The Choice

One Man's Choice

Robert Smalls

Robert Smalls

Every day is filled with all types of people making all types of choices. This story is about one man, and one choice. The man was Robert Smalls, and the choice he made was to NOT be a victim.

Robert was born in 1839 in Beaufort, South Carolina. Robert was born black, which at this time meant being born into slavery. Few have been born into a more unfair situation, and even fewer have faced greater barriers or longer odds.

Robert Smalls, however, was not a man that would let his circumstances dictate who he was, or what he was to become. He refused to allow unfair circumstances or even the matter of slavery limit his potential. He would take control of his life, and secure his destiny.

Robert grew up a slave, and experienced the full measure of that corrupt institution. In April of 1862 Robert was assigned work on a Rebel Warship. The "Planter" was a high-pressure, side-wheel steamer, one hundred and forty feet in length, and about fifty feet beam, and drew about five feet of water. She was built in Charleston. She was built to be a Cotton transport boat, but with the outbreak of the unpleasantness of 1861, she was commissioned by the Rebel Navy as a gunboat. She became the prized vessel of the confederate Navy. Her armament consisted of one 32-pound rifle gun forward, and a 24-pound howitzer in the rear. She also sported an eight-inch Columbiad, one eight-inch howitzer, and one long 32-pounder. She was commanded by Captain Relay, of the Confederate navy.

Robert hatched a plan that was so daring it was almost unthinkable . . . he would commandeer the Planter, and use it to steam himself, the crew, and all their families to safety in the North. He shared his plans with the slave crew, and cautioned them against alluding to the matter in any way on board the boat, but asked them, if they wanted to talk it up in sober earnestness, to meet at his house, where they would devise and determine upon a plan to place themselves under the protection of the Stars and Stripes instead of the Stars and Bars.

Various plans were proposed, but finally the whole arrangement of the escape was left to the discretion and sagacity of Robert; his companions promising to obey him and be ready at a moment’s notice to accompany him. For three days he kept the provisions of the party secret, awaiting for the perfect opportunity for escape. At length, on Monday evening, the white officers of the vessel went on shore to spend the night, intending to start on the following morning for Fort Ripley, and to be absent from the city for some days. The families of Robert and his crew were quickly notified and came stealthily on board the Planter. At about three o’clock in the morning, Robert stoked the flames and lit the boilers, and the vessel steamed quietly away down the harbor. The tide was against her, and Fort Sumter was not reached till broad daylight.

Robert and his brave crew now faced perhaps their greatest danger . . . the guns of Fort Sumter. However, Smalls knew the secret signal, and as he passed the boat directly under its walls, he gave the usual signal—two long pulls and a jerk at the whistle-cord—and she safely passed the Sumter Guards.

Once out of range of the rebel guns he faced the new danger of steaming a Confederate warship directly at the Union Fleet. He had planned for this danger as well, and he hoisted the white flag of surrender, while steaming directly for the Union steamer Augusta. Captain Parrott, of the latter vessel saw the flag, and held his fire. He then heard their incredible story, and forwarded them on to Commodore Dupont. The crew and their families were warmly cared for by DuPont, who proposed that the US Congress make an appropriation of $20,000 as a reward to the plucky Slaves who had so distinguished themselves by this gallant service—$5000 to be given to Smalls, and the remainder to be divided among his companions.

Gaining Freedom for himself, his crew, and their families was not the end, but only the beginning of the story. Smalls used his freedom, and the generous reward from the US Congress to do many great things. In December 1863 Smalls became the first black captain of a vessel in the service of the United States Navy. On April 7, 1863 Smalls piloted the ironclad Keokuk in a Union attack on Fort Sumter, the very fort around which he had escaped.

In 1866 Smalls went into business in Beaufort with Richard Gleaves, opening a store for freed slaves. During Reconstruction, Smalls served in the South Carolina House of Representatives (1865-1870) and in the South Carolina Senate (1871-1874). He was elected to the United States House of Representatives and served from 1875-1879 and 1881-1887. Smalls served in the 44th, 45th, 47th, 48th, and 49th U.S. Congresses 1875 - 1886.

During consideration of a bill to reduce and restructure the United States Army he introduced an amendment that included this wording,

Hereafter in the enlistment of men in the Army . . . no distinction whatsoever shall be made on account of race or color."

Robert Smalls Chose to not be a victim. He chose to secure his own freedom, and make his own way. He then used his position to help improve the lot of his former brothers in bondage. Robert Smalls was a true American Hero, and an inspiration to all Americans, Black and White. He is a glorious example of what can happen when we do not let our circumstances dictate our destiny.

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