Jan 17, 2001
Illinois soldier, Roosevelt given Medals of Honor
By DORI MEINERT
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON - In an emotional White House ceremony Tuesday, President Clinton
presented the Medal of Honor to the family of a black Civil War hero from
central Illinois and a former president best known for his charge up San Juan
Clinton used the stately Roosevelt Room to recognize the wartime bravery of
Andrew Jackson Smith, a former slave who lived in Clinton, Ill., and carried his
unit's flags after the flagbearers were shot during the Battle of Honey Hill in
South Carolina in 1864.
Clinton awarded another posthumous Medal of Honor to former President Theodore
Roosevelt for valor during the Spanish-American War.
Before a painting of Roosevelt, in battle gear and on horseback, Clinton
described in glowing terms the former president who, as a lieutenant colonel,
led his men up a Cuban hill and "changed the course of the battle and the
"TR was a larger-than-life figure, who gave our nation a larger-than-life vision
of our place in the world," Clinton said. "Part of that vision was formed on San
Roosevelt openly campaigned for the Medal of Honor, America's highest military
decoration, for his performance under fire on July 1, 1898. The action became
known as the battle of San Juan Hill.
Roosevelt led his regiment of volunteers, the Rough Riders, into action
alongside Army regulars up Kettle Hill, one of two hills comprising San Juan
Heights. The Rough Riders then advanced up San Juan Hill with as few as four men
but arrived after regulars had taken it.
The Roosevelt family will donate the award back to the White House, Roosevelt's
58-year-old great-grandson, Tweed Roosevelt, said in accepting the award. It
will be displayed in the Roosevelt Room along with Theodore Roosevelt's Nobel
Peace Prize, which he was awarded in 1906 for his role in settling the
Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 with a treaty signed Sept. 5, 1905.
In describing Smith's bravery to about 50 family members and dignitaries,
Clinton said "local legend says that the sandy soil of Honey Hill was literally
soaked in Union blood on Nov. 30, 1864 - that one could walk on the dead for
over a mile without touching the road.
"In one five-minute span, the 55th alone is said to have lost over 100 men. But
they never lost their colors (flags), because Corporal Smith carried them
through the battle, exposing himself as the lead target," Clinton said.
Smith's name was put in for the medal in 1916 by the regimental surgeon. But the
nomination was rejected in less than a week.
Family and friends believe racism was the reason.
"My father was a wonderful man, and I'm proud to be his daughter," said Smith's
93-year-old daughter, Caruth Smith Washington, who traveled to the nation's
capital to attend the belated acknowledgment of her father's Civil War heroics.
Friends and family members who had campaigned for several years for the medal
presentation had feared Washington wouldn't live to see it.
"I'm ready to go to my Maker now," said Washington, who lives in a New Jersey
The White House ceremony was the culmination of years of effort by Smith's
family aided by Dunlap High School history teacher Robert Beckman and Illinois
State University professor Sharon MacDonald.
Beckman launched a letter-writing campaign four years ago that led to the
"I was just really overwhelmed to see Caruth finally get that," said a
teary-eyed Beckman after the ceremony.
"I just can't put words to it. We worried for a long time that her health wasn't
going to hold out and that she wouldn't get to be here."
Smith was an escaped slave from Kentucky who was taken in by soldiers from the
41st Illinois Volunteers. Blacks weren't allowed to serve in the Union Army at
the time, but Smith worked as a servant for one of the unit's officers, Major
John Warner of Clinton.
When blacks were allowed to join the Army, Smith left Clinton, about 45 miles
northeast of Springfield, to join the 55th Massachusetts Colored Volunteers.
For African-American soldiers at the time, "the first battle was the fight just
to see battle," Clinton acknowledged. "But given the opportunity, they fought
with intensity ... and they did it knowing they risked almost certain death or
enslavement if captured by Confederate forces."
After the war, Smith returned to Clinton for a while and then moved to Kentucky
where he became a successful businessman. He died in 1932.
His family kept his journals and other wartime records, never giving up hope.
"It's a dream fulfilled," said granddaughter Dolores Shelton Brown, 74, of
Detroit, who was just 6 when her grandfather died.
But she and her brother, Walter Shelton, who lives in Chicago's southwest
suburbs, said they grew up knowing of his heroic deeds. It was a matter of
"I feel like the Army has finally set the record straight after 136 years," said
another grandson, Andrew Bowman, 65, of Indianapolis.
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and now-retired U.S. Rep. Tom Ewing, R-Pontiac,
pushed through last year's congressional approval of Smith's medal. Durbin and
U.S. Rep. Jerry Weller, R-Morris, who represents Shelton's area, attended the
White House ceremony.
"I was thinking in the back of my mind, only in America could this have
happened," Bowman said, where the family of a former slave and the family of a
former president could be at the same place, receiving the same honor.
"To be put on the same level, the same stage, is just amazing."