Andrew Jackson Smith was born into slavery in 1843 at Grand Rivers, Kentucky. Like many enslaved African Americans, Smith's master, Elijah Smith, was also his father — having forced himself on Smith's mother, Susan. Nineteen years later, Smith again reflected the experience of many African Americans in quickly realizing the Civil War's potential for destroying slavery.
Although Kentucky never seceded, Elijah Smith joined the Confederate Army and planned to take Smith with him. Smith instead opted to fight against the Confederate cause and escaped slavery with a friend. He encountered the 41st Illinois Regiment at Smithland, Kentucky. Emancipation and African American enlistment were not yet Union policy, so Smith stayed with the regiment as body servant to Major John Warner, of Clinton, Illinois.
Smith accompanied the regiment to Pittsburgh Landing, Tennessee, in early March 1862, and was still there a month later when the Confederates attacked, beginning the Battle of Shiloh. Although he couldn't take up a weapon, Smith served bravely in the battle. Warner had two horses shot out from under him. As Smith brought Warner a third mount under fire, a spent ball struck him in his left temple and lodged itself in his forehead. An army surgeon removed the ball after the battle and Warner took Smith to his home in Clinton to heal.
Smith was likely still in Clinton that fall, when Abraham Lincoln announced the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Eager to begin fighting against slavery, Smith traveled from Illinois to Boston to enlist in the new 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the first African American unit mustered in the North. He did not arrive in time to join the 54th, but found a place in its successor, the 55th Massachusetts.
Like the 54th Massachusetts, it took some time before Union Army commanders became comfortable sending members of the 55th into combat. Racism also affected the unit's pay, as members of the regiment continued to receive a lower salary than white soldiers, even after numerous appeals from their officers and other supporters. Nevertheless, the unit fought well once placed in harm's way—seeing its first engagement on July 2, 1864, in an assault on Fort Lamar in South Carolina.
On November 30, the 55th Massachusetts participated in its most significant action, the Battle of Honey Hill, and Smith (then a corporal) distinguished himself admirably. Charged with severing the railroad line between Savannah and Charleston, the 55th and the 54th regiments advanced a few miles before encountering strongly entrenched Confederate resistance.
The regiment's assault on the position resulted in heavy fighting and significant casualties, including the regiment's color-bearer. It was a tremendous dishonor to lose the regiment's federal and state flags. They would have been captured as the regiment withdrew, but Smith rescued both and continued to carry them under heavy, close-range artillery and rifle fire that eventually claimed about a 1/3 of the Union soldiers engaged.
A wood engraving of the 55th Massachusetts Regiment singing the abolitionist song "John Brown's Body" as it marched into Charleston, South Carolina (Courtesy of the Library of Congress).
Smith's bravery at Honey Hill so impressed his white officers that they recommended him for the Medal of Honor. Nothing came of that original commendation, no doubt at least partly due to Smith's race. Over a century later, Smith's descendants worked with historians and other supporters to have Smith's service recognized. On January 16, 2001, they achieved their goal and President Bill Clinton posthumously awarded Andrew Jackson Smith the Medal of Honor.
We are honored that Smith's grandson, Andrew S. Bowman, donated this Medal to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. It is a potent symbol of the African American struggle for freedom and equality.
Andrew Jackson Smith's Medal of Honor will be on display at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum when it reopens later this summer.
Andrew Jackson Smith's Medal of Honor (Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum).
By Christian McWhirter