Saturday, February 25, 2012

Andrew Jackson Smith: From Camp Servant to Medal of Honor Winner

Not all African American camp servants remained so. A perfect example is Kentuckian Andrew Jackson Smith. Smith was born in Lyon County the son of a slave mother and white owner father. When Lyon learned that his owner-father had enlisted in the Confederate army and intended to take him along as a servant, Smith ran away. He along with another slave absconded to the nearest Union camp, which happened to be in Smithland, Kentucky and offered his services to Major John Warner of the 41st Illinois regiment. When the 41st received their marching orders, Smith went along.

Smith witnessed the battles of Fort Donelson in February 1862 and Shiloh two months later. At Shiloh Smith was in the heat of the action bringing horses to Warner as one and then another was shot out from under the major. During the battle Smith was hit in the temple with a spent bullet which coursed under the skin to the middle of his forehead. The bullet was removed and Smith was not terribly hurt, although I am sure it was not a pleasant experience.

In the fall of 1862 Smith went to Illinois with Warner on leave where he learned about President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation and the opportunity to join the Union army as a fighting soldier. He first tried to enlist in the famous 54th Massachusetts, which had been recruited largely from free American Americans across the north. But, the 54th filled before he was able to enlist, so he signed up with the 55th Massachusetts, the sister unit of the 54th and the same unit in which Frederick Douglass' sons served. Smith traveled to Reidville, Massachusetts and joined up.

Recruited later than the 54th, the 55th trained while the 54th earned their glory at Battery Wagner, South Carolina. The 55th participated in the operations at Olustee, Florida in February 1864, but were not engaged. In July, 1864 they participated in the fight at Fort Lamar, on James Island, South Carolina. Although they did not capture the fort they did seize two Confederate cannons in a related action.

At the Battle of Honey Hill, South Carolina on November 30, 1864, the 55th fought desperately. During the action the color bearer was hit by an exploding artillery shell and Smith caught the flag and carried it through the battle although he received a wound himself. For his gallantry Smith was promoted to color sergeant. The commander of the 55th was wounded early in the Honey Hill fight and subsequently did not include Smith's heroism in the battle in his official report. But fortunately that was not the end of Smith's story.

Smith mustered out of the army in August 1865 and initially stayed in Illinois, but he soon purchased land and moved to Eddyville, Kentucky. The regimental surgeon of the 55th, Burt Wilder, attempted to nominate Smith for the Medal of Honor, but due to inaccuracies and the omission of Smith's efforts in the battle's official report, his efforts were turned down in 1916. Smith passed away in 1932 and was buried in the cemetery at Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church in Grand Rivers, Livingston County, Kentucky. Thankfully, and finally in 2001, Smith was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously, which was received by his descendants.

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