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Army ship named for Black Civil War hero Robert Smalls will sail to Charleston next week

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Maj. Gen. Robert Smalls Makes Port in Kuwait

The Maj. Gen. Robert Smalls (LSV-8) on April 21, 2020. The vessel is the first one in the Army's fleet to be named after an African American citizen and former slave. File/Spc. Stephanie Moon/U.S. Army/Provided

A revived Army watercraft named for one of South Carolina's most prominent Black heroes will soon be sailing through Charleston. 

While the ship was supposed to be decommissioned by the military, it was brought back into active service and named for Robert Smalls — an enslaved man from Beaufort who became a Civil War hero and congressman.

The Maj. Gen. Robert Smalls (LSV-8) is being recommissioned in Hawaii and "is the first Army watercraft to be named after an African American and will be making the longest voyage by an Army vessel since WWII," Maj. Oliver Schuster, an Army spokesman, said in a statement. 

Robert Smalls (copy)

Robert Smalls was a former slave who went on to become a state lawmaker and congressman during the Reconstruction period. File 

Smalls, a 23-year-old man from Beaufort who’d been brought to Charleston a decade earlier, made his mark on history by his daring escape from enslavement.

While enslaved, he served as a deckhand and eventually pilot of The Planter, a lightly armed Confederate military transport. On May 13, 1862, he and a half-dozen other enslaved locals — along with their families — used the boat to escape Charleston.

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Smalls steered past Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor and headed for the nearest Union ship in the U.S. Navy’s offshore blockade. As he approached, the crew lowered the ship’s Confederate flag and raised a white banner of surrender. The Union sailors cheered.

In 1868, Smalls was elected to the S.C. House of Representatives. In 1874, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he was a member of the 44th, 45th, 47th, 48th and 49th Congress. 

He died on Feb. 23, 1915, after buying and living in the home previously owned by his master.

Maj. Gen. David Wilson, a Citadel graduate and Charleston native, will be commanding the vessel. 

The Army watercraft is scheduled to pass under the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge sometime between March 10 and March 11. 

Reach Thomas Novelly at 843-937-5713. Follow him @TomNovelly on Twitter. 

Thomas Novelly is a political reporter based in Charleston. He also covers the military community and veterans throughout South Carolina. Previously, he wrote for the Courier Journal in Kentucky. He is a fan of Southern rock, bourbon and horse racing.

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