Army's new ship named for slave who became a hero

Washington Post:

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As the West Point cadets and Annapolis midshipmen descend on Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium for tomorrow'sgame, one of the Army's newly commissioned ships -- a hulking, 314-foot long beast of a boat, large enough to carry nearly 30 Abrams tanks -- will slip into Baltimore's Inner Harbor at about 5 knots, its Army colors raised, lest anyone confuse it with a vessel from that other service branch.

The Maj. Gen. Robert Smalls, a logistics support vessel, was commissioned Sept. 15 as the first Army watercraft to be named for an African-American citizen. Smalls was a slave who escaped, became a Civil War hero and eventually a U.S. congressman whose amazing story, the Army hopes, will inspire more than its football team.

Smalls worked as a pilot on a Confederate transport steamer based in Charleston that delivered supplies to forces up and down the South Carolina coast. Late one night in May 1862, Smalls, then 23, commandeered the ship, which was loaded with armaments, while the white crew was onshore.

With 15 other slaves, including his wife and two children, he navigated the ship out of Fort Sumter, giving the correct whistle signal as he passed Confederate forts. He surrendered the steamer, known as the Planter, to the nearest Union ship, and was heralded as a hero.

"One of the most daring and heroic adventures since the war commenced was undertaken and successfully accomplished by a party of Negroes in Charleston on Monday last night," wrote the New York Herald. The New York Daily Tribune called the ship "the first trophy from Fort Sumter." "What white man has made a bolder dash, or won a richer prize in the teeth of such perils during the war?" asked the Daily Tribune.

Smalls later met with president Abraham Lincoln and went on a speaking tour in New York to drum up support for the Union. In 1863, he became the first black captain of a U.S. vessel. Later, he became a major general in the South Carolina militia, and a state legislator.

He went on to serve five terms in Congress, and eventually bought the house where he had served as a slave. While the Daily Tribune predicted that "history will delight to honor" him, Smalls has remained a largely unknown figure in American History -- something Kitt Alexander has been trying to change ever since she met Smalls' great grand daughter Dolly Nash nearly 12 years ago and heard his story.

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It is an interesting story and there is a picture of the ship which is designed to so the tanks can be driven on board. It is too bad that they did not give more details on the ship, but if you are around for the Army Navy Game this weekend you can take a look. I am reading Bruce Catton's trilogy on the civil war and the navy played a surprisingly effective role in the war at a time when the army was having trouble doing much of anything. I am sure they appreciated Smalls' contribution.

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