Corporal Andrew Jackson Smith, Kentucky’s only African-American Civil War Medal of Honor recipient

Story by John Trowbridge, Kentucky National Guard 

In recognition of February as Black History Month kentuckyguard.com is publishing a series of articles honoring African-American men and women who are significant figures in Kentucky’s military history.  The following is one such story ….

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Corporal Andrew Jackson Smith posthumously received the Medal of Honor 137 years after his actions at the Battle of Honey Hill, South Carolina,

FRANKFORT, Ky. —  On January 16, 2001, two Medal of Honor presentations were made by President Bill Clinton at the White House.  The first, to the descendants of Corporal Andrew Jackson Smith, 137 years after his actions at the Battle of Honey Hill, South Carolina, and former President Theodore Roosevelt was also posthumously awarded the medal at the same ceremony, for his actions during the Spanish-American War.

Andrew Jackson Smith was born into slavery on September 3, 1843 at Grand Rivers, Ky., the son of Susan, a slave, and Elijah Smith, a slave owner. Upon the outbreak of the Civil War, Elijah Smith joined the Confederate military, with the intention of taking 19-year-old Andrew along with him. When Andrew Smith learned of this, he and another slave ran away, walking 25 miles through the rain before presenting themselves to a Union Army regiment, the 41st Illinois Infantry, in Smithland.

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A historical marker honoring Corporal Andrew Jackson Smith. Smith died in 1932 and was buried in the Mount Pleasant African American Cemetery in Lyon County, Kentucky. The cemetery is located in the Land Between the Lakes National Park that straddles both Kentucky and Tennessee.

Smith was taken in by the 41st Illinois and became a servant to Maj. John Warner at the regiment’s post in nearby Paducah.  Among Smith’s duties were, in the event of Warner’s death, to return his belongings to his home in Clinton, Il.. On March 10, 1862, the regiment moved out to Pittsburg Landing, Tn., where it took part in the Battle of Shiloh a month later. During the fighting, Smith supplied Warner with fresh horses after the officer had two mounts shot out from under him. Smith was then struck by a spent minie ball that entered his left temple, rolled just under the skin, and stopped in the middle of his forehead.  The bullet was removed by the regimental surgeon, leaving Smith with only a scar.

By November 30, 1864, Smith was serving as a corporal in the 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. On that day, both the 55th and its sister regiment, the 54th Massachusetts, participated in the Battle of Honey Hill in South Carolina. The two units came under heavy fire while crossing a swamp in front of an elevated Confederate position. When the 55th’s color bearer was killed, Smith took up the Regimental Colors and carried them through the remainder of the fight. It was for this action that Smith was later awarded the Medal of Honor.

It’s interesting to note that Smith’s regimental commander had recommended him for the Medal of Honor shortly after the battle, but it never came to fruition.  It was only after family members brought it to the attention of state officials just a few years ago that the process was completed.

Smith was promoted to color sergeant before leaving the Army.  After the war, he returned to Kentucky, where he bought and sold land. He died at age 88, on March 4, 1932, and was buried in Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Grand Rivers, Ky.

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The Civil War Medal of Honor.

Smith’s official Medal of Honor citation reads:

Corporal Andrew Jackson Smith, of Clinton, Illinois, a member of the 55th Massachusetts Voluntary Infantry, distinguished himself on 30 November 1864 by saving his regimental colors, after the color bearer was killed during a bloody charge called the Battle of Honey Hill, South Carolina. In the late afternoon, as the 55th Regiment pursued enemy skirmishers and conducted a running fight, they ran into a swampy area backed by a rise where the Confederate Army awaited. The surrounding woods and thick underbrush impeded infantry movement and artillery support. The 55th and 54th regiments formed columns to advance on the enemy position in a flanking movement. As the Confederates repelled other units, the 55th and 54th regiments continued to move into flanking positions. Forced into a narrow gorge crossing a swamp in the face of the enemy position, the 55th’s Color-Sergeant was killed by an exploding shell, and Corporal Smith took the Regimental Colors from his hand and carried them through heavy grape and canister fire. Although half of the officers and a third of the enlisted men engaged in the fight were killed or wounded, Corporal Smith continued to expose himself to enemy fire by carrying the colors throughout the battle. Through his actions, the Regimental Colors of the 55th Infantry Regiment were not lost to the enemy. Corporal Andrew Jackson Smith’s extraordinary valor in the face of deadly enemy fire is in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon him, the 55th Regiment, and the United States Army.

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