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How an Escaped Slave Hijacked a Confederate Ship and Sailed it to Freedom

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
February 24, 2023 3:01 am

How an Escaped Slave Hijacked a Confederate Ship and Sailed it to Freedom

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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February 24, 2023 3:01 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, here’s The History Guy with the tale of an escaped slave-turned Civil War legend named Robert Smalls.

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That's Our next story comes to us from a man who's simply known as the History Guy. His videos are watched by hundreds of thousands of people of all ages on YouTube, and he's been telling stories regularly here on Our American Stories. Here's the history guy with the tale of an escaped slave turned legend named Robert Smalls. Robert Smalls was born into slavery in 1839 in Beaufort, South Carolina. His mother was a slave, and his father's not known, although it may well have been his owner, Henry McKee. As a youth, McKee rented Robert out as a laborer, with McKee receiving the pay. Robert was fond of the sea, and so started taking work at the Charleston docks, first as a stevedore unloading ships and working the docks, and then on boats as a sailor or sailmaker or fisherman. Eventually, he came to know the waters of the Carolina coast well, and was a skilled boat pilot, even though slaves were not given that title. In 1856, Robert married another slave, a hotel maid named Hannah Jones. The couple was trusted enough to live apart from their owners, although the owners still took most of their pay.

They had a daughter, and then a son, who died at the age of two. The Civil War started just out front his door at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. The Confederacy recognized Robert's skill and pressed him into service as the wheelman aboard the CSS planter, a side wheel steamer that had been converted into an armed dispatch boat.

The planter delivered dispatches, troops, and supplies, as well as laid mines, then called torpedoes, to protect the harbor. Robert was a trusted member of the crew, and his piloting skills were valuable, given his knowledge and experience with the coast. But Robert, like almost any person who is being treated as property, wanted freedom. This was particularly important to him, as Hannah's owner was abusive, and he feared she might be sold away. He wished to buy her freedom, but did not have enough money. They had to escape, and in May 1862, he saw his chance. Smalls had noticed that the Confederate officers made a habit of leaving the ship at night, so he and the other eight slaves aboard hatched a plan. On May 12, 1862, the planter was docked in Charleston, carrying a load of four cannon that were intended to add to the city's defense. When, in the evening, the officers left the ship, Smalls and the crew took the boat, met that their families had a pre-arranged spot in the harbor, and fled to the Union blockade.

This was no simple feat. Had they been caught, they would all certainly have been executed. The harbor was well defended, with five Confederate harbor fourths each capable of destroying the boat. But Smalls knew all the proper signals, and even impersonated the captain, standing at the front of the boat. Once free of the harbor, they lowered the Confederate flag, and put up a white sheet, hoping the ships of the Union blockade would see it. Yet they were still nearly fired upon by the Federal blockade fleet, as the captain of the armed clipper, USS Onward, saying the Confederate gunboat, ordered the guns to ready.

But a crewman with binoculars saw Smalls and his compatriots waving frantically from the deck. Once the captain of the Onward boarded the planter, Smalls reportedly asked if they had a Union flag for the ship to fly. Incredibly, Smalls' audacious plan allowed him to not only steal a Confederate warship from a well-defended port, and deliver it as a prize to the Union, but also to deliver nine families from slavery. Smalls became a hero in the Union, but the Confederacy put a four thousand dollar bounty on his head. His knowledge of the Charleston defenses was invaluable, and he immediately went into the service of the Union Navy, acting as the pilot aboard a number of vessels, including aboard the now USS planter. Having laid mines for the Confederacy, he now helped to remove them. An 1883 naval report noted that he participated in 17 Civil War battles and engagements, including serving as pilot of the ironclad USS Keokuk during the disastrous attack on Charleston, April 7th of 1863, where the ship was savaged by Fort Sumter's guns.

The heavily damaged ship was able to withdraw under her own power, due in large part to Smalls' considerable piloting skills. In December of 1863, he was back aboard USS planter when the steamer got caught in a crossfire between Union and Confederate troops near Folly Island. The captain of the boat, James Nickerson, panicked and ordered the boat to surrender.

But Smalls refused, knowing that he and the other black sailors would face execution if they were captured. He took command and was able to navigate the boat outside the Confederate guns. For his heroism, he was made captain of the planter, the first black man to command a United States ship. During the war, he engaged in other heroics as well. He was instrumental in convincing Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to allow the recruitment of black troops into the Union Army and help to recruit former slaves for the first volunteer South Carolina regiment, one of the first black regiments. He supported efforts to raise money to educate former slaves and himself achieved literacy. He was voted an unofficial delegate to the Republican National Convention in 1864. Also that year, when he was forced to give up his seat to a white passenger on a Philadelphia streetcar, he left the car rather than sit in the open overflow platform. That small act of rebellion helped to motivate the state of Pennsylvania to integrate public transportation in 1867. Following the war, Smalls was a delegate to the 1868 South Carolina Constitutional Convention.

He was elected to the State House of Representatives and then to the State Senate, and in 1874, was elected to the US House of Representatives. But this was a brutal era in US politics where anti-reconstructionists frequently used violence and intimidation, often through shadow organizations of the Democrats, such as the Ku Klux Klan and the South Carolina red shirts. 35 African American officials were murdered by such organizations during the period of Reconstruction. Smalls' life was threatened by a group of armed red shirts at a political rally in 1876.

Over his long political career, he had endured threats of violence, false and trumped up charges, and open intimidation of voters. The young man who escaped slavery by audaciously stealing a warship never faltered in the face of adversity. Escaping because he could not afford to purchase his wife's freedom, after the war, he used some of the money awarded by the Union as a prize for the capture of the CSS planter to purchase his former owner's home. The young hero who played a pivotal role in incorporating black soldiers into the federal army was eventually a major general in the South Carolina militia. In 2004, when the US Army named a massive best-in-class logistics support vessel, the USAV Major General Robert Smalls became the first US Army vessel to be named after an African American. Through it all, he faced terrible threats and discrimination. In the end, he even had to fight for his pension. Despite being the first black captain of a United States ship, he'd never actually officially been commissioned. Because of the color of his skin, he had technically served throughout the war, including 17 engagements, as a civilian.

Robert Smalls died of diabetes in 1915 at the age of 75. The inscription on his monument is a quotation from a statement he made to the South Carolina legislature in 1895. My race needs no special defense, for the past history of them in this country proves them to be the equal of any people, anywhere. All they need is an equal chance in the battle of life. needs no special defense, for the past history of them in this country proves them to be the equal of any people, anywhere.

All they need is an equal chance in the battle of life. And we tell a lot of stories here on this show, and particularly the inequities perpetuated by this country on African Americans. It's storytelling that needs to be remembered and told, and we do it here because we tell all the stories of this country, some good and not so good, and Robert Smalls' ability to triumph despite these difficulties.

My goodness, if any one of us could walk in his shoes and do the same. Robert Smalls' story, here on Our American Stories. That's right, the lowest and best. Does Roto do this for every customer or just customers named Catherine? Well, that depends.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2023-02-24 04:16:32 / 2023-02-24 04:21:44 / 5

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