The Robert Smalls Legacy Foundation, Inc.

111C East Glebe Road

 Alexandria, VA  22305



February 12, 2004








First U.S. Army Vessel Named for a Civil War Hero and for an African American


The Army announced today that it will name its newest Logistics Support Vessel (LSV-8) the Major General Robert Smalls, the first U.S. Army vessel named for a Civil War hero and the first to bear the name of an African American. The vessel will be christened April 21 in Pascagoula, Mississippi.  The LSV-8, now under construction, is 314 feet long with a beam of 60 feet. With a payload of 2,000 tons, the LSV is the Army’s largest powered watercraft and is used to transport cargo worldwide. The Army’s fleet of LSV’s plays an important role in re-supplying soldiers worldwide.


Robert Smalls, a 23-year-old slave pilot employed by Confederates, commandeered Planter, a rebel transport steamer loaded with armaments, from a Charleston dock on May 13, 1862. With his wife, children and 12 other slaves aboard, he gave the correct whistle signal as he passed the harbor’s rebel forts. Onward, the nearest Union blockading vessel, was preparing to fire on the approaching ship when Smalls raised a white flag and surrendered. Union press hailed Smalls as a national hero, calling the ship “the first trophy from Fort Sumter.” A Congressional bill signed by President Lincoln awarded prize money to Smalls and his associates.



In August 1862 two Union generals sent Smalls and missionary Mansfield French to meet with Secretary of War Stanton and President Lincoln. Their request to recruit 5000 black troops was soon granted. During a speaking tour of New York to raise support for the Union cause Smalls was presented an engraved gold medal by “the colored citizens of New York” for his heroism, love of liberty and patriotism. In 1863, he was pilot of the ironclad Keokuk during a failed Union attack on Fort Sumter. Struck 19 times at or below waterline, Keokuk sank the following morning moments after the crew was rescued. Later that year, after an act of bravery under fire, Smalls became the first black captain of a vessel in the service of the United States.


Taught to read and write by tutors, after the war Smalls became a major general in the South Carolina militia, a state legislator, and a five-term U. S. Congressman. He participated in drafting the constitution of the state in which he had been a slave. For nearly 20 years he served as U. S. Collector of Customs in Beaufort, S.C., where he lived as owner in the house in which he had been a slave. In 1975 the Robert Smalls house was designated a National Historic Landmark by the Department of the Interior.


In 1996 writer/photographer Kitt Haley Alexander, then 46, met Dolly Nash, then 71, of Cape May, N. J., at a Black History Month event in Savannah, Ga. Nash, Smalls’ great-granddaughter, who spends winters on the property where Smalls was a slave, became the subject of Alexander’s Master of Fine Arts photographic thesis project. After conducting source research on Smalls Alexander decided to restore him to national acclaim and embarked on a seven-year campaign to have a naval vessel named for him. In his honor, she later established a non-profit foundation with a much broader goal.


Among some 100 supporters of the ship-naming initiative are: Mrs. Dorothy Sterling, author, Captain of the Planter, The Story of Robert Smalls [1958], who performed seminal research on Smalls and interviewed his son; the late Dr. Edward A. Miller, Jr., U.S.A.F., Ret., author, Gullah Statesman – Robert Smalls From Slavery to Congress, 1839-1915; Mr. Spencer Crew, former Director, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution; Mr. Richard Moe, President, National Trust for Historic Preservation; Walter B. Hill, Jr., Ph.D., Senior Archivist, National Archives and Records Administration; Mr. Raymond W. Kelly, former Commissioner of Customs, U.S. Customs Service, Department of the Treasury; Ambassador Edward J. Perkins, Ph.D., former ambassador to the United Nations, now Executive Director, International Programs Center, University of Oklahoma; President Benjamin F. Payton, Tuskegee University; Major General John S. Grinalds, U.S.M.C., Ret., President, The Citadel; President Nathanael Pollard, Jr., Bowie [Md.] State University; President William Harvey, Hampton [Va.] University; Professor Rita Dove, educator and Poet Laureate, 1993-95; and the late Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt, Jr., U.S.N., Ret., former Chief of Naval Operations.


