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Black History - Color Sgt. Andrew Jackson Smith      

Runaway Slave Became a Hero at Honey Hill
By Andrew and Esther Bowman

Special to the Sun

In December 1862, President Lincoln announced that he would free all of the slaves in the rebellious Confederacy.  The astounding news spread rapidly throughout the Union.

In Clinton, Illinois, a former officer in the 41st Illinois Volunteers and a former slave were convalescing from the Battle of Shiloh.  They had served with honor at Fort Henry, Fort Donaldson, and Shiloh’s infamous Hornet’s Nest.  The officer was Col. John Warner, who had just completed service with the 41st.  The former slave was Andrew Jackson Smith who became acquainted with the 41st after running away to Smithland, Kentucky.

Smith’s slave owner, Elijah Smith, had been quick to enlist in the Confederacy.  He returned home on a leave after a year’s absence and planned, as was the custom of many Confederate officers, to take his slave back with him.  Andy Smith, 19 at the time, overheard the plans and decided to run away. 

Life was not easy for the young Andy.  Fathered by his wealthy slave owner and birthed by a slave named Susan, he was born into slavery around Sept. 3, 1842.  When he was 10 years old, he was assigned by his owner to run a ferry transporting people and supplies across the Cumberland River.  He became known as Boatman for his craft for nearly eight years.

During this time Andy learned the river, its currents, and the people.  Furthermore, he heard the talk about the war, and he saw the Yankee ships, the steamers, the paddle wheels and the iron clads.  He was aware that the ships and the U.S. troops were stationed up the river at Smithland where the Cumberland and the Ohio rivers converged. 

Smithland was being used as a strategic military outpost by the U.S. troops who could control the movement on the Ohio and have access to the Mississippi River from the north and the Cumberland from the east. 

Andy and another slave decided to run to Smithland when they overheard their owners plotting to take them to serve the Confederacy.  They walked the nearly 25 miles in the freezing rain so cold that their soaked clothes froze to their bodies.  They had to wait until daylight to present themselves to the 41st Illinois guards.  They were admitted into the camp and given warm clothes and provided hot food.  Andy later described joining the 41st as falling in. 

And when the companies at Smithland rejoined the rest of the 41st Regiment at Paducah, Kentucky, Andy became a servant to Maj. John Warner in order to remain under the protection of the military.  Warner and Andy had agreed that should the major fall in battle that Andy would take Warner’s belongings to his home in Clinton.  Warner had written home advising his family of this arrangement.

The 41st moved on to Fort Henry for a short but successful battle in which the fort fell and Confederate Gen. Lloyd Tillingham was captured. 

The 41st then moved on to Fort Donaldson where the unit encountered fierce resistance and lost over 200 men.  On March 10 the 41st traveled to Pittsburgh Landing (Shiloh).  Prior to this battle, Warner had asked Andy to watch him, and if he failed, to bring him water.

During the battle Warner had his mount shot out from under him.  When he got up, there was Andy with another mount.  Shortly afterwards, when the second mount was killed, Andy caught a Confederate horse and gave it to the major.  Andy asked if he could stay close to the battlefield.  Before he could walk away he was struck by a spent minic ball that entered his left temple, rolled just under his skin, and stopped in the middle of his forehead. 

As Andy laid his head up on the regimental surgeon’s bloody apron, the surgeon removed the ball after which he pulled a sponge through the wound to cleanse it.  Andy carried the scar to his grave 70 years later.

Warner returned to Clinton as a colonel in November, 1862, along with Andy, who had served him.  It was here that he heard the news that President Lincoln acquiesced and permitted black troops to fight for their freedom.

Andy left the safety of a free state to enroll in the 54th Massachusetts Colored Volunteers Gov. 

John Andrew has requested 1,000 black men and he got nearly 2,000 so quickly that he had to reorganize the 55th Massachusetts regulars to handle the overflow.  The 55th was renamed to accommodate to colored recruits.  Smith and 55 other Illinois volunteers were mustered into the 55th Massachusetts with Andy assign to Company “B” on May 16, 1863.

After the 54th Massachusetts’ engagement at Fort Warner, South Carolina on July 18, 1863, the 54th and the 55th fought 5 military engagements over the next 3 years.  But they also fought off the battlefield.

They fought and won the battle for equal pay with white soldiers.  But in order to received his pay, a black soldier was required to nod his head (yes) when asked if he was free in 1861.  Andy refused to nod and lie about his status prior to 1861 in order to receive his pay.

Andy was fortunate that he did not receive any other serious wounds during his 55th Massachusetts enlistment even he served in the color bearer unit.  He was always in the thick of battle and volunteered for many raids among the islands along the South Carolina and Georgia coasts.

Andy won his distinction at the battle of Honey Hill when the flag bearer was blown to bits by an exploding shell.  Andy caught the falling Color Sgt. Robert King with one hand and snatched the flag with the other.  Lt. Ellsworth, who was the commander at the time, screamed at Smith, “For God’s sake, save the flag!”  Smith carried the colors during the rest of the battle.

As he was leaving the field at Honey Hill, the regimental color sergeant was wounded and Andy left the battle bearing both the U.S. and Massachusetts state flags.  Had his actions been properly recorded that day, he certainly would have been rewarded with a Medal of Honor for his bravery under fire.

The regimental commander, Col. Hartwell was severely wounded and carried from battle in the early fighting period.  He was forced to complete his battle report as his home while recuperating from his wounds.  Had the colonel been present for the remainder of the battle, he may have reacted differently to Andy’s bravery.

Andy was promoted to colonel or sergeant soon after the battle.  The 55th remained in the area and was later detailed as provost guard at Orangeburg. 

Andy received his final discharge at Mount Pleasant on Aug. 29, 1865 and was sent to Boston on the steamer Karnac for his formal mustering out.

After the war, he back to Clinton for a short period and then returned to Eddyville, Kentucky where he used his mustering out pay to buy land. 

Dr. Burt G. Wilder, who was the regimental surgeon for the 55th, began a life-long correspondence with Smith in hopes of securing the cherished Medal of Honor for bravery at Honey Hill.  So many other officers were wounded and taken from the battlefield that the battle was never fully documented and Smith’s heroics could not be certified.

Note: Bowman is the grandson of Andy Smith.  This information came from original documents preserved by his aunt, Caruth Smith Washington, Smith’s daughter, as well as from the “Record of the service of the Fifty-fifth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry” published in Cambridge in July 1868.

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