The United States was at war in 1862. At that time, Robert Smalls was an enslaved Black man in Charleston, South Carolina. That all changed on May 13. Smalls pretended to be a captain of a southern ship. He stole the ship, sailing himself to freedom. Now the U.S. Navy has named a warship after the Civil War hero!
Smalls was just 23 years old when he stole the ship, Planter. But he was an experienced sailor. Smalls had spent years sailing around Charleston. By 1861 (the start of the Civil War), he was working on the Planter. Smalls soon made his daring plan to escape.
Smalls put on the captain’s uniform. Slowly, the ship left the dock. Smalls stopped to pick up his wife and children, plus other enslaved people. He piloted the Planter through the harbor. Then Smalls was able to the ship to the Union from the north. The Union was fighting against the Confederate side.
Smalls later became the pilot for the ship he stole. He served the Union during the Civil War. After the war ended in 1865, slavery was banned. And Smalls returned to South Carolina. In 1875, he joined the U.S. House of Representatives. As a member of Congress, Smalls fought for the rights of Black Americans.
The U.S. military just honored Robert Smalls for his service. Officials changed the name of a navy warship. When the cruiser was in 1989, it was called the USS Chancellorsville. Its name came from the Battle of Chancellorsville. Confederate soldiers won that battle during the Civil War.
“I am proud to rename the ship after Robert Smalls,” said Carlos Del Toro. He is the secretary of the navy. Del Toro called Smalls “an extraordinary American.”
“The renaming is not about rewriting history,” explained Del Toro. Instead, he said, it helps “remove the focus on the parts of our history that don’t align with the of this country.” He said it also teaches about “people in history who may have been overlooked.”
“Robert Smalls is a man who deserves a namesake ship,” added Del Toro. “With this renaming, his story will continue to be retold.”
Updated April 12, 2023, 5:02 P.M. (ET)
By Russell Kahn (Russ)