History: May 13, 1862: 1st African-American in Command of a US Army Ship

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A Brief History

On May 13, 1862, a black African-American slave, Robert Smalls, serving as a ship’s pilot on the CSS Planter, a Confederate armed steamship, managed to steal the ship and turn it over to US Navy forces outside Charleston, South Carolina.  It seems the 3 white officers had decided to take shore leave overnight, leaving Smalls and several other slaves on the ship.

Digging Deeper

Smalls masterminded the escape of the ship with himself in disguise wearing the Captain’s uniform and straw hat.  Not only did Smalls successfully present the ship to the Union Navy, but he also picked up his family on the way, freeing himself, his family and 7 of the 8 African-American crewmen from slavery.

The gunboat CSS Planter, run out of Charleston by Robert Smalls in May 1862

Along with the 2 cannon that made up the ship’s armament, the Planter carried 4 more artillery pieces welcomed for use by Union forces along with other cargo and ammunition, but most importantly a codebook of Confederate codes.

Smalls went to work for the Union Navy, and when the Planter was turned over to the US Army he was made captain of the ship, the first African-American to command a US military vessel.  Smalls was recognized by President Lincoln and given an award of $1500 (along with smaller awards for the other escaped crewmen).

Smalls did not come by command of the Planter as a reward for turning it over to the Union, but for heroism in combat in 1863 when the ship’s captain decided to surrender the small ship under fire.  Smalls, the ship’s pilot, refused to surrender, fearing he and other black crewmen would be executed by the Confederates, and took control of the ship, sailing it to safety.  It was for this heroic deed that he was given command.

Smalls also had an important impact on the war, by traveling to Washington, DC to see the President and Secretary of War to plead for permission to use African-Americans in combat roles, a mission that was successful.

After the war, Smalls bought his former master’s house, and lived there with his family while actively participating in Republican Party activities, eventually serving as a US Representative for South Carolina in Congress.  Smalls died at age 75 in 1915, an American hero deserving of more historical attention than he has gotten, although there has been various honors accorded him, such as naming an Army fort and an Army ship in his name and having his house declared a National Historic Landmark.

Robert Smalls. Library of Congress description: “Robert Smalls, S.C. M.C. Born in Beaufort, SC, April 1839”.

See robertsmalls.com for information about a traveling exhibition celebrating this hero’s fascinating life, The Robert Smalls Collection, a branch of the South Carolina State Museum (affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution).

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Faricy, Patrick and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.  Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.’s American Heroes: Robert Smalls, the Boat Thief.  Hyperion Book CH, 2008.

Halfmann, Janet and Duane Smith.  Seven Miles to Freedom: The Robert Smalls Story.  Lee & Low Books, 2012.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.