Black History: Special Delivery!!
Robert Smalls (April 5, 1839 – February 23, 1915) was born in Beaufort, SC, to a slave named Lydia Smalls. His father was unknown to him, but was believed to be a prominent white man. Small longed for freedom. Smalls was hired out by his master and eventually began working the docks. He became an expert seaman. He was married Hannah Jones, also a slave.
In the fall of 1861, Robert Smalls was made helmsman (though he would have been classified as a pilot had he not been a slave) of the CSS Planter an armed Confederate military ship. On May 12, 1862, the Planter’s three white crew officers decided to spend the night ashore. With the white officers gone, Smalls and several other black crew members made the daring decision to try and escape. There goal was to guide the ship out of enemy territory and surrender in open waters to Union troops. Along their route, they stopped to pick up Smalls’ family and the other crew’s relatives.
Smalls piloted his ship past 5 Confederate forts that were guarding the harbor. A skilled seaman, he was aware of the mines that had been placed by Confederates and sailed right past them. After passing the Confederate forts, he hoisted a white flag and headed towards the Union blockade. The first Union ship he approached was the USS Onward which prepared to fire until the white flag was noticed. Smalls turned the Planter over to the United States Navy, along with its weapons and explosives.
President Lincoln signed a bill giving Smalls and his crew $1500 for his bravery. At the time, The Conferedates, also had $4,000 bounty on Smalls. Smalls then became the first black captain of a ship in the service of the United States. On December 1, 1863, the Planter was engaged in a fierce battle. The ship’s commander, Captain Nickerson, was ready to surrender to Confederate troops. Robert Smalls refused because he knew that he and the other slaves on board would be killed. He took command of the ship and maneuvered it out of the range of confederate guns. For his acts of bravery, he was made a captain, becoming the first black man to command a United States ship.
Smalls later went on to become active in politics. He also became a successful business man and eventually bought and lived in the home that he had grew up in as a slave. Smalls died in 1915 in South Carolina. In 2004 a military ship was named in his honor.
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