Heroic Robert Smalls absent from U.S. history books


One of the most daring and heroic adventures since the war commenced was undertaken and successfully accomplished by a party of negroes in Charleston on Monday night last. Nine colored men, comprising the pilot, engineers and crew of the rebel gunboat Planter, took the vessel under their exclusive control, passed the batteries and forts in Charleston harbor, hoisted a white flag, ran out to the blockading squadron, and thence to Port Royal, via St. Helena Sound and Broad river, reaching the flagship Wabash shortly after ten o’clock last evening.

Excerpt from an article published in The New York Herald on May 18, 1862.

Very early in the morning (approximately 3:00 a.m) on May 13, 1862 an enslaved African man outwitted the Confederates and piloted one of their warships into the possession of the Union Navy. The 23-year-old Robert Smalls executed this heroic feat at the height of the American Civil War and contributed to the eventual victory of the Union side of the conflict. Reports in some Northern newspapers referred to Smalls’ delivering of the Planter to the Union Navy as “the first trophy from Fort Sumter.” The article published in The New York Herald on May 18, 1862 included this information about “the first trophy from Fort Sumter”:

The Planter is a high-pressure, side-wheel steamer, one hundred and forty feet in length, and about fifty feet beam, and draws about five feet of water. She was built in Charleston, was formerly used as a cotton boat, and is capable of carrying about 1,400 bales. On the organization of the Confederate navy she was transformed into a gunboat, and was the most valuable war vessel the Confederates had at Charleston. Her armament consisted of one thirty-two pound rifle gun forward and a twenty-four pound howitzer aft. Besides, she had on board when she came into the harbor one seven-inch rifled gun, one eight-inch columbiad, one eight-inch howitzer, one long thirty-two pounder, and about two hundred rounds of ammunition, which had been consigned to Fort Ripley, and which would have been delivered at that fortification on Tuesday had not the designs of the rebel authorities been frustrated.

Although several books have been written about the exploits of Robert Smalls (including a children’s book by Robert F. Kennedy Jr.) he remains a little known figure outside of South Carolina. Smalls’ heroic actions on May 13, 1862 are not as well known as lesser actions by White Civil War “heroes” because contrary to popular opinion the Civil War was not fought to end slavery in the USA. Northern White politicians, fighting men and women of the Union, did not care if slavery continued into perpetuity because they did not consider Africans their equal.

Some White people may have thought that it was wrong to hold people in slavery, exploiting their labour without pay, buying and selling them but even those abolitionists did not think that Africans were their equal. None of them would have been willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to end slavery. On the other hand, the Southerners or members of the Confederacy would have been willing to risk their lives to preserve slavery from which they benifitted enormously. Their very existence depended on holding Africans in slavery.

After 11 Southern states declared their secession from the federal United States government and formed the Confederate States of America, “the Confederacy”, war was inevitable. The U.S. federal government was supported by 20 mostly-Northern states and by five slave states that became known as the Border States. These 25 states made up the opposing Union.

The Civil War began on April 12, 1861, when Confederate forces attacked a U.S. military installation at Fort Sumter in South Carolina. President Lincoln responded by calling for a volunteer army from each state to recapture federal property. This led to declarations of secession by four other states. The Union seized control of the Border States early in the war and established a naval blockade that virtually ended the sale of cotton on which the South depended for much of its wealth. The Union Navy also blocked most imports into the Southern states.

The American Civil War (1861-1865) was fought to prevent the South from seceding from the Union. The people whose sole focus was the end of slavery were the millions of enslaved Africans, like Smalls, who laboured without pay to enrich White people in the USA.

Smalls was born on April 5, 1839 in Beaufort, South Carolina to Lydia, an enslaved African woman. Smalls and his mother were both “house slaves” yet he seized this opportunity to flee slavery. Okun Edet Uya details Smalls’ life in his 1971 book, From Slavery to Public Service Robert Smalls 1839-1915 including this information:

Lydia was born a slave on the Ashdale Plantation located on Ladies Island, about a half hour’s row across from Beaufort and five hour’s row across the river from Hilton Head at the entrance to Port Royal on the Sea Islands of South Carolina. Lydia’s son Robert was born on April 5, 1839, in the McKee slave quarters on Prince Street.”

Following the end of the Civil War, during the Reconstruction period when for a short period the federal government made an attempt to include rights for African Americans, Smalls was elected to office first as State Representative in South Carolina and eventually as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. He was a state representative from 1868-1870 and state senator from 1870-1874. In 1874 he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.

In his 1995 book, Gullah Statesman: Robert Smalls from Slavery to Congress, 1839-1915, Edward A. Miller, Jr. writes: Smalls’s career in the legislature that began in 1868 spanned seven of the nine years of the reconstruction period. Ex-slaves made up 56 percent of the legislature.

In his 2009 book, Yearning to Breathe Free: Robert Smalls of South Carolina and His Families, Andrew Billingsley describes Smalls’ absence from the history books.

The South Carolina history books I grew up with contained no mention, not even foot notes, of Robert Smalls and his extraordinary contributions to our state’s history. South Carolina has done little to honor or remember this significant figure. Outside his native Beaufort County, I know of no towns or streets named in his honor. Yet Robert Smalls should rank among the most honored and recognized South Carolinians, but he does not simply because of the color of his skin.”

In Canada we face a similar lack of recognition of African Canadians who have contributed to this country in various ways. There are no streets, buildings or schools in Toronto named for Lucie and Thornton Blackburn who established Toronto’s first taxi cab in 1836. Lucie Blackburn lived on Bleecker Street from 1890 to 1895 after her husband transitioned in 1890 yet there was great resistance from the municipal government to naming what they eventually named the St. Jamestown Library and the Wellesley Community Centre in honour of this African Canadian couple who made significant contributions to Toronto. Neither St. James nor Lord Wellesley ever lived in Toronto.

During this year designated by the United Nations as the International Year for People of African Descent we need to address this lack of representation and continue the education even after December 31, 2011.


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