In 1862, a slave hijacked a Confederate ship and became a national hero

By Mike Vage | AV

With more than 5.7 million articles, Wikipedia is an invaluable resource, whether you’re throwing a term paper together at the last minute, or trying to get the luck page deleted, as in your experience, there’s no such thing as it. We explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,710,225-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

This week’s entry: Robert Smalls

What it’s about: One of the most thrilling and fascinating stories of the Civil War and its aftermath. During the war, Robert Smalls escaped from slavery by stealing a Confederate ship, piloting it through Confederate-controlled waters to freedom, then personally helped convince Abraham Lincoln to accept African-Americans into the Army and Navy. But the story doesn’t end there. After a successful career in business, he entered politics and served three terms in the House Of Representatives.

Strangest fact: Smalls was able to steal a ship because, even as a slave, he was an experienced sailor. While we think of slaves toiling in fields, it was common practice to send enslaved men and women into the workforce, although the master was the one cashing the paycheck. From age 12, Smalls worked in Charleston, keeping a dollar a week of his wages. He worked in a hotel, then as a lamplighter, and then found his calling on the docks. He went from longshoreman to rigger to sail maker to wheelman—a ship’s pilot in all but name, as that title was reserved for whites. Smalls’ wife, Hannah Jones, was enslaved but working as a hotel maid when they met. Smalls intended to purchase freedom for the couple and their children, and managed to save $100, but the price was $800, an impossible sum.

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