Robert Smalls: The Slave Who Stole a Confederate Warship and Became a Congressman

Robert Smalls circa 1870-1880
Robert Smalls circa 1870-1880
Mathew Brady, Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The CSS Planter
The CSS Planter

It was the spring of 1862, and Robert Smalls—a 23-year-old enslaved man living in Charleston, South Carolina—was desperate to buy the freedom of his wife and children. The asking price was $800.

He had money saved up. Since the age of 12, Smalls had worked odd jobs in Charleston: lamplighter, rigger, waiter, stevedore foreman. At around age 15, he had found work on the city’s docks and joined the crew of the ship CSS Planter. For every $15 he earned, Smalls was allowed to keep $1. The rest of the money went to his owner.

Smalls tried earning extra cash on the side, buying candy and tobacco and reselling it at a higher price. But it was hardly enough. When he asked to buy the freedom of his wife and children, he barely had $100 to his name. He knew, at that rate, the task could take him decades. Smalls had to think of something new—something drastic.

An unwitting bystander might have mistaken Robert Smalls and his wife Hannah Jones for freed slaves. The couple had met when Robert was 16, working at a hotel where Hannah was employed as a maid. They married, had two children, and lived in a private apartment above a horse stable in Charleston. Each day, Robert walked alone to the docks and wharves of Charleston, eventually finding himself work on the CSS Planter.

But appearances of freedom were an illusion. Smalls and Jones had to give nearly all of their income to his owner. Worse yet, the couple was constantly burdened with worry. Smalls knew that his wife and children could be stripped from his life on his owner’s whim. He knew the only way to keep his family together was to buy them.

Born in 1839 behind John McKee’s house, Smalls had grown up as the family’s household favorite (potentially because McKee, or McKee’s son, was his secret father). Whatever the reason, Smalls did relatively limited housework, was allowed inside his owner’s house, and was permitted to play with the local white children.

Smalls’s mother watched her son being coddled and was afraid he’d grow up without knowing about the horrors of slavery, so when Smalls was 10, she dragged her son into the fields. He picked cotton, rice, and tobacco. He slept on dirt floors. He watched slaves in town be tied to a whipping post and lashed. The experience changed him.

Smalls began to rebel. He protested slavery and started appearing more frequently in jail. Eventually, his mother grew concerned for his safety and asked McKee if Smalls could be sent to Charleston to work. Their owner agreed. It was in Charleston that Smalls would discover the woman who became his wife, as well as a talent for sailing.

By the spring of 1862, Smalls was working aboard the CSS Planter, an old cotton steamer-turned-warship. It was the midst of the Civil War, and Smalls helped steer the boat, plant sea mines, and deliver ammunition and supplies to Confederate outposts along the coast. Whenever Smalls looked out toward sea, he saw a blockade of Union ships bobbing on the horizon.

The captain of the CSS Planter, C.J. Relyea—known for wearing a trademark wide-brimmed straw hat—had a crew comprised of multiple slaves. One day, another enslaved crew member grabbed the captain's hat while he was away and planted it on Smalls’s head. “Boy, you look just like the captain,” he said.

Smalls looked out at the ocean, past Fort Sumter and toward the fleet of Union ships in the distance.

He had an idea.

Smalls knew he could steal the Planter. He knew the shipping routes. He knew the checkpoints. He knew the codes and signals to get past the forts. And, of course, he knew how to pilot the boat. As the Planter’s wheelman, Smalls was basically the boat’s unofficial captain.

Late on May 13, 1862, the Planter returned to Charleston from a two-week trip. The white crewmembers were supposed to stay aboard after docking, but the Planter was scheduled to begin another long mission the next morning, and the white crew supposedly missed carousing and sleeping on land. They left the boat for a night out on the town, trusting the enslaved crew would take care of the ship.

It was exactly what Smalls had hoped for.

Around midnight, Robert slipped the skipper’s jacket over his shoulders and ordered the other enslaved crewmembers to light the boilers. At 2 a.m., the CSS Planter eased into Charleston Harbor.

