The Confederate Army opened fire on Fort Sumter 150 years ago today, plunging this country into a war intended to preserve the institution of black slavery. It thus feels like a good day to honor the memory of an African American who was true Union hero in the course of the war: Robert Smalls.
In the pre-dawn hours May 13, 1862, Robert Smalls and a crew of black men commandeered a Confederate transport steamer loaded with armaments, and docked outside the home and office of its commander. They gathered Smalls’s wife and children along with 12 other slaves from another port, sailed past Confederate troops, and raised the flag of surrender at the Union blockade, delivering to the Union Navy what the northern press soon referred to as “the first trophy from Fort Sumter.”
Robert Smalls was born in 1839 in a South Carolina slave cabin, the only child of 49 year old Lydia Smalls, his father apparently a white man (possibly either his mother’s owner, or a Jewish merchant named Moses Goldsmith). Smalls worked as a house slave until he was 12, and was thereafter hired out, allowed to keep $1 a month of his pay.
At age 18 (and by now a married man), Smalls negotiated a deal with his owner which allowed him to keep $15 a month; when Smalls’s wife Hannah Jones had their first child, he negotiated a second deal, enabling him to buy Hannah and their little girl for $800. Robert, Jr. was born in 1861.
As a hired hand, Smalls worked in a wide range of professions, including waiter, lamplighter, stevedore, ship rigger and sailor. Hired as a deckhand on a Confederate gun-boat, the Planter, Smalls was made its pilot.
It was Smalls’s knowledge of the ship and the Confederate Navy that allowed him to evade capture once the Planter was under his control: He wore the captain’s hat and stood as a captain would in the pilot house, giving the appropriate whistle signals until he reached the blockade, where he raised a flag of surrender before Union vessels could fire.
‘One of the most heroic acts of the war,’ reported the New York Times on May 19, 1862. Later, the commander of the Union navy along the South Atlantic coast, Rear Admiral Samuel F. Du Pont, pronounced it ‘one of the coolest and most gallant naval acts of war.’ (Historynet.com)
Newspaper editorials citing Smalls’ gallantry shattered stereotypes about the capability of blacks. An editorial in the New York Daily Tribune said, “Is he not also a man – and is he not fit for freedom, since he made such a hazardous dash to gain it? . . . Is he not a man and a hero – whose pluck has not been questioned by even The Charleston Courier or The New York Herald? . . . What white man has made a bolder dash, or won a richer prize in the teeth of such perils during the war? . . . Perhaps [blacks are inferior to whites] but they seem to possess good material for improvement. Few white men have a better record than Robert Smalls.” (The Robert Smalls Foundation)
Smalls continued to serve with distinction at the helm of the Planter throughout the war, eventually returning to South Carolina, where he bought the home of his former masters. He then went on to help found the South Carolina Republican Party, and served in the South Carolina House of Representatives, the South Carolina Senate, and the US Congress.
On a personal level, considering this story, I’m struck by the sheer arrogance involved in hiring a slave to pilot a Confederate vessel. Did the commander and crew think him uninterested in freedom, or lacking in the courage or foresight to try to gain it? This was, after all, a man who had negotiated an actual salary (however small) from his master, and managed to purchase the freedom of his wife and child (to the tune of what would be the equivalent of more than $20,000 in today’s currency) before his 22nd birthday.
I also can’t get over the fact that Lydia Smalls was 49 when Robert was born — even today, that’s pretty late to be having a baby. What’s the story behind his conception? Was it rape, or did Lydia have a relationship — however understood — with either or both of the white men who may have been Robert’s father? Was there joy at finally having a child of her own? Was their sorrow at bringing another person into slavery? And did she — please God — live long enough to see her only child take on the Confederate navy?
I hope she did.
I hope she knew that the child born into a slave cabin ultimately won the freedom of more than a dozen other slaves, and made a crucial contribution to advancing the United States to the day (mere months later, on January 1, 1863) on which President Lincoln would declare that “all persons held as slaves… are, and henceforward shall be free.”
I hope she knew her child was an American hero.