Robert Smalls stole a Confederate warship, fought for the United States during the Civil War, then became a member of U.S. Congress.
Robert Smalls was born a slave in South Carolina in 1839; he died in 1915 as the owner of that house. As a teenager, Smalls was a slave working on the docks in South Carolina. He became very well acquainted with boating and with the Charleston port— this will be important very soon in the story.
In 1861, Smalls was assigned to pilot the Confederate warship, CSS Planter. One night, the three white officers decided to spend the night on shore. They left their ship in the charge of well-trained slaves. Seriously? How did the Confederacy ever hope to win the war with morons like that at the helm? Well, in the ongoing story of water being wet, Smalls stole the warship under cover of darkness and immediately defected to the United States. Smalls raised a United States flag over the mast and proceeded to make war against the slave states.
Smalls helped convince President Lincoln to allow black men into the Union army to have a hand (and a rifle) in securing their own freedom.
In December 1863, Robert Smalls became the first black captain of a ship in the service of the United States. The captain of the Planter at the time decided to surrender to Confederate forces. Fearing that the black crewmen would be treated worse than other prisoners of war, Smalls disobeyed his orders and piloted his ship to safety. For his bravery, he was given command of the Planter.
After the war, he bought the house where he had been enslaved. He allowed his former master’s wife to live out her years in the home.
During Reconstruction, he was elected to the United States House of Representatives. After Reconstruction ended, white southerners used force and violence to regain control of politics. Smalls was the longest serving black congressman until Clayton Powell in 1971.
Robert Smalls died at age 75 as the owner of the house where he had once been enslaved.
Why he should be remembered: He stole a warship. He was quite literally the master of his fate and the captain of his soul.
Read more about Robert Smalls.
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