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President Clinton Awards Medals of Honor to Corporal Andrew Jackson Smith and President Teddy RooseveltAired January 16, 2001 - 11:45 a.m. ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: We want to hop back over to Washington to see the current president, who is now conducting the Medal of Honor ceremony this morning.
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WILLIAM J. CLINTON, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: In late 1864 they were part of a Union effort to cut off the Savannah-Charleston railroad link and keep Confederate forces from interfering with Sherman's march to the sea.
On November 30, the 55th was one of several units that tried to take a 25-foot rise called Honey Hill, close to Boyd's Landing in South Carolina. The Confederate troops had an elevated position, the advantage of surprise and fortified entrenchments. So as the 5,000 Union troops advanced through the 300 yards of swamp to get to the road leading up Honey Hill, they found themselves walking into a slaughter. The commanding officer, Colonel Alfred Hartwell, wrote:
"The leading brigade had been driven back when I was ordered in with mine. I was hit first in the hand just before making a charge. Then my horse was killed under me and I was hit afterward several times. One of my aides was killed and another was blown from his horse. During the furious fight, the color-bearer was shot and killed and it was Corporal Andrew Jackson Smith who would retrieve and save both the state and federal flags."
Now, to understand what Corporal Smith did that day, you have to know that in the Civil War the color-bearer was kept in front of advancing troops and was a known, conspicuous target for the other side. The enemy fought hard for your colors and units that lost them suffered serious loss of morale. Having them held high gave the unit the courage to carry on.
Eighty Medals of Honor have been awarded to soldiers who saved their unit's colors during the Civil War. Local legend says that the sandy soil of Honey Hill was literally soaked in Union blood on November 30, 1864, that, quote, "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 because Corporal Smith carried them through the battle, exposing himself as the lead target. Like so many African-Americans who served in the Civil War, the soldiers of the 55th were only reluctantly accepted by their own Union Army. Their units were segregated; they were paid less than white soldiers; they were commanded by white officers who mostly wanted to use them as garrison and labor battalions. So their first battle was the fight just to see battle.
But given the opportunity, they fought with an intensity that only high purpose and conviction can sustain. And they did it knowing they risked almost certain death or enslavement if captured by Confederate forces.
After the war, Andrew Jackson Smith lived out the rest of his days near Grand Rivers, Kentucky, where he was a leader in the community until his death in 1932. He was first nominated for the Medal of Honor -- listen to this -- in 1916, but the Army claimed, erroneously, that there were no official records to prove his story and his extraordinary acts of courage.
It's taken America 137 years to honor his heroism. We are immensely honored to have with us today eight of his family members, including Andrew Bowman (ph), here to receive the Medal of Honor on behalf of his grandfather, and Mrs. Carew Smith Washington (ph), Andrew Jackson Smith's daughter and a very young 93.
I want to say to all the members of the Smith family, sometimes it takes this country a while, but we nearly always get it right in the end. I am proud that we finally got the facts and that for you and your brave forebear, we are finally making things right.
Major, please read the citation.
MAJOR: "The President of the United States of America, authorized by an act of Congress, March 3, 1863, has awarded in the name of the Congress the Medal of Honor to Corporal Andrew Jackson Smith, United States Army, for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.
"Corporal Andrew Jackson Smith of Clinton, Illinois, as a member of the 55th Massachusetts Voluntary Infantry, distinguished himself on 30 November, 1864, by saving his regimental colors after the color- bearer was killed during a bloody charge in the battle of Honey Hill, South Carolina. "In the late afternoon, as the (inaudible) Regiment pursued enemy skirmishers and conducted a running fight, they ran into a swampy area backed by a rise where the Confederate army waited. The surrounding woods and thick underbrush impeded infantry movement and artillery support. The 55th and 54th Regiments formed columns to advance on the enemy position in a flanking movement.
"As the Confederates repelled other units, the 55th and 54th Regiments continued to move into flanking positions. Forced into a narrow gorge crossing a swamp in the face of the enemy position, the 55th color sergeant was killed by an exploding shell and Corporal Smith took the regimental colors from his hand and carried them through heavy grape and canister fire.
