bring Andrew Smith home with him to Clinton, Illinois. There Smith recovered from his wound and continued to work as Warner’s personal servant until he heard the news that President Lincoln was allowing black troops to join the Union Army.

Andrew Jackson Smith

Major Warner gave Smith the money necessary for the trip to Boston, Massachusetts to enlist with the Massachusetts Colored Volunteers. On May 16, 1863, Private Andrew Smith was mustered into the 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment, Company B. Along with sister regiment, the 54th Massachusetts, they fought in five military engagements. Smith was in the army when the black soldiers found out that they would be paid less than white soldiers, and would have to pay a “clothing allowance” as well. Colonel Alfred Hartwell of the 55th protested all the way up to Secretary of War Stanton himself. Hartwell threatened to resign unless the pay issue was resolved. It was settled in August 1864 and by October everyone was paid fairly.[4]

By November 30, 1864, Smith had been promoted to corporal in the color-bearing unit of the 55th Massachusetts. On that day both the 55th and the 54th Massachusetts participated in the Battle of Honey Hill in South Carolina. Andrew Smith Bowden, Smith’s grandson, spoke of this at his grandfather’s Medal of Honor service in 2001:

                        When the battle began, you kept your eye on those flags.  And when the  flag went forward, you went    forward. And when the flag went back, you went back. Those men who carried those flags were extremely important, and as you might expect, were prime targets.[5]

The two units came under heavy fire while crossing a swamp in front of an elevated Confederate position. Rebel fire killed or wounded over half of the officers of the 55th and at least a third of the enlisted men in the full regiment of a thousand men. When the 55th’s color bearer was killed, Andrew Smith took up the Regimental Colors and carried them through the remainder of the fight. Smith’s regimental commander, Colonel Alfred Hartwell, recommended him for the Medal of Honor almost immediately after the battle. However, it was not until Smith’s family made a concerted effort that the medal was awarded to him posthumously, 137 years later.

Andy Smith, veteran

Andrew Jackson Smith was promoted to color sergeant and left the army after the war. He returned to Kentucky where he invested in property. He died on March 4, 1932, at the age of eighty-eight. Several people tried to get Smith’s medal awarded to him during his lifetime; he was nominated again in 1916, but the politics of racial unrest denied him once again.

Smith’s daughter receives her father’s medal

Smith’s grandson, Andrew Bowman of Indianapolis, Indiana, became determined that his grandfather would receive his Medal of Honor. Bowman spent several years collecting records, conducting research and working with government officials and a history professor at Illinois State University in order to make his grandfather’s public recognition a reality.  Smith’s records were found in the National Archives, where they had been since the end of the Civil War.  On January 16, 2001, 137 years after the Battle of Honey Hill, Sergeant Andrew Jackson Smith was recognized for his actions. President Bill Clinton presented the Medal of Honor to his 93-year-old daughter, Caruth Smith Washington, along with several Smith descendants during a ceremony at the White House. I shall let Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill), who spoke at the ceremony, have the last word:

                        A wrong righted 137 years too late is a wrong righted nonetheless. This day has been a long time coming. But, with the dedication of his family and the Illinois State University History Department, Sgt. Andrew Jackson Smith’s contribution has finally taken its rightful place in history.[6]


[2] Ibid. and

[3] Quote is from medical records.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., words spoken by Smith’s grandson at Smith’s Medal of Honor ceremony on January 6, 2001.