An Invader In Navy's Home Waters

Guests enter the new Army vessel Maj. Gen. Robert Smalls before the commissioning of the ship.
Guests enter the new Army vessel Maj. Gen. Robert Smalls before the commissioning of the ship. (SFC Derrick Witherspoon, Army Reserve )
By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 1, 2007

The Army likes to brag that it's got a significant navy of its own -- even if there isn't a destroyer or aircraft carrier in it.

It's a little-known fact that is a point of pride among soldiers who take to the open waters. This weekend, the Army intends to show off its sea legs during the intensely partisan, rush-the-field rivalry that is the annual Army-Navy football game.

As the West Point cadets and Annapolis midshipmen descend on Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium for today's game, 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 have slipped into Baltimore's Inner Harbor at about five 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. Smalls was a slave who escaped and became a Civil War hero and eventually a U.S. congressman. His 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 ashore.

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 night last," 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?" the Daily Tribune asked.

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. He returned to South Carolina and in 1866 bought the house in which he had served as a slave. He went on to become a major general in the South Carolina militia, a state legislator and a five-term congressman.

Although the Daily Tribune predicted that "history will delight to honor" him, Smalls has remained a largely unknown figure -- something Kitt Alexander has been trying to change since she met Smalls's great-granddaughter Dolly Nash nearly 12 years ago and heard his story.

Alexander, a State Department employee from Alexandria, dedicated herself to promoting Smalls's legacy and embarked on an effort to have a boat named for him. With that accomplished, she is hoping to continue to promote his tale through the Robert Smalls Legacy Foundation, which she founded. She was to be aboard the Maj. Gen. Robert Smalls as it pulled into the Inner Harbor last night.

The boat, operated by the Army Reserve's Baltimore-based 203rd Transportation Detachment, will be open to the public at Pier 4 from 9 to 11 a.m. today and tomorrow, said Chief Warrant Officer 4 Steven Brown, the vessel master.

"It will be an amazing thing to watch this boat arrive at the Inner Harbor and to watch the soldiers give the tourists a tour and tell the Smalls story," Alexander said.

But that's not all the soldiers will be doing. With the football game going on nearby, Brown said, their presence will serve notice to their arch rival: "We're here, Navy. You have the competition on the football field, and we want to stoke that a little bit."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company