A Nevada Army veteran who died without knowing he won the nation’s highest medal of bravery received the honor he’s been owed for nearly 140 years in a ceremony on Monday.
Nevada Rep. Mark Amodei held an event at his Reno office to present a new Medal of Honor to Jerry Reynolds, the 82-year-old grandson and closest surviving relative of the late Private Robert Smith.
Smith fought in a battle against American Indian tribes in the Dakota Territory on Sept. 9, 1876, when he was 29. Then-President Rutherford B. Hayes approved the Medal of Honor for Smith in 1877 for showing “special bravery in endeavoring to dislodge Indians secreted in a ravine,” according to Army records.
But the award never made it to the veteran, who was born in Memphis, Tennessee as Harry Reynolds but used an alias for unknown reasons. His grandson said the medal was delivered to Camp Sheridan in Nebraska Territory, where Smith had previously lived, but someone else signed for the package.
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Smith returned to using his birth name after his discharge from the Army, then later moved to Elko, Nevada. While he talked with his family about his experiences in the so-called Indian Wars, he was better known for his skill driving horses as a teamster than he was for his war heroism, and he died in 1930 without knowing he won the award.
In 2011, the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War contacted Jerry Reynolds to let him know about his grandfather’s award. Smith had served as a drummer boy in the Civil War before enlisting in the Army in 1872 under the pseudonym.
“It was a total surprise,” said Reynolds, who’d also never known about the Robert Smith name.
A document in the soldier’s pension file that explains the name discrepancy suggests he used the alias because he didn’t want friends in Philadelphia to know where he went.
Jerry Reynolds contacted Amodei’s office this summer for help in what turned out to be a five-year journey to get a new medal. Congressional staff worked with the Army’s Command Awards and Decorations Branch, which announced on Oct. 14 that it would provide a medal to the family as a symbol of the one that never made it to Smith.
“It’s certainly been a great experience,” Reynolds said. “They’re very protective of the Medal of Honor … rightfully so.”