Capt. Robert Smalls, The first Black Man to Command a US Navy Ship


This. week in history, on May 13, 1862, Captain Robert Smalls became the first black person to command a United States Navy ship. 

Captain Smalls was born into slavery in Beaufort, South Carolina in 1839. The bastard who thought he could own other human beings loaned Smalls out as a day laborer. He was paid $1 per week ($28 per week today), and the slaver kept the rest. However, as slavebastards were known to do, the slaver had engineered his own destruction. Smalls frequently worked on ships in the Charleston Harbor where he became pretty good at all aspects of helming a ship. 

The Civil War

The Civil War began at Fort Sumter, South Carolina not far from Charleston Harbor. Smalls, still enslaved, was assigned to steer the CSS Planter. Hopefully, you see where this is going. The Confederates (dumb as ass from the beginning) gave control of the boat to a person they had brutalized for 23 years. For about a year, he steered the boat and played the part of the happy negro; however, he was also plotting with all the other enslaved folks onboard the ship. (Side note: this is a fatal flaw in every discussion of the Confederacy. Nobody liked em. Not the UK, not France, not Russia, and not most Southerners). 

On May 12, 1862, the CSS Planter went to a small Confederate outpost off the shore of Charleston. They picked up guns and ammunition before docking in Charleston. The white crewmembers went ashore and left the enslaved folks alone with their ship. They left them alone with their ship. A ship is a vehicle. That means ships can go places with the people on board. The people onboard this particular ship were trained in making ships go places. And the confederates left them. Alone. 

Well, not entirely alone; Smalls was granted permission to bring the families of the enslaved crewmembers onboard. So, let’s do a quick tally. The ship is full of guns and ammunition. The actual Confederates are in Charleston gleefully burning crosses or whatever Confederates do for fun. The families of the crewmembers are on the ship with the crew. At night. 

They stole the ship. 

Of Course They Stole The Ship

Smalls piloted the ship away from the harbor in the night. As they sailed past Fort Sumter, many crewmembers wanted to keep their distance from the fort. Smalls knew all of the appropriate signals though because the Confederates had trusted the people against whom they’d done great evil. A bold choice. 

They sailed past all of the Confederate ships, giving the proper hand signals, and even made it past Fort Sumter. At that point, Smalls took down the treason flag and raised a white bedsheet up the flagpole. They made it to the US Naval line. As the US Navy was readying its guns to fire on the ship, the sun rose, and they noticed the white flag. 

Captain Robert Smalls and his ship in Harper's Weekly

As they got within shouting distance of a US Navy ship, Robert Smalls hailed the captain and said, “Good morning, sir! I’ve brought you some of the old United States guns, sir!” 

Smalls gave the United States a book of Confederate captain’s codes, a map of torpedoes and mines, and details of all of the Confederate fortifications. 

When the US captain boarded the Planter, Smalls asked for a United States flag to display on the ship. 

The rest of the story involves him having to fight to be recognized as an actual Navy captain and claim his pension after the Civil War. A bunch of racist stuff happened, and it took several acts of Congress for him to be granted his pension and the prize money for capturing a ship. 

He served in the United States House of Representatives during Reconstruction as a Republican. The 5th District wasn’t represented by another Republican until Mick Mulvaney in 2010, and I think we know where he stands on insurrection and white supremacy. 

On this day in 1862, Captain Robert Smalls hit the Confederacy in the mouth, and they richly deserved it.