Robert Smalls: A Hero For Every Century


Robert Smalls: A Hero For Every Century

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Hoist A Mug to an Amazing Veteran

As we near the end of Black History Month, we wanted to pay tribute to one of our most amazing veterans in the history of the US Navy. Robert Smalls, who passed away 107 years ago this month, is one such hero. 

In 1839, Robert Smalls was born in Beaufort, South Carolina and born into slavery. As a teenager, he took up sailing and developed a life-long love of the ocean. When the Civil War broke out he was drafted into the Confederate Navy and was charged with commandeering a ship off the coast of Charleston. 

Grace Under Pressure 

In May 1862, he found himself in a battle-zone…a battle-zone with an opportunity. Robert Smalls was officially serving as the “wheelman” (or “virtual pilot”) of the C.S.S. Planter because only whites can rank. In the early hours of May 13, 1862 many of the white officers were sleeping on-shore, and he saw an opportunity. Just before dawn, he guided the Planter past multiple harbor forts and checkpoints, including Ft. Sumter. Ultimately he reached the Union Fleet and secured freedom for himself and several others.

As the Union Forces boarded the Planter, Smalls uttered the following words: “I am delivering this war material, including these cannons and I think uncle Abraham Lincoln can put them to good use.” It’s been reported that our 16th President was so impressed with Robert Smalls, that it directly led to him accepting African-American soldiers into the Union Army. 

A Tradition Of Service

After the war, Smalls continued to serve his country in other ways. He entered politics and served four terms in the US House of Representatives representing South Carolina’s 7th District. He was also a successful entrepreneur in the railroad, publishing and grocery industries and perhaps most notably the patriarch in a line of veterans that continues to this day.  This list of veterans included: Buffalo Soldiers out west, Harlem Hellfighters during WWI, Infantry Red Ball Express during WWII, Infantry in Korea, Tunnel Rats and Aviators in Vietnam.   

We recently chatted with Aaron Johnson, a Naval Veteran and the great-great-great-great-grandson of Robert Smalls.  His daring deed, and desire for freedom, continues to inspire,” he told us.  We couldn’t agree more!

And his legacy lives on in other ways as well.  The USAV Major General Robert Smalls (LSV-8), an Army Transport named in his honor, remains in active service to this day.   May his name continue to inspire and may it bring out the best in all of us.