Meet Robert Smalls. A recent viral tweet by YouTube commentator Matt Jarbo regarding this escaped slave, Civil War hero, and former Republican congressman from South Carolina piqued our interest to learn more.
I would watch the fuck out of this movie. pic.twitter.com/JXyPk4OIRu— Matt Jarbo (@mundanematt) August 20, 2017
It is undoubtedly an impressive resume. But the meme doesn’t do Smalls nearly the justice. So here are five things you should know about former Congressman Robert Smalls, R-S.C., an original American badass.
1) Robert Smalls was born a slave
Smalls was born into slavery on April 5, 1839 in Beaufort, S.C. His mother, Lydia Polite, was the house slave of plantation owner John McKee. According to The Washington Post, though his father’s identity was unknown, it was widely believed to be McKee’s son, Henry.
As a child, Robert had the favor of the McKees in many aspects and grew up in the main house. Worried that Smalls’ privileged status would rob him of knowing the true horrors of slavery, his mother tried exposing him as much as possible to the reality of plantation life for blacks.
At age 12, McKee — at Polite’s urging — rented him out to work in Charleston, where he was permitted to keep just $1 of his weekly wages for himself. Beginning as a day laborer on the waterfront, he first became a rigger, and then a skilled sailor. In 1856, at age 18, he married Hannah Jones, a slave hotel maid, and started a family, with the knowledge they could be separated at any moment.
His mind turned to escape.
2) His escape from slavery is the stuff of legends
In 1861, Smalls began work on the “Planter.” As a deckhand on the steam ship, the 23-year-old Smalls developed an in-depth knowledge of the Planter and for navigating the harbor. When a Union blockade surrounded Charleston. It was the perfect opportunity for escape.
On the night of May 12, 1862, the trusting white officers on the Planter took an unapproved furlough into town, leaving the slave sailors behind. Smalls seized the opportunity, and seized the ship. Garbed in the captain’s coat and signature straw hat, Smalls collected the men’s families from a rendezvous point. Flying the Confederate flag, the Planter began its trek toward the Union blockade.
The danger to Smalls, to his family, and to the crew cannot be understated — the ship would have to pass through Confederate checkpoints in the wee hours of the morning. The 1863 Naval Committee report described the plan as “hazardous in the extreme.” If discovered, the crew agreed they would not be taken alive and prepared to defend themselves with the arms on the ship and to use explosives to sink it.
The explosives weren’t necessary. Smalls not only looked the part of the captain, but he learned the proper Confederate coding signals at sea. The Confederates were duped, as the Planter successfully navigated the checkpoints without incident. The ship arrived at the Union blockade — at freedom —in the dawn’s early light, flying a white flag of surrender.
“Good morning sir,” Smalls called out to the USS Onward. “I’ve brought you some of the old United States guns, sir!”