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This Week in Freudenfreude: A Smalls Change Is a Big Deal

As everyone knows at this point, the U.S. military is getting rid of assets whose names honor the Confederacy. Most obviously, the stuff named after Confederate generals has to go. However, that's not the end of the list. There are other things that need renaming as well, like the missile cruiser U.S.S. Chancellorsville.

Most readers will know that Chancellorsville was a Civil War battle. And given the context in which we point this out, it's pretty easy to figure out, if you did not already know, that it was a Confederate victory. A big one, thanks to a bold strategic plan from Robert E. Lee, coupled with timidity by Union commander Joseph Hooker. Although Lt. Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson was killed in connection with the battle, which was bad news for the Southrons, the victory was big enough that it cost Hooker his command and allowed Lee to commence his second and final invasion of the Northern states.

In short, Chancellorsville looms large in the memory, both immediately after the battle, and in the decades after the war. In fact, there may be no battle in which the Confederates took more pride. So, it's no surprise that Southerners wanted the engagement to be honored by the U.S. Navy. But it will be honored no more, as the Navy announced earlier this week that the vessel will be re-christened the U.S.S. Robert Smalls.

Who is Robert Smalls, you may ask? Well, he's someone who probably ought to be more famous that he actually is. He was born into slavery in the coastal town of Beaufort, SC. In view of the demands of the local economy, he learned how to build, maintain, and pilot ships. Given his knowledge base, he was conscripted into the Confederate Navy in 1862 to help pilot the CSS Planter. This was a small ship whose responsibility was short-distance cargo shipping as well as surveying of coastal territory and rivers. If the Planter had tried to navigate to the open seas, it would have been sunk by the Union's blockade.

The three officers in charge of the Planter were all white men, of course, but the enslaved crew was all Black. And, at night, the white guys tended to decamp for more comfortable quarters ashore, leaving the Black fellows to sleep on the ship. On May 12, 1862, after a fair bit of planning, Smalls asked his commanding officers if the crew's families might visit for the evening. The permission was given, and that night, while the family members were on board and the officers were not, Smalls launched the ship. Thanks to it being a dark night, he was able to get to the Union blockaders without being recaptured or sunk, and he promptly surrendered the ship to the U.S. Navy. Thus did Smalls score a victory for the U.S. forces (the ship, plus the valuable cargo on board), while also securing freedom for himself, his family, and his fellows.

Smalls' story doesn't end there, although that evening alone is enough to qualify him for the next edition of Profiles in Courage. Though the Confederacy placed a $5,000 bounty on his head (approx. $100,000 today), he entered the service of the U.S. Navy and, after a couple of years, became the first Black Navy captain in U.S. history. He eventually assumed command of the Planter, and in that capacity provided support for William T. Sherman's famous March to the Sea.

The Civil War ended not long thereafter, but Smalls wasn't done. In 1864, during a visit to Philadelphia, he was humiliated when he was forced to give up his seat on a public streetcar to a white man. He organized a boycott by the city's Black community and, after the war ended in 1865, returned to the "City of Brotherly Love" to lobby the city council. This was the first transportation boycott in U.S. history, and it was successful—the city's streetcars were integrated in 1867. In case you don't care to do the math yourself, that is fourscore and seven years before Rosa Parks.

Smalls, who clearly did not stay still for very long, launched a business career in the postbellum years while also securing appointment as a major general in the South Carolina militia and commencing a career in politics. His hometown of Beaufort was located in the overwhelmingly Black South Carolina sea islands, and so there remained opportunities for Black politicians there even after white supremacy had been reestablished through most of the rest of the former Confederate states. He ultimately served one term in the South Carolina House of Representatives (1868-70), one term in the South Carolina Senate (1870-75), and five terms in the U.S. House of Representatives (1875-79; 1882-87). Once his Congressional career ended, he served as Collector of the Port of Beaufort, a tip of the cap from the Republican presidents who made or renewed the appointment (Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft). Shortly before his death in 1913, in what would be the final chapter of his public career, Smalls managed to save two Black men from being lynched by a white mob.

In short, switching from Chancellorsville to Robert Smalls is a big upgrade in our view. This still brings attention to remembering the Civil War, which is supposed to be the point, right? And if this causes Smalls' story, in particular, to "continue to be retold and highlighted," as Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro predicts in the release announcing the change, all the better.

Have a good weekend! (Z)

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