Smalls quietly directed the boat to a rendezvous point where he picked up Hannah, his children, and eight other enslaved people (Smalls had warned his family in advance of the possibility that May 13 could be the fateful night). Hannah later told a reporter that, in his words, “The whole party had solemnly agreed in advance that if pursued, and without hope of escape, the ship would be scuttled and sunk; and … they should all take hands, husband and wife, brother and sister, and jump overboard and perish together.” Her husband was more terse. When she asked what would happen if they were caught, Smalls said, “I shall be shot.”

The crew intended to fight to the death. The boat was loaded with 200 rounds of ammunition and five large guns, including a howitzer and a giant pivot gun. If cornered, they’d dynamite the boiler.

Moonlight glinted off the water. Smalls raised the Confederate and Palmetto flags and pointed the boat at the open ocean. As the Planter approached the first checkpoint, Fort Johnson, Smalls began to pray, “Oh Lord, we entrust ourselves into thy hands.” He sounded a signal on the steam whistle and was waved through. The boat slipped deeper into the harbor.

As the boat approached Fort Sumter, Smalls adjusted the captain’s straw hat and leaned out the pilot-house window. He had watched Captain Relyea pass the fort dozens of times before. He had studied his body language. So Smalls stood on the deck, arms crossed, his face obscured by the hat’s brim and the night’s darkness.

At 4:15 a.m., the Planter sounded the steam whistle again. According to a report filed by the Committee on Naval Affairs, “The signal ... was blown as coolly as if General Ripley [the commander of Charleston’s defense] was on board.”

The guards at Fort Sumter sounded their signal in return: “All right.”

The Planter successfully passed five Confederate gun batteries. Once outside of Fort Sumter’s cannon range, Smalls lowered the rebel flag and raised a white bed sheet. The Planter aimed for the Union blockade.

Seeing a Confederate ship hurtle in their direction, sailors aboard the union USS Onward panicked. It was dusky, and they couldn’t see the surrender flag.

“Open her ports!” Acting Volunteer Lt. J Frederick Nickels ordered. The crew pointed the No. 3 port gun in the direction of the Planter and was ready to fire when somebody aboard cried, “I see something that looks like a white flag!”

The command to fire was dropped. The group aboard the Planter began to dance and sing. As the Planter reached the blockade, Smalls stepped forward and removed his hat. “Good morning, sir!” he yelled. “I’ve brought you some of the old United States guns, sir!”

Within minutes, the stars and stripes were flapping high from the Planter’s mast.

The McKee-Smalls House in Beaufort, South Carolina
The McKee-Smalls House in Beaufort, South Carolina
Wikimedia // Public Domain

Smalls quickly became a folk hero. “If each one of the Generals in our army had displayed as much coolness and courage as [Smalls] did when he saluted the Rebel flag and steamed past the Rebel fort, by this time the Rebellion would have been among the things that were [past],” The New York Daily Tribune wrote. Navy Admiral S.F. Dupont would call Smalls “superior to any who have come into our lines.”

Meanwhile, in South Carolina, a $4000 bounty was placed on Smalls’s head and Captain Relyea was court-martialed, sentenced to three months in prison for negligence (although this was later overturned). The Confederate brass was dumbstruck. They couldn’t fathom that a crew of slaves was clever enough to outfox their navy. (Unable to give the credit, F.G. Ravenel, a Confederate Aide-de-Camp, believed that “two white men and a white woman” must have conspired to make it happen.)

Smalls didn’t care. He was too busy enjoying the freedom and money that he had long been denied. A few weeks after surrendering the ship, the U.S. Congress awarded Smalls and his crew half of the Planter’s value. Smalls received $1500 and an audience with President Lincoln.

At one meeting with Lincoln, Smalls was joined by Frederick Douglass. The famed abolitionist implored the president to allow African-Americans to join the military—and convinced him that Smalls should lead the cause.

Smalls did. He joined the U.S. Navy, revealing the location of enemy mines, and personally recruited about 5000 African-American soldiers. He joined the USS Planter on missions to the south, including an attack on Fort Sumter. During a battle at Folly Island Creek, South Carolina, the Planter’s white captain abandoned his post in despair. Smalls stepped into the pilot-house and led the ship to safety. For his bravery, he was awarded the rank of Navy Captain.

When he wasn’t fighting battles at sea, Smalls was fighting civil rights battles on land. In December 1864, Smalls was tossed out of an all-white streetcar in Philadelphia. Enraged, he used his budding fame to protest the segregation of public transit. Three years later, the streetcars of Philadelphia were integrated.

