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Medal Of Honor Recipient Chronicled In Rise Of Black Middle Class

A Civil War regimental flag
Sharon MacDonald
/
A flag of the regiment Medal of Honor winner Andrew Jackson Smith belonged to when he charged a confederate cannon enplacement at the Battle of Honey Hill in 1864.

Andrew Jackson Smith was born a slave in Kentucky in 1842, the probable son of a slave holder. He escaped to the Union Army, became the servant of an officer from central Illinois, and later a soldier who distinguished himself for bravery "even in the cannon’s mouth."

Up from slavery

That is not the only remarkable think about Smith, according to retired Illinois State University history professor Sharon MacDonald, who has written a book about the life of Andy Jackson Smith and his legacy with co-author W. Robert Beckman. It's called "Carrying the Colors: The Life And Legacy of Medal Of Honor Recipient Andrew Jackson Smith," and is out from Westholme Publishing.

A Civil War soldier in uniform
Credit Sharon MacDonald
Color Sergeant Andrew Jackson Smith in 1865

MacDonald said Smith became a landed man in Kentucky after the Civil War, buying and selling land. That was a rarity because he was illiterate, and southern whites constructed the Jim Crow system to suppress Blacks.

“He gets white business partners and Blacks. Whites are willing to do business with him because he can get them money. It’s profitable to do business with Andy Smith. They don’t care about anything but the bottom line. He does something there that people would not think possible. But I don’t think he was unique. There were other people scattered around and I think we can find them,” said MacDonald.

She said the contribution of the book is to document a member of the Black middle class after the war, something that may not have been done before.

“This middle class has not received the attention that it is due from historians. People treat it as if it didn’t exist, but there was a book the University of Illinois brought out in 1990. It is about the growth of the southern Black middle class. It is rooted in the ownership of property. This is a very important part of the Black history of this country and it produced many solid citizens, people who are well educated,” said MacDonald. “Knowing this history, you can explode myths.”

MacDonald said the biography was difficult to produce because of ‘the "lack of written records surrounding a people who emerged from slavery,"  adding she hopes it is not the last such work because there are other Black stories to be told. 

Bravery

Before that, though, came Smith’s heroism.

When he escaped slavery, the 41st Illinois regiment took him in. Smith became a servant to Major John Warner. At the exceptionally bloody Battle of Shiloh, Smith was shot twice glancingly in the head while taking Warner’s wounded horses to the rear.

Warner and Smith returned to Clinton, Illinois, while Warner recovered from dysentery. MacDonald said Smith living in Clinton was problematic.

“It was illegal, and Warner relied on his status in the community to protect him and it did. But there was a law against bringing Blacks into Illinois, it’s exclusion law. It was popular, it was strong and the idea was to stop any Black person possible out of that. There were severe penalties for coming into the state,” said MacDonald. 

Smith enlisted and joined the 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment. MacDonald wrote that he went on "to conduct himself as a pretty good soldier," and showed exceptional bravery during Sherman’s March to the Sea.

At the Battle of Honey Hill, South Carolina in 1864, the regiment was ordered to charge and draw fire so another unit could flank and attack a gun battery. It did not go well. They charged again and that didn’t go well, either. Smith grabbed the colors when people on either side ... were shot dead with canister. 

“You sort of had to put yourself in a position of someone who is running the length of a football field, uphill. And into the face of six cannons. Cannister is like a container of ball bearings. And when they’re  shot out, the container expands and it turns the field into a shotgun blast,” said MacDoanld. “To do that, I don’t know where people get the courage.”

During the 30-second sprint, MacDonald said Smith and the unit got within 20 yards of the battery, as confirmed by Confederate records. 

“What a lot of people don’t understand is what is so important about saving that flag. They only had communication by sight on the battlefield, the regiment is supposed to follow the flag. It advances with the flag, it retreats, maneuvers one way or another. If that flag goes down, they have got no orders,” said MacDonald. 

Smith was promoted to color sergeant before leaving the Army.

Medal of Honor delayed

The nation awarded Smith the Medal of Honor for his heroism, but it took 130 years -- until 2001 during the Clinton administration.

A medal of honor ceremony with President Clinton.
Credit Sharon MacDonald
Andy Bowman and Caruth Smith Washington at the Medal of Honor ceremony with President Bill Clinton

“At the time it was the most delayed award of a medal of honor, any medal, in the nation’s history. That goes back to 1916, when Bert Wilder recommended the medal of honor. It was a legitimate nomination,” said MacDonald. 

The Army denied the nomination, citing a lack of official records documenting his case. 

MacDonald said the administration of President Woodrow Wilson was a racist one and was not willing to recognize a Black man.

“They suppressed the evidence. The evidence was right there in the War Department records. Right where Andy Bowman found it in the 1990s,” said Macdonald. 

Some eight decades after the initial denial, Smith's grandson Andy Bowman and Smith's daughter, Caruth Smith Washington, pushed for reconsideration of the medal. 

Macdonald said it was important to both of them, and made them feel prouder of themselves that their family had contributed to the formation of the United States.

“He said that prior to learning that his grandfather fought for his freedom ‘I was really just here not having any association with the past. It wasn’t until then I recognized that I did have a past that my family contributed to this country through the civil war and afterwards.’” said MacDonald.

She said the story also is important for the nation in a time when racial justice has moved to the foreground.

“When we bring history back to our kids, we actually give them something of value. We give them something to hold onto and become,” said MacDonald, quoting Bowman.

macdonald_on_andrew_jackson_smith_full_qa.mp3
Listen to the full WGLT interview on the new Book "Carrying the Colors" by Sharon MacDonald and W. Robert Beckman.

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WGLT News Director Charlie Schlenker grew up in Rock Island and graduated from Augustana College. He has spent more than three decades in radio.
Catrina Petersen is an intern at WGLT focused on reporting and online writing. She is also a student in Illinois State University's School of Communication.