A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Old Time Kentucky: Andy Smith’s long-delayed Medal of Honor was a wrong that was righted


By Berry Craig
KyForward columnist

Andrew Jackson Smith saw the color-bearer die with Old Glory in his grasp.

A Kentuckian who escaped slavery in Lyon County, “Andy” Smith grabbed the battle flag. Waving the Stars and Stripes over his head, the 21-year-old Union soldier charged the Rebel foe.

Smith’s bravery in the Civil War earned him the Medal of Honor, his country’s highest military decoration. But it was not forthcoming until 2001, more than 136 years after his feat of “extraordinary valor in the face of deadly enemy fire.”

A Kentucky Historical Society marker in Land Between The Lakes near Grand Rivers tells about Smith. He died in the Livingston County community in 1932 at age 88 and was buried in Mount Pleasant Cemetery on the shady hilltop above the marker.

A Kentucky Historical Society marker in Land Between The Lakes near Grand Rivers tells about Smith. He died in the Livingston County community in 1932 at age 88 and was buried in Mount Pleasant Cemetery on the shady hilltop above the marker (Photo Provided)

A Kentucky Historical Society marker in Land Between The Lakes near Grand Rivers tells about Smith. He died in the Livingston County community in 1932 at age 88 and was buried in Mount Pleasant Cemetery on the shady hilltop above the marker (Photo Provided)

Between the Rivers Inc. got the olive-green metal tablet erected next to The Trace, the main LBL highway. The local non-profit group also helped arrange a special Medal of Honor tombstone for the old soldier, whose grave is shaded by ramrod-straight oak and cedar trees.

A small American flag is stuck in the sandy soil next to the white granite military headstone. “MEDAL OF HONOR” and a gold-painted, star-shaped outline of the coveted decoration are chiseled into the stone. The late Ray Parish, who was Between the Rivers president, got the special grave memorial through the Veterans’ Administration.
               

A surgeon who served with Smith nominated him for the Medal of Honor in 1916. The Army rejected the nomination, citing lack of evidence. Racism was likely a factor, according to U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.
             
Andrew Smith Bowman of Indianapolis worked for several years to get the medal for his grandfather. He got help from Durbin and now retired U.S. Rep. Tom Ewing, R-Ill. The two lawmakers teamed up to campaign for the required congressional approval.

Durbin called the belated award “a wrong righted.”

Smith and another slave, Alfred “Alf” Bissell, escaped to the Union forces at Smithland, about 25 miles from where the two men were held in bondage, according to Sharon MacDonald. She’s a retired history professor who taught at Illinois State University in Normal.

Both men were hired as paid servants – Smith by Maj. John Warner of the 41st Illinois Volunteer Infantry and Bissell by Col. Issac C. Pugh, the regiment’s commander.

On April 6-7, 1862, the 41st Illinois fought in the battle of Shiloh, Tenn., where Smith was hit twice by spent Rebel rounds. “The first one knocked him down, but he shook it off,” MacDonald said.


A surgeon who served with Smith nominated him for the Medal of Honor in 1916. The Army rejected the nomination, citing lack of evidence. Racism was likely a factor, according to U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. (Photo Provided)


A surgeon who served with Smith nominated him for the Medal of Honor in 1916. The Army rejected the nomination, citing lack of evidence. Racism was likely a factor, according to U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. (Photo Provided)

The second bullet almost killed him. That lead slug struck him in the left temple and ended up lodged in his forehead, between skin and bone. Surgeons removed the round at a field hospital.

Warner emerged unscathed from Shiloh, one of the bloodiest battles in America’s bloodiest war. But afterwards, he came down with a serious intestinal disorder and went home to Clinton, Ill., to recover.

“Smith’s wound wasn’t much of a problem, but Warner wanted to take Smith to Clinton where he would be safe and protected by Warner’s family,” MacDonald said.

In Clinton, Smith heard about President Abraham Lincoln’s historic Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves in Rebel-held territory on Jan. 1, 1863. Smith traveled to Boston to join the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, which was featured in the popular movie “Glory.”

“But the regiment was full by the time he arrived,” MacDonald explained. “So he joined the 55th Massachusetts.”

Black men in blue uniforms outraged Confederate troops and their commanders. If captured, they faced return to slavery or death.

“The vast majority of Southerners viewed Negro soldiers as rebellious slaves and insisted that they should be treated as such,” wrote historian John Hope Franklin in From Slavery to Freedom: A History of American Negroes.


The 54th and 55th Massachusetts were part of a Union force that attacked the Confederates at Honey Hill, S.C., on Nov. 30, 1864. Rebel fire killed and wounded “half of the officers and a third of the enlisted men” in Smith’s 525-man regiment, his Medal of Honor citation explains.

When canister shot — lead or steel balls packed in sawdust and fired, shotgun-like, from cannons — claimed the life of Color Sgt. Robert King, who was carrying the 55th’s battle flag, Smith “took the Regimental Colors…through heavy [artillery]…fire,” the citation adds. 

“…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 reflects great credit upon him, the 55th Regiment, and the United States Army.”

Berry_Craig_Mug

Berry Craig of Mayfield is a professor emeritus of history from West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah and the author of five books on Kentucky history, including True Tales of Old-Time Kentucky Politics: Bombast, Bourbon and Burgoo and Kentucky Confederates: Secession, Civil War, and the Jackson Purchase. Reach him at bcraig8960@gmail.com


Related Posts

Leave a Comment