Youthful Valour | Tom Camfield

'Tom Camfield
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Posted 11/24/21

The Medal of Honor is the oldest continuously issued combat decoration of the U.S. Armed Forces, the highest and most prestigious military award recognizing those who have distinguished themselves by …

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Youthful Valour | Tom Camfield

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The Medal of Honor is the oldest continuously issued combat decoration of the U.S. Armed Forces, the highest and most prestigious military award recognizing those who have distinguished themselves by acts of valour. In 1990, Congress designated March 25 annually as National Medal of Honor Day.

Thaddeus Smith is buried in the GAR plot at Laurel Grove Cemetery. He died when I was 4 years old here on March 14, 1933 (at his home at 1207 Blaine St., at the age of 89). Long-time local friends serving as his pall-bearers were William Lammers, Sanford T. Lake, Daniel H. Hill, R J. Kessey, Harry Anderson and N. A. Klassell. I later researched him for one of my books of local history in 2002.

Thaddeus Stevens Smith was born in Franklin County, Pennsylvania and was honored for action at Gettysburg during the Civil War, about a century before Marvin Shields was cited posthumously. He was the last surviving member of Farragut Post, Grand Army of the Republic, when he died here in 1933.

Smith has been verified as only 14 when the war began and he enlisted in Company E of the 6th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. (His obituary refers to the Fifth Volunteers, a regiment in which E.E. Hickman, who died in Port Townsend a couple of years earlier than Smith, also was a member.)

Smith distinguished himself in action, was captured by Confederate forces and was confined at the infamous prison at Andersonville, Georgia. He escaped but was recaptured.

He received four wounds and was imprisoned for 11 months. Research indicates that Smith did not receive the medal until May 5, 1900, although it dealt with heroic action at Gettysburg on July 2, 1863. He was one of six volunteers who charged upon a log house near the Devil’s Den, compelling the surrender of a squad of 12 of the enemy’s sharpshooters.

A later-day researcher wrote (see “Port Townsend, the City That Whiskey Built,” p.198) about the 35th Regiment of the Pennsylvania Volunteers: “This unit on the afternoon of July 2 was heavily engaged with Confederate forces north of the Devil’s Den and between Little Round Top and the wheat field. A group of Confederate sharpshooters concealed in a log cabin on the right flank was pouring a deadly fire into their ranks.

"These six men, under the most hazardous of conditions, volunteered to try and seize the cabin and dislodge the enemy. Their gallant effort was successful, capturing twelve Confederates in the cabin. Surprisingly, none of the six men was killed or wounded." All six received the Medal of Honor.

An officer of Smith's unit later commented, "I do not believe that there was performed a braver act during the whole battle than this voluntary act in the presence of the enemy's line. There is no knowledge how many of our men are living today that might have been killed or wounded but for this voluntary act of heroism."

Nearly two years later — May 13, 1864 — Smith was transferred to Company E of the 191st Pennsylvania Infantry. Cpl. Smith was captured a mere 2 1/2 months later — Aug. 19, 1864 — in action at Weldon Railroad, Virginia, and sent to Andersonville Prison.

Life in Andersonville featured inadequate water, overcrowding, reductions of food rations and generally unsanitary conditions that caused the deaths of some 13,000 Union troops. Approximately 45,000 Union prisoners eventually were sent there. It was commanded by Major Henry Wirz who after the war was tried and executed for murder and violation of the laws of war.


Although he managed to escape once, Smith was recaptured and returned to Andersonville, where he remained a prisoner of war for seven more months until freed by Union forces on March 2, 1865. He was recessed from military service two months later.

There are conflicting reports of wives and children whom Smith survived, but he appears to have moved to Washington Territory and entered the U.S. Customs Service at Port Townsend about the early 1880s.

He expressed the request that there be no military pomp or exercises in connection with final rites over his remains. That wish was respected.

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  • MargeS

    One of my ancestors died at Danville, VA Confederate Prison. Elihu Billings joined the military in 1862 and fought in the civil war. He was "taken prisoner at the battle of Chickamauga Sept. 20, 1863, died of disease at Danville Prison Virginia, December 6, 1864.

    A fellow genealogist found this information for me.

    Return of a Trunk: Early in the war Elihu Billings (brother-in-law) of H. Van Deusen, of Saratoga, Springs) who was then a student at law in Indiana, enlisted in the 87th Indiana and went to the field. He was taken prisoner at the battle of Chickamauga and sent to Richmond.

    When the city was threatened by Grant in 1864, he was removed to Danville, Virginia, where he died. Recently his trunk which had been sent over six years ago was returned to his relatives in Saratoga, by express, with nothing to indicate where it had been or the source from whence it came. So far as can be judged the contents had not been disturbed. [Schenectady NY Evening Star Times, April 21, 1868] I would love to have that trunk! The rest of the story, his wife who had some mental problems ended up in a sanitarium for 36 years, his children farmed out to other families. A sad story but not unusual.

    A few years ago someone doing a story on Thaddeus had the JCHS Research Center do some research for them, we had quite a bit and sent it to him. There are so many stories about soldiers who died in the Civil War. What a horrible thing to have our country so divided. Sometimes I think it's all happening again. Thanks for the story Tom.

    Wednesday, November 24, 2021 Report this