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"We Finally Got It Right," But We Were Wrong

The Smithsonian Associates Civil War E-Mail Newsletter, Volume 4, Number 10

President Clinton said, sometimes it takes this country a while, but we nearly always get it right. He directed these words to the 93-year-old daughter of Andrew Jackson Smith of the 55th Massachusetts Colored Volunteer Infantry, on the occasion of presenting her with the Congressional Medal of Honor he earned 137 years before.

It was at the Battle of Honey Hill in South Carolina.Then Corporal Smith and his regiment were in pursuit of retreating Confederates when the Rebels gained the high ground and turned to fire on the Union soldiers below. Over one-third of the enlisted men were lost, including two color bearers.When a third color bearer was hit, Corporal Smith recovered the flags before they fell to the ground. He continued forward with them facing heavy fire, while maintaining a rallying point for the Union soldiers. They eventually overcame the fire and repulsed the Confederates. Actions such as these were especially noteworthy, considering the risks faced by African American soldiers.If captured by Confederates, they were either murdered immediately or sold into slavery and sent deep into the south.

Many medals were awarded after Honey Hill, but Smith's heroic actions were overlooked. In 1916 the regiment's surgeon nominated Smith once again. But it was a different world by then. The Ku Klux Klan was active; the Civil War era had been romanticized, while the war's issues were minimized. In 1916, Woodrow Wilson, the first Southern-born president elected since the Civil War, denied the request.

But Smith kept a journal, which his children and grandchildren preserved. It told the story of Honey Hill, and much more about Smith's life as a slave and a soldier, and what freedom meant to him. He was born on a Kentucky plantation in 1842, and when the war started he crossed into the Union lines. He worked for the army as a laborer and saw action at Fort Donelson, and was wounded at Shiloh. When he recovered, he went to Massachusetts where Governor Andrews was forming regiments of colored soldiers, the Massachusetts 54th and 55th . He died in 1932 at the age of 91, his heroism still not recognized by his country.

But his children and grandchildren continued. They lobbied Congress, did their research, and finally Smith's grandson found an advocate in a history professor at Illinois State University. She took their case to her local Congressman. An inquiry began and a decision was made to award a very belated Congressional Medal of Honor to Andrew Jackson Smith for conspicuous bravery at the Battle of Honey Hill, November 30, 1864.

At the ceremony, President Clinton said, we finally got it right. He should have said, What happened was very, very wrong. Perhaps this will make it right. The Smith family will have to decide if that's enough.