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Old July 28th, 2013, 08:38 AM   #1

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“Boat Thief” Robert Smalls: Slave, Sailor, Statesman


On May 12, 1862, the 23-year old African-American slave Robert Smalls, acting as captain and pilot, in the wee hours of the morning, led a crew composed of fellow slaves, in daring war-time escape to freedom. In the absence of the white captain and his mates, Smalls and his crew slipped away from the dock, the CSS Planter, a cotton steamer loaded with munitions. The slaves then picked up family members at a rendezvous point, then slowly navigated the Planter through the closely guarded Charleston harbor. Smalls, wearing the captain's wide-brimmed straw hat to hide his face, responded with the proper coded signals at two Confederate checkpoints, including at Fort Sumter itself, and other defense positions. Cleared, Smalls sailed into the open seas. Once outside of Confederate waters, he had to avoid destruction as a well armed enemy ship approaching the union blockade. His crew raised a white flag and successfully surrendered the Planter and its load of munitions as a great prize of war to the blockading Union fleet.

For this exploit, Smalls would forever be called the “Boat Thief” by Confederates, but he became an instant hero in the North at a time when the war was going so badly for the Union cause. Smalls would recount his tale of the daring escape in an audience with President Lincoln, and perhaps his tale of courage, daring and intelligence may have encouraged Lincoln in determination to prepare the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in the summer of 1862 and later the enlistment of black men in the army and navy of the United States.



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Yet, as amazing is the tale of the escape of the Planter and her slave crew, there is much more to the life story of Robert Smalls (1839-1915), and this thread invites all comments on his amazing life story, including:

- His mastery of the naval arts and intricate planning for the escape of the Planter

- His naval exploits in the Civil War both in naval intelligence for the Union side, his bravery and battle won commission as one of the rare black men to be an officer command in the Civil War

- His role at the South Carolina convention of 1868 and it new state constitution

- His service as a congressman from South Carolina in the 1870s and even into the 1880s

- His respect for his former white owners and the place they had in his home in the days of reconstruction

- His efforts to preserve the African American role in government against it violent suppression by white supemacists in the 1870s

- His final epitaph, as one of six African American delegates to the 1895 South Carolina constitutional convention designed to permanently end the black vote in that state, and his eloquent yet doomed defense of African-American rights.

Last edited by Axel; July 28th, 2013 at 08:41 AM.
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Old July 28th, 2013, 01:59 PM   #2

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I have never heard of this story before, he had done a very brave thing.
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Old July 28th, 2013, 02:21 PM   #3

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Hey Axel, I've heard the first part of your story before, pretty much as you told it. I can't remember where (I just checked McPherson's Battlecry of Freedom, he only gives it a two sentence mention). If it comes to me where I read more about it, I'll review it and see if it says more.

The things about Small's later life I don't remember reading, very interesting stuff. Very nice post.
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Old July 28th, 2013, 02:26 PM   #4

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Very interesting stuff, good work!
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Old July 28th, 2013, 02:34 PM   #5

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Quote:
Originally Posted by Crystal Rainbow
I have never heard of this story before, he had done a very brave thing.
I quite agree, Crystal. To take this prized a possession from the heart of the Confederacy by slaves would surely have resulted in death to Smalls and all the slave sailors under his command had they been discovered or captured. Yet, these brave men wanted their freedom that much.
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Old July 28th, 2013, 02:36 PM   #6

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I knew about Smalls' daring escape and his service with the Union navy, but not his post-war career. Craig Symonds in Lincoln and His Admirals mentions Smalls, who originally served without pay as a pilot for the Union, eventually become captain of the ship he stole, earning $150 a month, over ten times what a ordinary seaman or private in either army earned.
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Old July 28th, 2013, 02:48 PM   #7

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Interesting thread! I never heard of him before, so I'm glad I stumbled across it.
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Old July 28th, 2013, 02:50 PM   #8

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Quote:
Originally Posted by Fiver
I knew about Smalls' daring escape and his service with the Union navy, but not his post-war career. Craig Symonds in Lincoln and His Admirals mentions Smalls, who originally served without pay as a pilot for the Union, eventually become captain of the ship he stole, earning $150 a month, over ten times what a ordinary seaman or private in either army earned.
Fiver, very interesting comment. I did not know that he earned that much pay. However, I do recall that the reason Robert Smalls was made captain of the Planter was his heroism in combat. As I recall the Planter was under attack from Confederates and the Union Captain shrank from combat and wished to surrender his ship which would have meant death for Smalls and other former slaves on board. They locked the captain in the bulkhead and Smalls assumed command and led the Planter to victory and a safe return. He was them made captain of the Planter.
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Old July 28th, 2013, 03:20 PM   #9

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Found this article on Mr. Smalls. After the war Smalls purchased his former master's residence and lived there.
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Old July 28th, 2013, 03:26 PM   #10

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I got interested in Smalls and did some googling on him. I found this interesting. In 1925 a South Carolina school was named in honor him. I'm guessing that at that time it was a segregated school for blacks, but I was surprised that in 1925 anyone would allow a SC school to be named for a black man who betrayed the Confederacy. Anyway, the school is still there.

Robert Smalls Middle School - School Facts
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