After the war, Smalls returned to South Carolina with the money he earned and bought his former owner's house.

Not one to rest on his laurels, Smalls helped establish a local school board in Beaufort County and one of the first schools for black children in the region. Then he opened a store. In 1868, he ran for—and won—a seat in the South Carolina House of Representatives, then two years later in the state Senate. In 1872, he started a newspaper called The Southern Standard. And in 1874, he ran to become a representative in the U.S. Congress.

He won 80 percent of the vote.

During five nonconsecutive terms, Congressman Smalls pushed for legislation to desegregate the military and restaurants in Washington D.C. His work successfully led to the opening of the famous South Carolina marine base at Parris Island.

All that time, Smalls kept his mind and heart open. Legend has it that when his former owner’s wife was stricken with dementia, she’d often wander into his house, believing it was still hers. Rather than send her packing, Smalls invited her inside.

In 1915, Robert Smalls died in the same house. Today, it’s a National Historic Landmark.

This story first ran in 2017.

The Pope's Swiss Guards Are Now Outfitted in 3D-Printed Helmets

Franco Origlia/Getty Images
Franco Origlia/Getty Images

The Popemobile isn't the only innovative piece of gear used by the Pope and his posse. Though they still look traditional, the outfits worn by the Swiss Guard now include a high-tech piece of headwear designed by the 3D-printing design team at HP, Fast Company reports.

Members of the Swiss Guard, the Vatican's private army, wore the same helmet for more than 500 years. The steel hat is branded with the crest of Pope Julius II (the "mercenary pope" and the guard's founder) and embellished with a red feathered crest for special events.

Though it made for an iconic look, the original helmet had some practical issues. After baking in the Sun for hours, the metal would heat up and burn the guard's heads. Steel also isn't the most comfortable material to be wearing on your head all day, and because it rusts so easily, it doesn't make sense to wear it in the rain.

The updated helmets from HP solve these problems while maintaining the style of the old headgear. They're made from PVC plastic, which means they're lighter and resistant to UV rays. They're also water-resistant and don't need to be polished constantly to prevent rusting.

The hats are even more affordable than their more traditional predecessors. It costs $1000 and takes 14 hours to 3D-print each PVC helmet, while it took $2000 and 100 hours to forge a single steel one.

Interested in learning about more Papal upgrades? Here are some of the stylish rides the Pope used to get around in recent decades.

[h/t Fast Company]

13 Facts About the Oxford English Dictionary

iStock.com/GCShutter
iStock.com/GCShutter

This year marks the 135th birthday of the Oxford English Dictionary (though the eminent reference book is hardly looking its age). As the English language continues to evolve, the dictionary has flourished and regularly added new words such as nothingburger, prepper, idiocracy, and fam. Get to know it better.

1. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) was built on volunteer labor.

When the London Philological Society came up with the idea for a new dictionary of the English language in 1857, the editors decided it was necessary to enlist the help of the public and asked avid readers to send examples of sentences that could illuminate the meanings of different words. Every day, volunteers mailed thousands of “quotation slips” from books, newspapers, and magazines. By the time the first edition was published, more than 2000 volunteers had assisted the editors in its completion.

2. It took more than 70 years to complete the first edition of the OED.

Originally, the Philological Society predicted that the dictionary would take about 10 years to complete. Twenty-seven years later, the editors had successfully reached the word ant. Knowing it would be a while until a completed book was ready, they began publishing unbound editions of the work-in-progress in 1884. The first full volume was eventually published in 1928, more than 70 years after the society first came up with the idea.

3. The OED started out messy. Very messy.

Frederick Furnivall, one of the dictionary’s founders, was a visionary—but that vision did not extend to his organizational skills. Under his stewardship as editor, the dictionary was a mess. Quotation slips were stuffed haphazardly into bags and went missing. All of the words starting with “Pa” went AWOL for 12 years and were eventually discovered in Ireland. Slips for the letter “G” were nearly burned with somebody’s trash. All of the entries for the letter “H” somehow turned up in Italy.

