If you're from Beaufort, you may have gone to the school named after Robert Smalls, or driven along the road bearing his name. Soon, soldiers will be heading out to sea on a ship with that same name. After years of lobbying, the Army has decided to honor the Beaufort native by naming its newest cargo ship the Major General Robert Smalls. He'll be the first African American from the Civil War to receive this honor.
In 1862, a slave serving as a pilot on a Confederate ship called the Planter did the unthinkable. He stole it. Robert Smalls escaped with his family and some friends to Union-controlled water off of Hilton Head Island, and delivered the gunboat to the Union Army.
"They were telling everyone he's a slave. He doesn't know anything, and he steals the whole ship with all the information and ammunition on board," said Mae Mendoza of the USCB library.
The plot instantly made national headlines, and helped launch an impressive career. Smalls served a vital role in Reconstruction, eventually serving in the US House of Representatives. To honor that storied career, the US Army christening the ship in his name late next month. "That is fantastic, I can't think of a greater honor for Robert Smalls," said Mendoza.
Some of the people who've studied up on Smalls and what he did for the Union army say they hope that naming a ship after him will inspire people who still live in and around Beaufort. "Whenever you look at an individual like Robert Smalls, who was born a slave and accomplished all that he accomplished with his limited education--he was basically self-taught--certainly that should inspire others to excel and be all that they can be," said Rev. Kenneth Hodges of Tabernacle Baptist.
The ship will be christened on April 21 in Mississippi. If you're interested in Robert Smalls memorabilia, there's a brand new room dedicated to him at Ly Bensons studio in Beaufort.