REMARKS BY THE PRESIDENT AT MEDAL OF HONOR
The Roosevelt Room
11:45 A.M. EST
THE PRESIDENT: Good
morning, and please be seated. I would like to first thank Chaplain
General Hicks for his invocation; and welcome the distinguished
delegation from the Pentagon who are here -- Secretary Cohen,
General Shelton, Deputy Secretary DeLeon. I thank the members
of Congress who are here -- Senator Dorgan, Senator Durbin, Representatives
King, Skelton, Weller, and Whitfield; former Representatives Lazio
and McHale; members of the Smith and Roosevelt families.
In 1782, George
Washington created the Badge of Military Merit. It was the first
medal awarded by our nation's Armed Forces. But soon it fell into
oblivion, and for decades no new medals were established. It was
thought that a medal was too much like a European aristocratic
title, while to fight for one's country in America was simply
doing your democratic duty. So when the Medal of Honor was instituted
during the Civil War it was agreed it would be given only for
gallantry, at the risk of one's life above and beyond the call
of duty. That's an extraordinarily high standard, one that precious
few ever meet.
of Honor is our highest military decoration, and we are here today
to honor two American heroes who met that mark.
is Andrew Jackson Smith, United States Army. Then Corporal Smith
served as a part of the 55th Massachusetts Voluntary Infantry,
a black regiment that fought in the Civil War. 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.
30th, 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 a 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, "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
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 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.
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, here to
receive the Medal of Honor on behalf of his grandfather; and Mrs.
Caruth Smith Washington, Andrew Jackson Smith's daughter, and
a very young 93. (Applause.)
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're finally making things right. Major,
please read the citation. (The
citation is read.) (Applause.)
The second Medal of
Honor I award today is for the bravery of Lt. 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 Roosevelt, here to accept the
Medal of Honor on behalf of his great-grandfather.
This is the
37th Medal of Honor I have presented, but the first I presented
in the recipient's old office -- (laughter) -- 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 mantle, 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 America
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 of 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.
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
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.
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,
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 peacemakers,
which he won for his role in settling the Russo-Japanese War of
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 are 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 a hundred
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
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.
he said, way back then: "We know there are dangers ahead, as we
know there are evils to fight and overcome. But stout of heart,
we see across the dangers the great future that lies beyond, and
words continue to guide as, as we go forth into a new century.
May we continue to live up to the ideals for which both Andrew
Jackson Smith and Theodore Roosevelt risked their lives. Major,
please read the citation. (The
citation is read.) (Applause.)
Well, thank you all
very much for being here today. This has been a very moving ceremony.
Again, I want to thank the large delegation from the Congress,
and former members who have come, and families and folks in the
Pentagon who worked hard to get this done. This is a good day
for America. I'll just leave you with this one thought. I said
this yesterday, but I may say it every day in the last week of
my presidency. In the case of a black soldier in the long-ago
Civil War, it sometimes takes a long time to get things right.
Roosevelt reminded us that the only way we do that is by constantly
focusing on the future. And that's really what we're celebrating
here today, two people who changed America in more ways than one
by their personal courage, from very different vantage points.
PBS has been showing Jeffrey Ward's magnificent series on jazz
-- I don't know if any of you have seen it. But there's a great
section on Duke Ellington, who was a native of Washington, D.C.
And he was asked what his favorite jazz tune was, and he said,
"The one coming up." (Laughter.)
There's always a new
one coming up -- that's why we're all still here after more than
200 years. Thank you and God bless you all. (Applause.)