Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Robert Smalls Decides to Go for It

I am always inspired by stories of the underdog or the oppressed rising above their circumstances. That is why Robert Smalls is one of my favorite historical figures. It was on this day, May 13, in the year 1862, that Robert Smalls decided to go for it.

You see, Robert Smalls was born in 1839 in Beaufort, South Carolina. Being born black in Beaufort in 1839 meant being born a slave. Robert grew up a slave. As a young man, he was assigned to dock work in Charleston, South Carolina. He eventually was told to work on a Confederate Transport Ship, the "Planter". The "Planter" was a high-pressure, side-wheel steamer, one hundred and forty feet in length, and about fifty feet beam, and drew about five feet of water. She was built to be a Cotton transport boat, but with the outbreak of the unpleasantness of 1861, she was commissioned by the Rebel Navy as a gunboat. Robert was given the job of being the helmsman of this Confederate Vessel.

Robert hatched a plan that was so daring it was almost unthinkable . . . he would commandeer the Planter, and use it to steam himself, the crew, and all their families to safety in the North. He shared his plans with the slave crew, and the crew agreed to go along. Robert planned the escape, but waited patiently for the perfect opportunity to execute it.

It was the evening of May 12 that the white confederate officers decided to go onshore to spend the night, as they were planning to take the planter on an expedition the next day. Robert saw this as his chance. He loaded his family, and the family of the slave crew on board the Planter. At about 3:00 AM on the morning of May 13, Robert fired up the boiler, and built a strong head of steam, and pulled the ship out of the docks. The tide was against them that morning, and they did not reach Fort Sumter until daylight. Robert now faced his greatest danger . . . the guns of Fort Sumter, which was under Confederate control. Smalls knew the secret signal, and as he passed the boat directly under the walls of Sumter, he gave the usual signal of two long pulls and a jerk at the whistle-cord, and they safely passed the Sumter Guards. Once out of range of the rebel guns he faced the new danger of steaming a Confederate warship directly at the Union Fleet. He had planned for this danger as well, and he hoisted the white flag of surrender, while steaming directly for the Union steamer Augusta. Captain Parrott, of the latter vessel saw the flag, and held his fire. He then heard their incredible story, and forwarded them on to Commodore Dupont. The crew and their families were warmly cared for by DuPont, who proposed that the US Congress make an appropriation of $20,000 as a reward to the Slaves who had so distinguished themselves by this gallant service.

In December 1863 Smalls became the first black captain of a vessel in the service of the United States Navy. On April 7, 1863 Smalls piloted the ironclad Keokuk in a Union attack on Fort Sumter, the very fort around which he had escaped.

Smalls was elected to the United States Congress as a Republican in 1875. He served in the 44th, 45th, 47th, 48th, and 49th U.S. Congresses.

So today, we tip our hats to Robert Smalls, and his daring escape, and his choice to not let his circumstances keep him from accomplishing great things.


  1. awesome story! What happened to all of those brave people that made the US what it is today? Now all we have are a bunch of complainers. thank you for reminding us!

  2. A wonderful story that serves to remind us that, in this country, your success is limited only by you willingness to accept risk, work hard and have a positive attitude. Nowhere in that equation is race or gender a consideration in spite of what some folks will tell you. Any roadblocks can be knocked down with a continuous application of the elements of the above equation.

    Unfortunately, Calgal is right though: there are a lot of lazy cry babies out there

  3. Your blog is fantastic I have spent ages just going through the pictures, some amazing stories, thankyou for sharing!

  4. Now that is an amazing story. Thank you for posting it!

  5. Too bad the downfall and decline of our country has nothing to do with "crybabies" or "whiners" as the previous two gentlemen stated. You know who also were crybabies? The founding fathers and people like Mr. Smalls who decided to cry, shout, and scream about their position and the status quo and decided to change it or at least try to.

    Instead our real decline is due to the lack of respect for our rule of law, constitution, and each others freedoms. The sociopaths with positions of power keep pillaging while reaping the benefits of the system that was built on the backs of great men like Mr. Smalls. Meanwhile the general population is deceived, contorted, and pulled along like cattle.

    But it's ok gentlemen, do not fret for you yourselves don't even realize that you are part of the "lazy cry babies out there" because of course you whine and cry about the crybabies. Oh the sweet sweet irony. So yes, keep crying and whining about everybody else but never look deep and hard at yourselves. After all it's not you with the problem, it's everybody else and those damn crybabies.

    Where would America be if those patriot revolutionary crybabies didn't cry and complain about the British colonial rule that was oppressing them? Yeah, exactly.

    So long Crybabies.


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