(Published Jan 25, 2022)
When Andrew Bowman first heard about his grandfather Andrew Jackson Smith’s Civil War heroics, even he didn’t believe it. “My mother’s a good storyteller,” he said, “and we always thought [her tales] were so outlandish. We joked about her being from “Lyin'” County, Kentucky [as opposed to its real name, Lyon County] because her stories were, we thought, so outrageous. But they were true.”
Andrew Jackson Smith was the son of an enslaved woman and the man who owned her. After escaping from slavery at age 18, at which point the Civil War had already begun, Smith volunteered for the Union army, eventually joining the 55th Massachusetts regiment, a unit entirely composed of men of color. At the Battle of Honey Hill, when one Union flagbearer was killed and another wounded, Smith took the reins, keeping communications running and willingly making himself a visible Confederate target.
Actions like Smith’s typically received special commendations. Dozens of other soldiers who behaved similarly received Medals of Honor, but Smith’s recommendation was continually denied due to an alleged lack of evidence. After his death in 1932, it was up to Smith’s family to continue the fight for recognition – first Smith’s daughter (Bowman’s aunt) Caruth Smith Washington, then Bowman himself beginning in the 1980s.
“I began to realize [my mother’s stories] were true when I got an opportunity to speak with some members of the community [in Lyon County] who actually knew my grandfather,” Bowman said. After traveling around the country for research and enlisting the help of a few historians, Bowman and his family finally found the smoking gun they had been looking for (papers which had been in the U.S. National Archives the whole time), and Smith was awarded his long-delayed Medal of Honor in 2001.
Fulfilling a Legacy
Rather than an ending point, receiving his grandfather’s Medal of Honor marked a new beginning for Bowman. Since that time, he has presented programs throughout the Midwest dressed as Smith, and in 2020 he and the historians who helped ensure Smith’s recognition published the biography Carrying the Colors: The Life & Legacy of Medal of Honor Recipient Andrew Jackson Smith. “I want everybody to know the Black man fought for his own freedom,” Bowman said. “And I also [want] my children to have a knowledge of self and a recognition that they have meaning to this country.”
Bowman finds that wearing a replica of Smith’s Union Army uniform makes the fact that Black people fought in the Civil War much more tangible for those in the audience. “I have encountered some social studies teachers who taught for 20-30 years and didn’t know Black men fought in the Civil War, so I want to make sure those educators have some idea of what was happening,” he said.
Bowman will be sharing his presentation with the JCC community on Thursday, February 10 (2022) at 7 pm. Click on the event listing below to register for the program!
Bowman’s affinity for family history and community also extends to the present day. He has been a JCC member since 1965, when he lived right around the corner from the facility. “We didn’t have to cross the street to come here!” Bowman said. “I liked all my kids having access to healthy activities. Our kids learned how to swim here, they played soccer – one of my kids was on the first soccer team here. Another son played basketball and was the most valuable player on the team. And plus they had all their friends here who they grew up with.”
Though Bowman has since moved farther away from the J, he maintains a membership because “I have a connection with the community. I remember a lot of people: Leo Fang and his whole family, Abby Hodes, Joe Ofengender, the Singers – we went through their yard to come over to the JCC.”
Creating lifelong memories like Bowman’s is an integral part of the JCC’s mission to provide inclusive experiences that lead to personal growth and community building. And in turn, the J is grateful for members like Bowman who make the JCC a place where community really is at the center.