“The Life & Times of Robert Smalls” Opens at National Civil War Museum Civil War Slave’s Heroic Journey from Charleston to the U.S. Congress Paints Vivid and Exciting Picture

Imagine being a young man in your early 20s born into slavery and rising to a trusted position as a harbor pilot, then enlisting a few fellow slave crew members into commandeering a Confederate armed transport vessel, running it above the Federal  blockade and delivering the ship to Union forces at Fort Sumter. In doing so, you not only deliver your families and fellow crew members to safety and freedom, but your valorous actions personally help convince President Lincoln to recruit blacks into the Union Army.  Later, you go on to become a ranking officer in both the U.S. Army and Navy, a member of the South Carolina legislature and a distinguished member of Congress.

Sound like an adventure novel?  It could be, but this true story of Congressman Robert Smalls comes to the National Civil War Museum, now through June 2016, in a renowned traveling exhibit entitled “The Life and Times of Robert Smalls.”

His tale is both fascinating and provides great insight into how black Americans were viewed from the beginning of the Civil War: as lacking bravery and fortitude. By war’s end, many former slaves, like Smalls, rose to positions of great trust and authority during Reconstruction.

“The Robert Smalls saga is a tale of adventure and bravery that brings life to the stories of slaves and the roles they played during and after the Civil War, including many right here in the Harrisburg area,” explains Wayne Motts, CEO of the National Civil War Museum.

“Bringing the Robert Smalls story to Harrisburg helps the Civil War become alive in the eyes of many young people who may not realize that the Civil War was not just about slavery, but the personal sacrifices and commitment to family and country that motivated slaves, like Robert Smalls, into action at many levels, not just as soldiers,” adds Mike Love, National Civil War Museum board chairman.

Love notes others, including local heroes, will be featured in future exhibits.

Born in 1839 to Lydia Polite, a slave owned by Henry McKee at his estate, Robert Smalls was sent from home to be “hired out” with the money earned paid to his master. Starting with work at a hotel, Smalls was given $1 per week.  He later became a lamplighter in Charleston’s streets in his teens.  His love of the sea (his master’s estate was on an island) led him to Charleston’s Harbor, where he became a stevedore (dockworker), rigger  and sail maker. Smalls eventually worked his way up to harbor pilot (though slaves would never be called by that “lofty” title).

Just prior to dawn on May 13, 1862, in the absence of the white captain and two mates who had gone ashore on an unapproved leave for a party, Smalls fired up a former cotton steamer, the Confederate armed transport vessel, the CSS Planter, and with several fellow slaves/crewmen stole their way through the harbor to a rendezvous point and picked up their families.

Smalls then “assumed” the identity of the real captain, wearing his hat and coat and hiding his face. He reportedly even held his hands behind his back, just as the real captain did, to confuse the guards ashore. As a result, the ship sailed successfully past several Confederate guard posts, with Smalls flashing the right signals that allowed their safe  passage.

The Planter’s journey became even more perilous as they approached the Union forces at Fort Sumter, who at first were ordered to train their guns on the Confederate steamer. As dawn broke, a Union officer saw that instead of the Confederate flag and the Palmetto of South Carolina, the ship flew a plain white flag of sorts. It was a bed sheet Small’s wife brought aboard from the hotel where he worked, used as a signal of surrender to Union blockade.

Small’s delivery of the Planter to the Union, including guns originally stolen from the Federal navy, along with secret codes used by the Confederacy, led Small’s feat to be recognized as a national act of heroism. Ultimately, he and the crew were “rewarded” for their feat with Congress authorizing payment of about $1,500 each (more than $35,000 in today’s dollars), with which Smalls was able to purchase freedom for his wife, mother and child.  He later returned to Beufort and purchased the home of his former master, showing compassion to the owner’s widow when she returned and, in her dementia, failed to recognize the house was no longer hers. Smalls let her live out her days there with his family – her former slaves.

Smalls, along with Frederick Douglas, later personally visited President Lincoln, helping persuade him to enlist slaves into the Union Army, a move initially resisted because it was feared it would anger states on the edge of the Union that sympathized with slavery. Opponents also argued that blacks lacked the bravery and intestinal fortitude to fight.

There is much more to Small’s amazing story: he later went on to become a member of the South Carolina legislature and a distinguished member of the U.S. Congress. As a state legislator, he authored the first state laws to provide for the first free and compulsory public school system in the U.S.  He was also the last Republican to represent South Carolina’s 5th Congressional District and was the longest serving black member of Congress until Adam Clayton Powell served in the mid 1960s.

“The Life and Times of Robert Smalls” exhibit includes many items from his personal and professional life, including furniture from the “big house” where he was enslaved and scale replicas of the ships he commanded during the Civil War.

For more information, go to nationalcivilwarmueum.org.

Joe Benish

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