Included in the supporters are 39 educators across the nation whose specialties are African American history and the Civil War and Reconstruction eras. Of these, three served as historical consultants on the movie, The Civil War, by Ken Burns: Dr. Ira Berlin, University of Maryland; Dr. Barbara J. Fields, Columbia University; and author Bernard Weisberger, Professor Emeritus, Northwestern University Evanston, Il.

On May 13, 2002, the 140th anniversary of Smalls’ flight to freedom, the Robert Smalls Legacy Foundation, Inc. and the National Park Service Fort Sumter Group co-hosted a commemorative event at Fort Moultrie (which fired on Smalls during his escape) near Charleston, S.C. At the event, attended by some two hundred, a proclamation declaring May 13 Robert Smalls Day in South Carolina was read. Brigadier General Harry B. Burchstead, Jr., Deputy Adjutant General of the South Carolina National Guard, presented Dolly Nash, Smalls’ great-granddaughter, a Palmetto Cross Medal and posthumous citation for Smalls’ gallant service in the South Carolina Militia from 1870 to 1877. Never before had Smalls’ daring escape been memorialized by the state of South Carolina or by a branch of the federal government.


Robert Smalls designed his life to stand for something larger than the self. The story of his valor, love of liberty, justice and equality can serve as an inspiration for all Americans, most especially for those with significant obstacles to overcome. His return to national acclaim could be considered a Black History Month gift to the children of America. By using Robert Smalls as a role model in designing their own destinies our youth can say, “NOTHING ever stopped Robert Smalls, not even slavery. What could possibly stop ME?”


The Robert Smalls Legacy Foundation, Inc. is establishing The Humble Onions National Children’s Oral History Project which uses Smalls’ forgotten story as an example of the power of oral history in creating and maintaining our personal and

collective consciousness. The initiative is being designed to lessen our nation’s racial and ethnic divide by fostering a sense of connection to history and a sense of commonality among children from diverse backgrounds. The foundation invites the involvement of sponsors, educators, oral historians and others. To obtain more information on Robert Smalls and/or to contact the foundation visit The site contains a full listing of ship-naming supporters and the Robert Smalls’ family tree listing all actual descendents.


Clarification of commonly held misinformation on Smalls:



The Encyclopedia Britannica states that Smalls’ parents were field slaves. Smalls mother, Lydia, descended of slaves from Guinea, was born on Ashdale Plantation on Ladies’ (now Lady’s) Island, S.C. and worked there as a field hand. Her owner, John McKee, brought her to Beaufort to work as a house slave. Fathered by a white man and born when Lydia was 49, Smalls was also a house slave. He had no siblings. During Smalls’ interview with the American Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission, he stated that he was, relatively  speaking, well treated.



Smalls was not impressed into service by Confederates. At 12 Smalls’ owner sent him to Charleston to hire himself out. He worked as a waiter, lamplighter and dock-worker and was allowed to retain $1/month of his pay. At 18, he negotiated with his owner and thereafter retained all but $15/month of his pay. He was hired as deckhand on the rebel steamer Planter in 1861 and later became its pilot.



Smalls was not a member of the U.S. Army or Navy. Primary source documents indicate that General Rufus Saxton refused Smalls’ request to enlist in the Army as his value to the Union as a ship pilot was more valuable. Smalls served under the command of the Navy and the Army but was not a member of either service.


Smalls did not serve in the U.S. Colored Troops. Official Civil War military records at the National Archives and Records Administration confirm that the soldier commissioned as Second Lieutenant, Company B, 33rd Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops was another man named Robert Smalls.


Point of Contact:


Ms. Kitt Haley Alexander

Founder, Chair

Robert Smalls Legacy Foundation, Inc.


Further information and photos of Smalls are also available at:


























- END -