Ken Harbaugh tells the stories of service members who have distinguished themselves through an act of valor. These stories feature recipients from the Civil War to present day, including a few who were originally overlooked for the medal.
Color Sergeant Andrew Jackson Smith: From Slave to Soldier
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An escaped slave, Color Sergeant Smith fought in the American Civil War’s Western Theater and Sherman’s March. When his regiment’s color sergeant was killed in battle, Smith grabbed the colors and inspired his men despite the fierce enemy fire. Nearly 140 years after the battle, Smith was awarded the Medal of Honor.
Welcome to the Medal of Honor podcast, brought to you in partnership with the National Medal of Honor Museum. I’m Ken Harbaugh. In each episode, we’ll learn about a different service member who has distinguished him or herself through an act of valor.
Color Sergeant Andrew Jackson Smith was born on September 3rd, 1843 in Lyon County, Kentucky. He was born into slavery, the son of Susan, a slave, and Elijah Smith, her owner.
When he was 19, in 1862, Smith’s father enlisted in the Confederate Army and planned to take Smith with him to serve as a servant. Instead, Andrew and another slave escaped north. They walked 25 miles before encountering the Union’s 41st Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment in Smithland, Kentucky. There, Smith offered his services to the commander, Major John Warner, who accepted. Smith served as Warner’s personal servant, with duties such as escorting the commander’s remains should he fall in battle.
That year, Smith fought in what would become the largest battle ever in the U.S.: The Battle of Shiloh. As Smith was bringing fresh horses to Major Warner, a musket ball hit his temple and rolled under his skin to his forehead. The regimental surgeon removed it, and the wound left nothing more than a scar. He continued to serve in the 41st.
A year later while on leave, Smith learned of the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all slaves from Confederate states. Intent to be more than a servant, he decided to enlist as a soldier in the 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment. The 55th would take part in Sherman’s March, a campaign that destroyed the Confederacy’s economy and disrupted their ability to continue fighting. They eventually detached and fought in South Carolina in order to sever key railroads.
On November 30th, 1864, then Corporal Smith, with the 55th and 54th, took part in the Battle of Honey Hill. Smith’s unit came under heavy fire from the Confederates occupying an elevated, fortified position. During the Civil War, units carried two flags known as “Colors” into battle. They were more than just a symbol for rallying soldiers. Before the era of battlefield radios, these flags were critical in maintaining situational awareness for commanders directing their units.
As Union forces attempted to flank the enemy on Honey Hill, the 55th’s Color Sergeant, responsible for carrying the Regiment’s Colors, was killed by an exploding shell. Smith took up the colors and carried them through heavy musket and artillery fire, ensuring they did not fall into enemy hands. The Union forces eventually withdrew after losing half the officers and a third of the enlisted men. Because of his bravery, Smith was promoted to Color Sergeant.
A year later, Smith left the Union Army and eventually settled in Eddyville, Kentucky.
In 1916, the 55th’s Regimental Surgeon attempted to nominate Smith for the Medal of Honor, but the Army denied it as Smith was not included in the official battle report. In 1932, Smith passed away and was buried in Grand Rivers, Kentucky.
On January 16th, 2001, Smith was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor at the White House. His grandson, Andrew Bowman, accepted the award on his behalf. Smith was one of 26 African Americans to be awarded the Medal of Honor for actions during the Civil War.
The Medal of Honor Podcast is a production of Evergreen Podcasts.
Nathan Corson is our producer and engineer, León Pescador is our script writer, Declan Rohrs is our script editor and recording engineer, and I’m Ken Harbaugh.
We are proud to support the National Medal of Honor Museum. To learn more, and to support their mission, got to mohmuseum.org. Thanks for listening.