4. OED co-founder Frederick Furnivall was a controversial figure.

After founding a controversy-riddled Shakespeare Society, Furnivall fell into a six-year feud with the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne. Swinburne (whose mastery of the English language earned him six nominations for the Nobel Prize in Literature) mocked Furnivall’s club by calling it “Fartiwell and Co.” and “The Sh*tspeare Society.” Furnivall reached into his bag o' insults and said that Swinburne had, “the ear of a poetaster, hairy, thick and dull.”

5. Dr. James Murray helped the OED clean up its act.

Sir James Murray in his Scriptorium
Sir James Murray in his Scriptorium
Oxford English Dictionary // Public Domain

Dr. James Murray, a philologist, took the helm as the dictionary’s principal editor in 1879 and remained in that position for the rest of his life (he died in 1915). Murray was a linguistic superstar; he was proficient in Italian, French, Catalan, Spanish, Latin, Dutch, German, Flemish, and Danish and also had a solid grasp of Portuguese, Vaudois, Provençal, Celtic, Slavonic, Russian, Persian, Achaemenid Cuneiform, Sanskrit, Hebrew, Syriac, Aramaic Arabic, Coptic, and Phoenician.

6. Murray built a shed for the OED's editors to work in.

In 1885, to better organize the dictionary, Murray constructed a sunken shed made of corrugated iron to house the editors and their precious quotation slips. Called the “Scriptorium,” this linguistic workshop contained 1029 pigeonholes that allowed Murray and his subeditors to arrange, sort, and file more than 1000 quotation slips each day. 

6. Only one word is known to have gone missing.

Only one quotation slip—containing the word bondmaid—is known to have been lost. (It fell down behind some books and the editors never noticed.) Murray was deeply embarrassed by his failure to include the word in the dictionary. “[N]ot one of the 30 people (at least) who saw the work at various stages between MS. and electrotyped pages noticed the omission,” he said. “The phenomenon is absolutely inexplicable.” The word was officially introduced in a 1933 supplement.

7. One of the OED’s most prolific contributors was a murderer confined to an insane asylum.

One volunteer who provided the OED with countless quotation slips was William C. Minor, a schizophrenic who was incarcerated at the Broadmoor Insane Asylum in Berkshire, England, after he fatally shot a man he (erroneously) believed had broken into his room. According to Murray, Minor was the dictionary’s second most prolific contributor, even outdoing members of the full-time staff.

8. J.R.R. Tolkien contributed to the OED, too.

In 1919 and 1920, J.R.R. Tolkien worked for the dictionary, where he studied the etymology of Germanic words beginning with the letter W, composing drafts for words like waggle and wampum. "I learned more in those two years than in any other equal period of my life,” Tolkien later said. (Years later, Tolkien spoofed his editors in a comic fable called Farmer Giles of Ham.)

9. The longest entry in the OED is for a three-letter word.

The most complicated word in the Oxford English Dictionary? Set. In the dictionary’s 1989 edition, the three-letter word contains 430 senses (that is, shades of meaning) and requires a 60,000-word definition. Other short words with endless definitions? Run (396 senses), go (368 senses), and take (343 senses).

10. The most popular edition of the OED was impossible to read with the naked eye.

Originally, the OED had a limited audience. Not only was a set of books expensive, it was also bulky and took up an entire bookshelf. In 1971, the Oxford University Press decided to publish a smaller, complete version that compressed nine pages into one. The text was so tiny that the two-volume book came with a magnifying glass. It quickly became one of the bestselling dictionaries on the market.

11. Digitizing the OED took a lot of work.

In the late 1980s, it took more than 120 typists, 55 proofreaders, and a total of 67 million keystrokes to digitize the entire contents of the Oxford English Dictionary. The process took 18 months.

12. Shakespeare isn’t the OED's most quoted source.

The OED's most quoted source is, in fact, the British daily newspaper The Times, which has 42,840 quotations (nearly 10,000 more than William Shakespeare). Coming in third and fourth are the Scottish novelist Walter Scott and the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, respectively. When it comes to coining and introducing new words, Shakespeare isn’t first in that arena either; that honor belongs to Geoffrey Chaucer.

13. The last word in the OED is totally buggy.

Each year, about 2000 to 5000 new words, senses, and subentries are added to the Oxford English Dictionary. For years, the last word in the book was zynthum, a type of malty beer made in ancient Egypt. But in 2017, zynthum was usurped by zyzzyva, a type of South African weevil.

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