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Published: Wednesday, 1/31/2001

Getting it right

History's wrongs sometimes can be remedied, even though the years conspire against it. So it is with the awarding of the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military honor, to an ex-slave and an ex-president, both long dead but not forgotten.

In one of his last acts as president, Bill Clinton bestowed the medal on Sgt. Andrew Jackson Smith, a black Civil War hero from Illinois, and on Lt. Col. Theodore Roosevelt, who became president but not before gaining national fame for leading the charge up San Juan Hill in Cuba in 1898 during the Spanish-American War.

Sergeant Jackson, a fugitive slave who joined the Union army, picked up the fallen stars and stripes and carried it at the head of a bloody 1864 federal assault on a Confederate position in South Carolina called Honey Hill. He was belatedly nominated for the honor in 1916, but President Woodrow Wilson denied him the medal on the racially suspicious grounds that his service records could not be found.

It turned out the records were in the National Archives all along, to be retrieved by a high school history teacher who pursued the soldier's case with relatives and members of Congress decades after Sergeant Smith died in 1932.

According to historians, Teddy Roosevelt was nominated for the medal by a couple of veteran generals for his famous service at San Juan Hill but was turned down because he was a volunteer rather than a regular army officer.

Sitting alongside each other to accept the awards were Sergeant Smith's 93-year-old daughter and Tweed Roosevelt, great-grandson of the patrician president. History finally makes amends.

“Sometimes it takes this country a while,” Mr. Clinton said, “but we nearly always get it right in the end.”

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