Robert Smalls Weekend in the Crucible of Secession

The question of how far we’ve come in expanding and correcting certain elements of our collective memory of the Civil War has come up on a number of occasions on this blog and elsewhere.  I have stressed the extent to which we have moved beyond a strictly Lost Cause narrative of the war to one that is much more inclusive, especially in reference to Unionists, women, and African Americans.  This can clearly be seen on the institutional level in places such as the National Park Service and a wide range of history museums.  While I believe it is important that we acknowledge these changes I don’t want to minimize the challenges that public historians continue to face in engaging the general public in programs that deviate from the popular stories of battles and leaders.  This is a fight that is far from being won and I have nothing but admiration for those people work day to day on the front lines.

All we can hope for is that our public historians and other interested parties remain committed to doing good history that continues to deepen and expand the general public’s understanding of the nation’s past.  However frustrating it is we do need to remind ourselves that many of the questions and subjects that are now openly being discussed are inconceivable just a few decades ago.

Exhibit A: The city of Charleston will commemorate Robert Smalls this coming weekend with a number of entertaining and educational programs.  [Who is Robert Smalls?]  Is there any evidence that Smalls’s name was mentioned once during the centennial?  In the state and city where disunion began this weekend belongs to a black man, whose story directly challenges much of what many people continue to believe about the Civil War.  Even if the events scheduled attract a smaller audience, compared to more popular Civil War related events, those who do attend will have been well served and in a position to share what they’ve learned.  The simple fact that such an event has even been planned is worth acknowledging.

6 comments… add one

  • GDBrasher May 8, 2012

    Amen.

  • Leonard Lanier May 8, 2012

    To answer your rhetorical question, Smalls’ name did come up, somewhat, during the Centennial. From 1961 to 1965, The Charleston Post & Courier ran a major series on the the city’s role during the Civil War. On the hundredth anniversary of the Planter’s seizure, the paper ran a major story, supplemented with images from Harper’s Weekly and other period publications, detailing Smalls’ escape to Union lines. Since this was 1962, the article focused mostly on the daring-do of Small’s escape, and little about his life before and after the event. It makes no mention, for instance, of Smalls’ political career. The Post & Courier later reprinted the entire series as a booklet, including the story about Smalls. Although the article pails in comparison with events planned for the one-hundred and fiftieth anniversary, it’s certainly intriguing that an avowedly segregationist newspaper even ran a article about Smalls in 1962.

    • Kevin Levin May 8, 2012

      Oh that is very interesting. Thanks for checking up on this.

  • TF Smith May 8, 2012

    Good points.

    Worth mentioning is that a US military ship, an Army transport, was named after Smalls and commissioned in 2007. Basically it is updated LST, kind of fitting for someone who was know for his service in what amounted to coastal/littoral warfare…

    See:

    http://www.army.mil/article/4877/latest-army-vessel-honors-black-american-hero/

  • Larry Cebula May 8, 2012

    I accompanied some teachers on a TAH grant in Charleston last summer and Robert Smalls was mentioned everywhere–on the guided walking tours, in the museum, at the NPS visitors center. The modern community has very much embraced Smalls and his story.

  • Brad May 11, 2012

    Double amen to that.

Leave a Comment