Monday, March 4, 2013

March 4: Robert Smalls

On this date in History .... 1875:

Robert Smalls joins the House of Representatives from South Carolina’s 5th District. A former slave, he was the last Republican to represent the district until 2010.
As a politician, Smalls authored state legislation providing for South Carolina to have the first free and compulsory public school system in the United States, and founded the Republican Party of South Carolina. He is notable as the last Republican to represent South Carolina's 5th congressional district until 2010.”

The first ten years of his life were relatively easy.  It is rumored that his master, Henry McKee, was his father. Smalls was taken around town by McKee and he was permitted to play with other children, black and white.  This bothered his slave-mother who made sure he saw and understood the horrors of the life of slavery.  She made him sleep on the earthen floor, not on a cot. She made him work in the fields, pick cotton, and wear tattered clothes like other slaves. She even took him to watch the activities at the whipping post so he could truly understand what it was like to be a slave.

As a 12-year old slave, his master sent him to Charleston to be hired out on ships where he gained a high level of knowledge about ships and the Charleston harbor.  While on the USS Planter, he planned and executed a daring escape, disguising himself as the ship’s captain and even stopping to pick up his family. He used the correct Confederate signals to get past the Confederate ships.  He then raised a white sheet as a flag and headed straight for the Union fleet.  He turned the ship and its contents, which included a copy of the Confederate code book and locations of mines in the harbor, over to the Union Army.

Congress passed a bill, signed by Lincoln, enabling Smalls and his other “Negro crew members” to receive the prize money for turning over the Confederate ship (about $1500).  He met Lincoln himself just a couple of weeks later.  Because of the debate on allowing African Americans to join the military, Smalls served in the Union Army as a civilian.

"In December 1863, Smalls became the first black captain of a vessel in the service of the United States. On December 1, 1863, the Planter had been caught in a crossfire between Union and Confederate forces. The ship's commander, Captain Nickerson, decided to surrender. Smalls refused, fearing that the black crewmen would not be treated as prisoners of war and might be summarily killed. Taking command, Smalls piloted the ship out of range of the Confederate guns. For his bravery, Smalls was named to replace Nickerson as the Planter's captain. Smalls returned with the Planter to Charleston harbor in April 1865 for the ceremonial raising of the American flag upon Ft. Sumter."  (Quote Source: Wikipedia)

After the war, he returned to the South and purchased his former master’s house.  His mother lived with him for the rest of her life and he even permitted his previous master’s wife to live with them in the house prior to  her death.  The home as been designated as a National Historic Landmark.

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