Theodore Roosevelt, black Civil War hero awarded Medal of Honor
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Clinton posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor to a pair of distinguished veterans of 19th Century wars Tuesday, as he recalled the battlefield exploits of famed "Rough Rider" Teddy Roosevelt and Andrew Jackson Smith, a black Union soldier previously unrecognized for his service.
"In the case of a black soldier in the long-ago Civil War, it sometimes takes a long time to get things right. But Theodore Roosevelt reminded us that the only way that we do that is constantly focusing on the future," Clinton said as he presented the nation's highest military honor to the families of the two soldiers.
Smith, a former slave, served as part of the 55th Massachusetts Voluntary Infantry, a black regiment that fought in the Civil War. Taking part in Gen. William Sherman's famed "March to Sea" through South Carolina in 1864, Smith played a leading role in the Battle of Honey Hill by saving the regimental flags after the color-bearer was killed in action.
"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," said Clinton. "The enemy fought hard for your colors, and units that lost them suffered serious loss of morale."
Honey Hill was regarded as one the most hard-fought battles of the South Carolina campaign. One eyewitness wrote that "One could walk on the dead for over a mile without touching the road."
Historical records indicated Smith's commander was wounded during the battle and never included his heroism in his official account of the day's events. However, Smith was promoted to Color Sergeant soon after the battle.
Smith returned to Kentucky after the Civil War, where he died at about the age of 90 in 1932. He was nominated for the Medal of Honor in 1916, but the Army claimed there were no official records to prove his story.
"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," said Clinton.
In contrast to Smith's experience, Roosevelt's experience as leader of the volunteer cavalry brigade "The Rough Riders" was well documented during and after the Spanish-American War, and helped launch a political career that landed him in the White House in 1901.
Roosevelt played a pivotal role in the Battle of San Juan Hill, in which U.S. forces ousted their Spanish adversaries from Cuba in 1898. Leading the charge up the hill, he was the first to reach the enemy trenches and killed a Spanish solider with his pistol.
Although Roosevelt was recommended for the award soon after the battle, he too was passed over for the highest military honor.
"For some reason, the War Department never acted on the recommendation," Clinton said. "Some say he didn't get it because of the bias the War Department had against volunteers."
Clinton awarded the framed Medals of Honor during a ceremony in the Roosevelt Room, which features an oil painting of Roosevelt leading the assault upon San Juan Hill. As president, Roosevelt himself first used the room as an office in 1902, after construction of the West Wing was completed to alleviate crowding in the White House.
"This is the 37th Medal of Honor I have presented, but the first I presented in the recipient's old office," Clinton joked. "In front of a portrait of him in full battle gear."