"Although half of the officers and a third of the enlisted men engaged in the fight were killed or wounded, Corporal Smith continued to expose himself to enemy fire by carrying the colors throughout the battle. Through his actions, the regimental colors of the 55th Infantry Regiment were not lost to the enemy.
"Corporal Andrew Jackson Smith's extraordinary valor in the face of deadly enemy fire is in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon him, the 55th Regiment, and the United States Army."
CLINTON: The second Medal of Honor I award today is for the bravery of Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, on July 1, 1898.
That was the day he led his volunteer troops, the Rough Riders, in taking San Juan Hill, which changed the course of the battle and the Spanish-American War.
We are greatly honored to be joined today by members of the Roosevelt family, including Tweed (ph) Roosevelt, here to accept the Medal of Honor on behalf of his great grandfather.
This is the thirty-seventh Medal of Honor I have presented, but the first I presented in the recipient's old office...
... in front of a portrait of him in full battle gear. It is a tradition in the Roosevelt Room that when a Democrat is in the White House, a portrait of Franklin Roosevelt hangs above the mantel and when a Republican is here, Teddy Roosevelt occupies the hallowed spot. I chose to break with the tradition these last eight years, because I figured if we could have even half the luck and skill leading American into the 21st century that Theodore Roosevelt did in leading America into the 20th century, our nation would do just fine.
TR was a larger-than-life figure, who gave our nation a larger- than-life vision of our place in the world. Part of that vision was formed on San Juan Hill. His Rough Riders were made up all kinds of Americans from all walks of life. They were considered unpolished and undisciplined, but they were true citizen-soldiers.
By taking San Juan Hill, eventually they forced the enemy fleet into the battle of Santiago Bay, where it was routed. This led to the Spanish surrender and opened the era of America as a global power.
Twenty-two people won the Medal of Honor for actions that day. Two high-ranking military officers who had won the Medal of Honor in earlier wars and who saw Theodore Roosevelt's bravery recommended him for the medal, too.
For some reason, the War Department never acted on the recommendation. Some say he didn't get it because of the bias the War Department had against volunteers. Others say it was because he ran afoul of the secretary of war, who after the war was reluctant to allow the return of a number of American servicemen afflicted with yellow fever. Roosevelt publicly called for America to bring its heroes home where they had a far better chance to recover. The administration had to reverse course, and it proved embarrassing to the secretary.
But while opinions about why he didn't receive the medal are mixed, the opinion that he should have received it long ago is unanimous. So here in this room will stand two great bookends to his wide-ranging life, the Medal of Honor, America's highest honor for warriors, and the Nobel Peace Prize, the world's highest honor for peace-makers, which he won for his role in settling the Russo-Japanese War of 1905.
This is a remarkable day, and I can't help but noting that, for historical buffs, Theodore Roosevelt's son was the oldest man who landed on the beaches at Normandy on D-Day, where he also won the Medal of Honor.
Tragically, he died shortly after that in his uniform, doing his duty. We are profoundly grateful as Americans for this remarkable family. And I am honored that I had the chance before I left office to correct what I think is a significant historical error.
I'd also like to thank all these people from New York who were in the Congress and other people from other states who did their part to see that it was done, and I thank all of you too.
Nearly 100 years ago, standing in this place -- I suppose I should also say this. The reason this was Theodore Roosevelt's office is that all the offices of the president were in the old White House until Teddy Roosevelt became president. But the country was bustling and growing and so was his family. He had five kids and no place to work over there. His children were rambunctious like him. They even let goats and other animals run through the White House during regular time. And so they built the West Wing in 1902, believe it or not, as a temporary structure. But no one ever had the courage to go back to Congress again and ask for money to do it right. So it's held up pretty well for the last 99 years, and that's why this was President Theodore Roosevelt's office.
HARRIS: We have been listening the President Clinton, awarding the 36th and 37th Medals of Honor of his tenure during the eight years he spent in the White House; those going to Corporal Andrew Jackson Smith from the Civil War and Theodore Roosevelt, Teddy Roosevelt, President Teddy Roosevelt getting one for the legendary battle of San Juan Hill. Incredible stories this morning.
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