Andrew Jackson Smith’s remarkable story of valor was almost lost to history. But it lives on forever now thanks to the efforts of his family, particularly his grandson, Andrew Bowman.
Bowman is retired now at his home on the northwest side of Indianapolis. But for years, he fought to get his grandfather’s heroism recognized for what it is… the story of a runaway slave who fought so bravely, he was awarded his nation’s highest military honor.
“I was told it would never happen,” said Bowman. “That’s when I really wanted to prove them wrong.”
Bowman first heard about his grandfather’s story from his Aunt Caruth. She had saved the historic documents written soon after the Civil War that verified Andrew Smith’s heroism. The runaway slave joined the Union Army after the Emancipation Proclamation. He served in the 55th Massachusetts Regiment in the Battle of Honey Hill in South Carolina. During a Confederate ambush, both of the regiment’s color bearers were struck down. Andrew Smith picked up both flags and led the counterattack himself.
“Now, you have to realize the color bearer was out front most of the time and when the color bearer was out front, he became a major target,” said Bowman.
“When you start to think about it, what’s the alternative? You either become a slave or you become brave,” he said.
Other soldiers who performed similar acts of valor were honored immediately after the war. Andrew Smith’s grandson suspects the color of Smith’s skin kept his heroism hidden.
“I couldn’t prove it. It would be impossible to prove. We know at that time and place that it was a possibility,” said Bowman.
After years of research and lobbying, Bowman and his Aunt Caruth received Smith’s Medal of Honor from President Bill Clinton a full 136 years after Smith’s service. At the time, it was the longest-delayed military honor in American history.
“I was totally elated. I could not believe it was happening. I could not believe I was in the Oval Office,” said Bowman.
Years later, Bowman would dress in a Union color bearer’s uniform and tell his grandfather’s story at events at Crown Hill Cemetery and in schools across Indiana. He even wrote a book with two historians about it called Carrying the Colors. His message is simple… no one gave America’s slaves their freedom. They fought for it and won.
“It’s important that we give back to our kids something of value and one of the best things we can give them is our history,” said Bowman.