Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Robert Smalls

Via Ta Nehisi-Coates, a Civil War story I never heard before. Robert Smalls was a slave who was hired out by his master to various employers around Charleston Harbor, eventually working his way up to Wheelman --the guy who actually steered the boat. When the Civil War started he became wheelman of the CSS Planter, an armed Confederate military transport.
On May 12, 1862, the Planter's three white officers were spending the night ashore. In the early morning hours of the 13th, Smalls and several other black crewmen decided to make a run for the Union vessels that formed the blockade. . . . Robert was dressed in the captain's uniform and even had a hat similar to the white captain's. The Planter backed out of what was then known as Southern Wharf around 3 a.m. The Planter stopped at a nearby wharf to pick up Smalls' family and other crewmen's relatives, who had been concealed there for some time.

Once beyond the range of the Confederate guns, Smalls hoisted a white flag and steered straight for the closest Union vessel, the USS Onward. He offered the Planter as a contribution to the war effort, along with four extra guns and a Confederate codebook.

Because of his extensive knowledge of the shipyards and Confederate defenses, Smalls was able to provide valuable assistance to the Union Navy. He gave detailed information about the harbor's defenses to Admiral Samuel Dupont, commander of the blockading fleet.

Smalls became famous throughout the North. Numerous newspapers ran articles describing his actions. Congress passed a bill, signed by President Abraham Lincoln, rewarding Smalls and his crewmen with the prize money for the captured Planter. Smalls' own share was $1,500.

Smalls met Lincoln a few weeks later. He impressed both Lincoln and Dupont, and he began serving as a pilot on US Navy vessels. He remained a civilian throughout the war, however. The sources I have found don't say why, but presumably the laws at the time did not allow black men to serve in the Navy on terms compatible with the position of respect Smalls actually enjoyed.

In December 1863, Smalls became the first black captain of a vessel in the service of the United States. On December 1, 1863, the Planter had been caught in a crossfire between Union and Confederate forces. The ship's commander, Captain Nickerson, decided to surrender. Smalls refused, fearing that the black crewmen would not be treated as prisoners of war and might even be shot. Smalls took command and piloted the ship out of range of the Confederate guns. For his bravery, Smalls was named to replace Nickerson as the Planter's captain.

After the war Smalls entered politics, and he served five terms in the US Congress.

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